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Haki Nawiri Afrika

Celebrating the Unsung Heroes and Heroines: Youth Engagement in a Pandemic


Across different parts of Africa, when Covid- 19 was detected in 2020 many young people took up the responsibility of meaningful engagement in addressing the challenges that came with the pandemic. Covid-19 is a virus that is not well understood, it has a lot of mystery and anxiety. The virus is also shrouded in a lot of myths as well as stigma.Parents feared letting their children get out of the house  due to fear. There was a lot of panic buying , supermarkets were flooded and many people were stocking their houses with food , aisles selling tissue papers and disinfectant were literally empty. Furthermore,  multiple laws and human rights violations, not forgetting the loss of sources of livelihoods, increased in Gender Based Violence and in extreme cases death[1].To date , many families in Kenya and Africa at large are still nursing COVID- 19 related wounds.Masks were very expensive in March 2020 , many families in informal settlements were sharing the same mask among multiple family members.

In many communities, youth were responsible for awareness creation about COVID-19. This was for example through murals urging community members to sanitise and keep social distance. Young people were responsible for provision of the much needed psychosocial support to deal with the anxiety and disruptions that Covid 19 brought. Through phone calls, anxious families were reassured. Young people were also responsible for documenting cases of abuse, for example in Kenya, many young people especially school girls were impregnated during COVID-19 period.[2]Many young people also provided food, soap, masks and sanitisers to vulnerable households. These include households of elderly people in both urban and rural areas, households with persons having disabilities be it mental, physical or visual. Some youths were responsible for organising pads distribution to enable young girls who can only access pads while in school to access them at home. Period poverty is a reality in many part of Africa and many young girls are lured into transactional sex because they cannot afford sanitary pads[3].

With the onset of Covid 19 and the inherent economic disruptions, many families across Africa could not afford their basic necessities. In Kenya for example, curfews and cessation of movement[4] meant inter-county movement was paralysed. Many families suffered. Some Civil Society Organisations engaged young people to distribute food and other basic necessities to vulnerable groups such as in informal settlements and other pockets of poverty, for example Mathare Legal Aid and Human Rights Advocacy (MLHRA).This organisation home visit services especially for the elderly and the sick in Mathare during COVID- 19.

Young people also came in to address the gaps in misinformation[5] around COVID- 19 by creating awareness and using art. From 2020 to date many songs have been composed about Covid 19 and its impacts. For example in Uganda , the Masaka Kids composed songs , reassuring communities that COVID-19 would come to an end[6], African artistes did collaborative songs , speaking about how  communities should protect themselves from the virus[7]  and to raise awareness about the novel virus.[8] With COVID- 19 , came school closures .Many children could not continue with their classes and the few minority were able to continue because they had access to electricity, online gadgets such as computers and tablets and  access to internet connectivity. COVID- 19 created armies of idle children, holed up within household, with some being subjected to all forms of violations including physical and sexual violence. Some young people took upon themselves to provide continued educational opportunities. Some volunteered as teachers to provide English and Mathematics classes, others offered remedial classes for those in secondary school, while others provided test papers to students and graded them according to performance. An example of this in the Kenyan Peasant’s League for children in informal settlements such as Kangemi and Dam areas in Nairobi city.

Young people also provided emergency services in the community, for example accompanying pregnant women to hospital, seeking ambulances among others. Young people also ensured that the community got the much needed services such as emergency medical care and psychosocial support. It is quite unfortunate that  governments were telling people every day on news to sanitise, stay at home and keep social distance , while it is the same governments that were evicting people in the midst of a pandemic and  bad weather( rainy season).Take for example in Nairobi’s Kariobangi North Sewerage settlement in  Kenya.[9]These evictions affected  over 5,000 families.[10] Young people mobilised resources in form of food and money , and some spearheaded funds drives to pay rent for the evicted families[11].Others assisted vulnerable families such as those who had lost their businesses and could no longer pay rent[12].

Furthermore, youths were also responsible for calling out on cases of rights violations that were very rampant under the guise of containing a pandemic. Young people used street art as canvas to create awareness on rights violations and correct the myths and misconceptions about Covid 19. Young people also responded to case of Gender Based Violence by providing rescue services to survivors of violence, reporting cases and making follow ups during court visits. Young people also provided the much needed emotional support that comes with having a case in court. Other organisations working with youth people provided spaces for learning and sharing about human rights. This was and still is important because with the pandemic, more rights violations are  taking place not only in Africa but across different parts of the world. Take for example Haki Nawiri Afrika which organised psychosocial support sessions for students and out of school youth in Nairobi as part of resilience building and coping during a pandemic. In these forums, young people were able to share their anxieties with Covid 19, impacts and coping mechanisms. These spaces provided mental relief as young people realised they were first of all lucky to be alive and that there were very many young people going through the same challenges. Additionally, Haki Nawiri Afrika provided human rights education[13]  and paralegal training sessions to enable university students and out of school youth defend and demand their rights given the vulnerability and fragility of rights that came with the pandemic. Other examples include organising online dialogues on human rights and shrinking civic space, enabling cross border sharing and deliberations on human rights and Covid 19, including sharing of best practices in coping mechanisms.

In Africa , Covid brought to the fore the creativity and resilience of the African people .Many families started making their own soap  and disinfectant ,others started sewing their own masks .Instead of buying expensive masks , you could see colourful kitenge(fabric) masks.Despite the stigma inherent in Covid 19, it also brought communities together , the African ubuntu , caring for one’s neighbours who may not have food , mobilising for support to the less fortunate.

It is very important to acknowledge and laud the different roles that young people played and still play  in responding to the COVID- 19 pandemic, not all the heroes and heroines of COVID-19 are not only  in the medical field, some of them are the ordinary brothers and sisters who  exist in our very own communities.


Photo Credit @Mathare Roots Initiative















2 thoughts on “Celebrating the Unsung Heroes and Heroines: Youth Engagement in a Pandemic”

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