Naomi Nwauzu profiles five young people who have gone off the beaten path to fight, often against great odds, for causes that are frequently marginalised or ignored.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim (Chad)
Hindou is a Chadian advocate and a member of the Peule Mbororo ethnic group, a small sub-group of the nomadic Fulani people of the Sahel.
Her community, many of whom are cattle herders, directly rely on the natural environment for their survival. The increasing impacts of climate change, including desertification, droughts, changing grazing lands and contestations over territory, are challenging their livelihood.
Lake Chad is a key source of water for the Peule Mbororo, and was once one of the largest lakes in the world, but has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s. According to Hindou, water scarcity contributes to cows producing only one litre of milk every two days, compared to four litres a day, curtailing a crucial source of income and sustenance.
Given the difficulties facing her community, Hindou’s advocacy focuses on environmental protection and the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women. Hindou believes that climate change has a particularly negative impact on indigenous women. She explains that climate change forces men to leave their agricultural communities in search of alternative sources of income, leaving women to raise their children on their own.
In 1999, at the age of 15, Hindou founded the Association of Indigenous Peule Women and Autochthonous Peoples of Chad (AFPAT). As president of the association, Hindou leads a group of females who fight to defend the environment and the rights of the Peule Mbororo community.
In 2013, collaboration between AFPAT and UNESCO led to the development of a tool that combines 3D mapping technology with knowledge of the community. The tool helped to preserve the people’s distinctive knowledge of the environment and influence Chad’s public policy on sustainable environmental management. The project gave a voice to indigenous women, people who are often excluded from both local and national decision-making. Now aged 35, Hindou’s advocacy has expanded to encompass indigenous people living around the world.
Hindou was selected to represent civil society at the signing of the flagship United Nations Paris Agreement to combat climate change in 2016. At the event, Hindou raised awareness about the difficulties facing indigenous communities across the world. She warned the audience that: “If you do not increase finance for [climate change] adaptation, soon there will be no one to adapt.”
Hindou is also a member of the executive committee of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC), a body that represents Africa’s indigenous people in discussions with governments and organisations, including at the UN.
As a child, Hindou’s parents challenged social norms by allowing her to leave her community and attend school in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena. This is where she formally learnt about climate change and advocacy groups, which ultimately laid the foundations for the work she does today.
Umra Omar (Kenya)
Lamu County, an isolated coastal region close to the Somali-Kenyan border, was once a tourist hotspot famed for its pristine archipelagos and ancient architecture that is listed on the UNESCO world heritage site. But since 2014, the region has been wracked by conflict between the Kenyan military and the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, affecting the delivery of healthcare to the area.
Travelling to the nearest hospital district is prohibitively expensive for many, especially for those travelling from one of Lamu County’s remote islands. Umra, a Kenyan who grew up in Lamu County, is the founder of Safari Doctors – a mobile healthcare service she created to help reach the marginalised in her community.
Founded in 2016, Safari Doctors has been providing free mobile primary healthcare services to over 20,000 people in the isolated and indigenous Aweer and Bajuni communities, who live across the Lamu Archipelago and mainland.
Every month, Umra and her team set sail on a boat loaded with medical supplies and attend to communities where neglect and insecurity impede their right to access healthcare. Umra is not a medical doctor so her team, including volunteer doctors and nurses, provide the professional medical support.
Tackling the issue of geographical inequality, the team island-hop for several days a month, establishing temporary health clinics at landing points. Among a range of services, the team provide children with immunisations, facilitate referrals, attend to pregnant women and provide access to family planning. They also provide veterinary services and carry out community awareness sessions on animal health and welfare.
Safari Doctors’ activities are often dictated by real-time security threats and weather conditions, but they reach up to 20 remote villages each month, and serve around 800 patients a month. Umra has not only forged a unique trust with her communities, she has in addition to the mobile health clinics, created a youth health ambassador programme. Thirty young men and women are trained to provide their communities with health education.
This community-based model aligns with one of the biggest lessons Umra has learnt through her work at Safari Doctors – that by involving the people who deeply understand the needs of the community, it is easier to secure local buy-in and drives sustainable development further.
Umra’s initiative has been recognised by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and she is part of the 2019 Class of WEF Young Global Leaders. Umra was also the United Nations Person of the Year in 2017 and was named as a Top 10 CNN Hero of 2016.
Eddie Ndopu (South Africa)
About 90% of children with a disability across the developing world do not have access to education, according to a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Eddie almost became a part of this statistic.
At the age of two, Eddie was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative disease, and was given until the age of five to live. After outliving his prognosis, Eddie’s mother had to persistently fight for him to be admitted to a school in South Africa. Many schools refused to admit Eddie, a wheelchair user requiring assistance with most functions, arguing that they did not have the resources to cater to his needs.
Given Eddie’s struggle to be accepted into the education system, he made it his mission to help close the opportunity access gaps for those living with disabilities, especially in developing countries.
Eddie does this by breaking down the barriers that limit disabled people’s opportunities in society. This ranges from taking part in activities like clubbing to being an inaugural student of the African Leadership Academy (ALA). The highly selective academy aims to develop the next generation of African leaders and so Eddie hopes to show people living with disabilities that leadership opportunities are within their reach.
Among other achievements, Eddie was appointed as a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Advocate by the United Nations (UN) earlier this year, alongside the likes of Nana Akufo-Addo, the president of Ghana.
In 2016, Eddie became the first disabled African to study at the University of Oxford on a full scholarship and, during his studies, he co-founded the Evolve Initiative, a global start-up that seeks to influence public policy and popular culture on disability.
He believes his accomplishments will make him a symbol of hope for people with disabilities and show the world that the fight for equal rights encompasses the right to intimacy, joy and fun.
Now aged 29, Eddie’s ultimate goal is to address the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) from space as the first wheelchair user.
He believes that embarking on such a journey will raise awareness about those living with disabilities. Eddie secured a TV deal with US TV network MTV, which will film a docu-series this year about his bid to go to space.
The UN supports the mission and has confirmed that Eddie can address the UNGA should he go into space. Rocket Pharma, a pharmaceutical company, has pledged to provide Eddie with gene therapy as part of his medical preparations. Eddie also hopes that Elon Musk will support his dream. Musk is a fellow South African and founder of SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company.
Despite his achievements, Eddie believes that there is still much progress to be made. The more Eddie achieves, the more he realises how much work still needs to be done to ensure that those living with disabilities are fully included in society.
Hamzat Lawal (Nigeria)
Nigeria scores 27 out of 100 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) – where 100 is highly clean and 0, highly corrupt. Contributing to Nigeria’s low score is the estimated $400bn lost to high-profile thievery, corruption, and misused by some government officials.
In 2012, Hamzat founded Connected Development (CODE) to tackle the issue of corruption in Nigeria. CODE is an NGO that also works to empower marginalised communities across Nigeria. It does this by establishing platforms for informed debate and providing citizens with information so that they have the tools to hold the government accountable.
CODE, which now has branches in Kenya and the Gambia, does this through a flagship initiative called Follow The Money.
The team, including a network of journalists, lawyers and 5,000 volunteers, identify development projects and subsequently send freedom of information letters to the officials in charge. Upon receipt of project details, including the total funding allocation, a bill of quantities and the proposed implementation schedule, the team transmits the information to the beneficiary community. This allows the local community to monitor their local government, and the information pressures the government to act appropriately with expenditure.
If a project is not progressing, completed to an adequate standard or does not reach the intended beneficiaries, Follow The Money holds talks with those in charge and publicises the shortcomings via the media. By doing this, the watchdog says it has had an impact on more than two million people living in rural communities and facilitated the appropriate usage of over $10m.
This year, Hamzat was one of eight recipients of the United Nations Action Awards, which recognises individuals and organisations that are working to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the most transformative, impactful and innovative ways. In 2016, CODE was the winner of the 9th annual ONE Africa Award. This award, worth $100,000, acknowledges African organisations that tackle challenges impeding development.
Among other achievements, Hamzat leads the Nigerian arm of Not Too Young To Run – a movement founded in 2016 to address the large age gaps between the majority of the rulers in Africa, and the burgeoning and largely marginalised youth.
For example, in 2017, the median age of Nigeria’s population was 18.4 years whilst the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, went for re-election at 75 years old. The youth-led movement successfully campaigned for the passage of an age reduction bill in Nigeria. After courting support from some government officials, changes to Nigeria’s constitution were made in 2018. This included a reduction to the minimum required age for presidential eligibility, which was lowered from 40 to 30 years old.
Hamzat is aware of the personal safety risks involved with coordinating contentious and politically risky projects such as calling out corruption in high places. His long-term aim is to make sure that ordinary citizens become more intelligently aware during election campaigns, in order to elect representatives who genuinely have national and electorate interests at heart.
Rebeca Gyumi (Tanzania)
Tanzania has the 11th highest absolute number of child brides in the world, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). With at least 779,000 child brides, two out of five girls living in the East African country are married before their 18th birthday.
Like many other parts of Africa, child marriages undermine, even remove young girls’ right to education. As child brides, they are less likely to receive a formal education at all. They are more likely to bear children at a young age and are therefore tasked to stay at home with little chance of ever getting formal education. Bearing children at a young age in itself causes secondary health and psychological complications – some even long-term.
Target 5.3 of the SDGs is aimed at ending harmful practices including child marriage.
Sanctioned by law, in Tanzania girls could marry as young as 14 with parental consent. In January 2016, Rebeca, a lawyer and social activist, decided this was an injustice she could no longer accept.
She embarked on a mission to change the law and empower girls in Tanzania.
She established the Msichana Initiative which, alongside its community engagement programmes, dedicated its time to petitioning the government to change the country’s Marriages Act 1971.
Following her relentless and impassioned campaign, in July 2016, sections 13 and 17 of the Marriage Act were ruled unconstitutional. Thanks to Rebeca’s efforts, the legal age of marriage for girls in Tanzania now matches that for boys, and international human rights recommendations: 18.
Although thrilled that the law has been changed in Tanzania, Rebeca knows that the fight to end child marriage does not stop there. She and the Msichana Initiative continue their grassroots work to educate and empower girls and communities to effectively change attitudes about the place of a girl in society. Her mantra is “A Girl With A Dream is Fire”.
The Msichana Initiative now provides classes for both girls and boys on gender equity issues and provides private spaces for girls to discuss issues they are facing in their community, without fear or facing stigma.
In 2018, Rebeca was a recipient of the UN Human Rights Prize, an honorary award given to individuals and organisations in recognition of outstanding achievement in human rights. Awarded once every five years, Rebeca was one of four recipients chosen after over 300 nominations. In 2016, Rebeca was honoured at the first UNICEF Global Goals Awards for her contribution towards advancing the rights of girls and women.
Rebeca acknowledges that there is some resistance towards her campaign against child marriage. Most notably, the Tanzanian government appealed against the 2016 landmark ruling. Part of the appeal cited child marriage as a form of protection for girls who become pregnant out of wedlock. The appeal is still being considered in the country’s high court.
Nevertheless, Rebeca remains optimistic that one day, her country will see the back of the scourge of child marriages.