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A scholar’s story: A child’s mind. A continent’s future.

This post is authored by Edem Dorothy Ossai, a youth advocate from Nigeria who is an Obama Foundation Scholar currently studying at the University of Chicago. The Obama Foundation Scholars program supports dynamic, collaborative, rising leaders from around the world through an innovative one-year academic experience combined with leadership development training that works to equip them with the necessary skills and networks to take their work to the next level. Read Edem’s story:

A close up photo of a woman who is medium brown skin sitting and wearing a floral blouse with people around her

When I was 14 years old, living in Nigeria, I had two neighbors: two little girls, around age six, whose families lived beside each other.  In the evenings, I would often hear them skipping down the lane. Together, they were as cheerful, loud, and playful as children are expected to be.

The mornings were different, though.

Every morning, one of the girls—whose parents were staff in the local university—could be seen walking to the nearby community primary school a few blocks away in her bright white socks.

The second girl was not as lucky. She lived with her uncle and his family in a ramshackle servant quarters at the back of a main building occupied by another family. Her uncle worked as a night security guard while his wife engaged in informal petty trade. They had a baby and their living quarters were overcrowded. Every morning, with a basket balanced atop her head, the little girl walked with her aunty—who carried the  baby strapped to her back—to a street corner where they sold roasted plantains to menial workers until the sun set.

Seeing this painful contrast in opportunities for these young girls on a daily basis put me on my path to working in child advocacy.

A woman with dark skin tone and short hair smiles for the camera. She wears pink and gold dangling earrings, a gold choker necklace, and a intricately patterned top with gold, blue and black.

Seeing this painful contrast in opportunities for these young girls on a daily basis put me on my path to working in child advocacy.”

Edem Dorothy Ossai, Obama Foundation Scholar

It inspired me to become a child broadcaster at the age of 17, giving me the chance to work with UNICEF during the Biennial AFRICAST conference in 2002 to advocate before African Heads of States for the passage of the Child Rights Bill in Nigeria, so young girls like my neighbor would not be denied the education they deserve.

But years later, I discovered that the law I helped pass was not enough. I founded Mentoring Assistance for Youths and Entrepreneurs Initiative in September 2011, after I learned that Oyo State—the State where I grew up and first encountered the plight of a little girl who didn’t have access to formal education—had the highest number of out-of-school children in the southwest region of Nigeria, as well as an alarmingly low literacy amongst secondary school graduates.

My goal was to bridge specific learning resource gaps and provide mentoring opportunities for poor children and youth in economically disadvantaged schools and communities, so I began taking mobile libraries to children in underserved communities in Nigeria. Hundreds of children who joined my organization’s program, all of whom attended public schools in Nigeria, were getting an education—far inferior to what I had imagined. They were barely literate and had no computer skills. During one mentoring session, I asked a group of children to describe the functions of parts of the human body. I was shocked when one child innocently responded that the head was for “carrying load,” suggesting that she thought of her head primarily as a tool for ferrying goods.

I was devastated to see how this young girl’s lack of access to formal education made her believe her head was for carrying labor, not her thoughts. It reinvigorated my belief that we cannot afford to let such immense talent and skill potential on the African continent go to waste. That is why I want to create pathways to economic inclusion for youth and ensure equal opportunities for girls and women, using policies as an instrument.

I applied to the Obama Foundation Scholars program at the University of Chicago because I realized that there was a gap in effective policies which can ensure meaningful education and human capital outcomes for youth across Africa. Furthermore, I share the responsibility to fill this gap so that young people will not only thrive but also contribute tangibly and meaningfully to the development and growth of their communities. The program has allowed me to gain insight into the strategic environment of decision making, as well as the critical role which individuals, groups, and institutions occupy in shaping policies.

Most importantly, I have learned, amidst a very rigorous classroom taught program, combined with an immersive out-of-classroom experience, that meaningful and enduring development is often hard-fought, hard-won, and must be vigilantly guarded. This distinctly requires leadership.

A Polaroid-style photograph of a Black woman and a Black teen boy looking at a laptop computer. Behind them are what appear to be students sitting and working at tables.
A Polaroid-style photo of a group of Black women and children dressed in various colors and patterned fabrics. Some sit on a concrete wall while others stand. Behind them are the roofs of two buildings.
A Polaroid-style photo of two Black children looking over a notebook while one holding a book writes in it. A Black woman stands in a doorway looking at them. Behind them is a brick building, vertical banner and concrete pathway surrounded by dirt.
A Polaroid-style photograph of young people and children in front of a brick building. Several stand in a line in front of the door and one looks on as another writes in a notebook.

One of the biggest challenges for Africa currently is the question of how to transform its youth  demographic into a dividend (Opens in a new tab), the way several other growing regions have. At the moment, Africa has the highest population of youth relative to its total population of any region in the world. Numbering 226 million, it is predicted by the United Nations, that Africa’s youth population will have increased by 42 percent by 2030.

This phenomenon of a “youth bulge” is directly tied to the existential and real concern about whether Africa will be peaceful, prosperous and ascendant on the global landscape in the unfolding years. The extent to which African nations and global partners create opportunities for youth will be critical in shaping outcomes for the continent.

I strongly believe that in setting a new vision for growth, both current and emerging African leadership must redefine the prescribed roles of young people and women on the continent. Unless African societies and institutions shift norms, practices, and preferences towards meaningful interaction with youth as critical drivers of growth rather than mere beneficiaries, the continent will never fully harness its vast human capital potential or its youth potential.

African countries and committed global partners, must shift the current way they invest in youth and women to a more intentional, participatory and complete form where every youth and woman is fully empowered with relevant skills, knowledge, and a mindset for driving growth across all the spheres: social, economic, and political. This must be the priority of leadership across Africa—because otherwise, I dare say the continent faces a real threat.

You can learn more about the Obama Foundation Scholars program  here.

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