“When I grow up, I will ensure that my own children will not go through the same experiences these children are having now.”
At around 11 years of age, as I walked on a path shared by my family and thousands of others fleeing from rebel advances towards Bo, Sierra Leone, I found myself thinking those thoughts aloud.
From either side of the path, we were under the scrutiny of armed children who were ensuring that no one entered their farm to break a cassava stem to reach at the root tubers. I remember thinking that this certainly violated the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I was fortunate to know that children had specific rights because my father worked for UNICEF and I was drawn to the colourful publications he brought home.
I and other young people from across Sierra Leone formed the Children’s Forum Network (CFN) in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs and international organizations, including Plan and UNICEF. CFN’s activities were diverse, and I was particularly drawn to the weekly radio show where children’s rights were discussed with former child soldiers and government officials. That experience was challenging because while the theory behind the rights we discussed made sense, in reality, very little was done across society to uphold children’s rights. This was worse for children with disabilities.
Before leaving Sierra Leone to further my education, I spent lots of time at a camp for amputees in Freetown, where I learned about their personal constraints and the design challenges related to their prostheses. This experience shaped my academic training, and today, as a Biomechatronics Engineer, I develop custom, comfortable prosthetic interfaces using robust and predictive models of the human body. In this pursuit, I cross traditional academic boundaries, combining medical imaging, design, manufacturing and modeling. At the Media Lab where I am currently pursuing my PhD, we are sometimes encouraged to first create solutions, then think about the problem. More commonly, students tackle tough problems that seem insurmountable at first – and they approach these problems not because they have all the required expertise, but just because they can.
This method of problem solving is typically missing among youth in Sierra Leone, who might expect that an external body will solve the challenges in their community. Why? Because that’s what the numerous development signboards lead us to believe. And if the problem is unsolved for too long, then there might be chaos, violence and bullets. In countries where youth make up a significant proportion of the population and face high unemployment, there is a unique opportunity to provide tools and platforms to enable them to become problem-solvers in their communities. Youth must be the makers who transform their societies towards prosperity.
First, we must think of youth as ‘ready’ to tackle large problems. They often have passion, are playful and have the creativity that allow them to look at problems in different ways. Coupled with their unique perspective and guidance from experienced mentors, this freedom to create can be powerful, with the potential to solve small pieces of large problems.
Second, children in schools and informal learning environments must be taught to question the status quo and then feel empowered to do something about it. They must be given opportunities to learn through experience and hands-on activities, and they need support to form unique learning pathways that will keep them civically engaged – rather than being batched together in a single schooling container.
Third, we must recognize that the skill sets needed for growth and global competition are constantly changing. Today, self-efficacy, empathy and critical thinking are as important as reading, writing and numeracy.
There are many organizations and initiatives tackling various aspects of engaging children and youth as problem solvers rather than as problems themselves. One is our organization, Global Minimum Inc., whose mission is to foster a generation of networked young makers and learners who solve problems affecting their communities. More than 10 years after I left that bush where I imagined a world for my own children, I feel optimistic that we are on the right path today. Once young people’s potential as problem-solvers is enabled and enhanced, countries like Sierra Leone that have significant youth populations will be able to tap into a wealth of opportunity for growth.