Empowering Youths for Integral Transformation through Self Help Initiatives


The Church as a Model Presented by Rev. Fr. Macarius Kolawole Olatunji, Director, Oluponna Fish Farming Education and Resource Centre (OFFERCentre), Catholic Archdiocese of Ibadan. At the 25th Theological Week of the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), Port Harcourt.

More than ever before, the eye of the storm is on youths all over the world. While developing societies and growing economies are thriving on the strength and vitality of their youthful population, on the contrary, many retrogressive societies and stagnant economies are so due to unemployment and the culture of death that is ravaging the lives of their youths and the accompanying unproductiveness of the aged.

Bringing the case home, the African continent is worse hit by the negative impact of youth unemployment, stagnation, poverty and strife. Of course, there are monsters to be blamed for this; bad leadership, corruption, poor infrastructure, low level of education, poor educational standards and infrastructure, illiteracy, poverty of the mind, superstition and militancy. The Arab spring whose effect was more felt in North African Countries is still a monster that has not fully been killed with further fears that this might be re-enacted in various forms and guise in other African countries.

With this confusion raging, it is pertinent to note that the African woman remains the most reproductive of her peers in all continents put together. Babies are being turned out by the day without moderation irrespective of the challenges it poses to our society. Of course, with ignorance and so many unwanted babies born into poverty stricken families, ugly practices such as child trafficking, child labour, early or child marriage, teenage pregnancies and a host of sexually transmitted diseases persist. Many cannot afford good qualitative education and are therefore out of school. No wonder our continent is pictured as the hub of darkness, a place where unconventional practices and evil thrives. Our people are treated as the scum of the world; as others describe us as the black race with black minds, barbarians and the wretches of the earth.

To make matters worse, many of our people in search of greener pastures can do just anything to leave the continent. Our people are living in dehumanizing conditions at lampedusa. Many loose their lives every day in the sea as they try to escape via overcrowded boats to Europe. Many of those in diaspora are stranded in the white man’s land, condemned to do menial jobs just to survive. They tell you that it is better they live like that than come back to Africa to die of hunger and starvation.

Yet, despite this gloomy picture I have painted, financial experts all over the world claim that the African economy is one of the best in the world. Our GDP is growing at a fast rate and our overall external reserves too. So many countries are discovering the black gold, not to talk of the abundant mineral and natural resources that abound in the continent, our vast land mass, our clement climate suitable for agriculture and our teaming population which is bedrock for an industrial revolution. Yet, these same ingredients can be the bedrock for an “Arab spring” kind of revolution. So what to do?

Solution to Current Challenge

Having carefully studied the situation at hand which I have tried to give a surgical appraisal of, I dare to submit that the Church in our time, to get the continent out of the woods must carefully marshal a new system for Africa’s emancipation. My take is that Agriculture in particular being the bedrock of our economy should be the vehicle for the integral transformation of our people. Of course, this cannot be taken in isolation of other initiatives that have a link with the agric - chain.

The Catholic Church as a vehicle for Transformation

The greatest asset the African continent has to help manage the human and natural resources the continent is proud of, is the Church – and I will explain myself. For the African Continent to get it right in the next generation, the Church must be at the fore front to make this happen. If the continent fails to put her acts together to do just this, then the church would have failed.

You will agree with me that presently our political leaders have failed us except for a few beacon of hope. Look North and South, East and West, their legacies are there: corruption, nepotism, tribalism, capitalism without a human face, manipulation of election results, slot particularly mental laziness, deceit and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, many are singing the tune of “if you cannot beat them, join them”. Worst still, in this confusion are thriving self acclaimed Pastors, Apostles, Senior Apostles, Bishops, Archbishops, Prophets and Founders. Religion therefore in our continent has become the opium of the people.

Even though some part of the Catholic Church is not free from this contamination, however, a greater part of her body is still clean. What is greatly lacking in the Church though is having a grasp of the situation at hand, marshalling her resources to fight the monster and liberate the people.

Why the Church?

The Catholic Church has a long history spanning over a hundred years in sub Sahara Africa. Even though there have been other institutions who have been on ground before the advent of the Church in Africa, one would not be gainsaying the fact that the Church has eventually established her authority in the continent. This is attested to by the huge population of Catholics in Africa which is the third largest of the seven continents, equivalent to 13% of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide (internet).

Besides, the widespread authority the Church waxes is her voice. She has established herself as the voice of the voiceless in most countries in Africa. She also carries with her some form of integrity despite the internal challenges she bears, most of which have rubbed on the African Church by the scandals in the Western Church.

Coincidentally, the African Church can boast of many young clergy and consecrated persons who are models of inspiration for the teaming population of young Africans. Also, the African society still has strong ties to the family most of who are living in rural areas and are into the practice of agriculture for sustenance.

With all these ingredients, all that the African Church needs to do is maximize these potentials to galvanize the people, particularly the youths through self help initiatives that fall within the Agric Chain.

The First Impact in Africa

We need to go back into history to remind ourselves that this kind of cloudy socio-political situation had presented itself before in the continent. With the advent of the Missionaries in Sub Saharan Africa in particular, noticing the darkness created by lack of formal education; illiteracy, ignorance, superstition etc they set out immediately to build schools to educate the people. The result is there for all to see. Nobody can turn back the hand of history by taking the legacy of good qualitative education from the Catholic Church in the African continent in particular, a vision which this divinely constituted institution has kept alive till date.

The Theology of Work – Jesus as our Model

Man is made up of body and soul. On the whole therefore, the man who is well brought up is one who has his mind polished through formal education and as well can use the parts of his body to add value to life and living through acquired skills.

Jesus is that perfect example of one so highly trained both in mind and body. The skill he acquired from Joseph His foster father made him acknowledged as one who used to make the best horse – shoe in Palestine (William Barclay). Of course, the books are full of His sayings and works as a mind that was gifted and well trained.

If Jesus is our model per excellence, then ideal, holistic education therefore is one that should train the minds and bodies of our children and youth.

Modern Day Youth and Employment Opportunities

The failure of education is manifested when a person’s mind is so well trained but no part of the body is skilled in any way. This defect has even become more pronounced in our world now that the huge human population vis-a-vis the employment opportunities available has created a logjam. There are so many young men and women with first class certificates being carried up and down our streets that are not fetching them anything. If only majority of them have skills to venture into enterprises that they could diversify into, but unfortunately, most don’t have it. Resultantly, most of our youths are not employed or are unemployable due to their dearth of skills.

Frustration is therefore the order of the day among most of our youths. Confusion looms as well as uncertainty, hopelessness and apathy. The results of these are obvious; our youths don’t want to do anything stressful any longer and besides, most have become extremely money conscious. Words like self-sacrifice, integrity are not in the book of many. While the Church was the foundation Institution in Africa to introduce and promote formal education, for one reason or the other especially in the Nigerian context, education of the human person has become lopsided and distorted. More than ever before therefore, the Church will have to come forth to fill this void once again.

The clarion call for the Church to save the youths from the precipice of the culture of death is even more urgent realizing the scenario playing out on these youths today. The breakdown of the family system due to misplacement of priority by parents, neglect, lack of surveillance and role model for the youths coupled with the loss of the traditional African value system especially in our towns and cities challenges the Church to rise up to this Honorius responsibility.

Benefits- If only the Church can take a lead role

- There will be the establishment of clusters for youth training, empowerment and transformation

- There will be the development of infrastructure across the continent

- There will be a revolution that will promote transformation

- Economic empowerment of individual and families will become a reality

- The Church will be able to promote the culture of life and dunce the culture of death

- Agriculture when well developed leads to industrial revolution. That may just fast track the development of indigenous technology that Africa needs for a more robust growth.

- It will mop up the youth population that are searching for white collar jobs and therefore reduce unemployment

- It will create and promote competition and healthy rivalry

- It will turn Africa from the status of a beggar continent to one that is highly respected by the committee of nations.

- It will help diversify the economy of most African nations that are dependent on oil and other mineable minerals

- It will promote a new evangelization for Africa. My fear is that the pulpit is not as effective in our time as it was in the past. Otherwise, the percentage of Catholics who find themselves in top governmental offices to make and implement policies for change in Africa is quite substantial, yet we are not feeling the impact of positive change because many compromise their faith.

- It will create room for a new form of catechesis which will be more effective for evangelization. E.g the Sports and Music Clinic at OFFERCentre

- It will make the African Church truly Christ like, by preaching to the people on one hand and feeding them with bread and fish on the other hand.

- It will ensure the availability of raw materials for our markets

- The benefits are innumerable.

- This is the new kind of evangelization we want for the African Church.

The Example of OFFERCentre

Oluponna Fish farming Education and Resource Centre, OFFERCentre is a baby of the Catholic Archdiocese of Ibadan, a non – governmental organization started in the year 2006.

Looking at the ugly socio-political and economic situation of our country, with the support of the Archbishop Emeritus, Most Rev. Dr. Felix Alaba Job, a vision was hatched to develop a centre where youths from all works of life can be trained in Agriculture with particular emphasis on Fishery, computer operations and entrepreneurial skills. Luckily, this same vision is shared by the current Archbishop, Most Rev Dr Gabriel ‘Leke Abegunrin.

We started on an 18 acre piece of land that was bought by the Archbishop Emeritus in 1984 but after several efforts to get it moving, the farm was abandoned. At the time of my first visit in 1999 during my last pastoral assignment prior to my ordination, the farm was desolate and over grown with wild grass. After my ordination in the year 2000AD, the Archbishop asked me in February 2001 to go to the parish and make the farm work. It was a herculean task.

However, I remembered what one of my children said to me about that period that “once there is a vision; there is always a provision by God”. The encouragement gotten from other priests, seminarians, some Rev. Sisters and some God sent lay faithful kept me going at difficult moments. At the time we were ready to put OFFERCentre into motion in 2006, I had a Délégation Catholique pour la Coopération (DCC) volunteer from France with me in the person of Mr Thibault Cavelier and a motivated, committed and brilliant young lady, Miss Aphrodite Oti who was just through with her National Youth Service at the time as well as two young men, Mr Abiodun Ajani and Ayo Fatokun who despite the odds believed in the vision.

It was while we were doing our best that the French embassy assisted with a counterpart fund to build our administrative block, purchase some furniture and equipment and train some students and empower them. That was the beginning of better things to come.

In 2007, it was a subsidiary of Mobil Nig Ltd, ESSO Exploration and Production Nigeria Limited (EEPNL) in production sharing contract with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) who came calling for the training of Niger Delta Youths. This we did for six years with them, a collaboration that trained five sets of youths. These young men and women are spread across the country and are doing so well at their different posts.

Even though Mobil has decided to disengage from the partnership with us, the company is however leaving us with a severance package of a hostel accommodation of 28 rooms, an auditorium that can take 500 people and the construction of some games facilities. All these started with our taking the first step.

Right now, the Centre can boast of a staff strength of 35, who have trained close to 200 youths. We are in collaboration with Osun State Government in helping to articulate some of her agricultural policies on Ram Fattening, Outgrowers Inputs distributors scheme etc. We are working closely with IITA (International Institute for Tropical Agriculture) in their cassava stem multiplication programme, Humid tropics and Commercial Fish Projects. We are working with a sister organization (OEDf) on the SURE-P programme of the federal government and looking good into keying into other projects that could add value to the lives of our people with particular emphasis on the youths. We are pursuing assiduously our registration with the National Board for Technical Education and looking forward to developing our infrastructure and bringing other partners on board to fund our vision.

We have been in collaboration with Bowen University since 2008 helping to train their Year IV agricultural students for a period of six weeks on practical agriculture. This we shall open up to other universities with the inauguration of our hostel.

Permit me to say, that having supported us in 2005 with funds for the establishment of the Agric School, the French embassy sent a team to pay us a visit in the year 2010 to know if we were still in existence. They were highly impressed with what they met on ground that they decided to fund the establishment of our catering school as well. We were privileged because they told us they hardly support the same organization twice. So today, we have a catering school running side by side with the Agric school. There the young ones are trained on skills such as catering, bead making, wire works and twine weaving. We hope to introduce others like videography and photography, tye and dye, hair weaving and tailoring with time. Our ultimate goal is that after establishing a robust centre, we shall begin the process of replication at other local government areas or dioceses that so desire. We are almost ripe for this.

Challenges

All that glitters is not gold. I must say that despite the good news as enumerated above, we have some challenges as an organization;

- Apathy and Negative Behaviour

It will surprise you to know that seeing a crowd of youth jobless, riding okada or trading on our streets does not mean they want a change in their situation. Many have become lazy and have lost direction and prefer to be given fish daily than be taught how to fish. Many have also cultivated vices which make them undisciplined and therefore difficult to train or remold.

- Collaboration with Corporate Bodies and Government Agencies.

Due to the fact that some NGOS and similar organizations exist for dubious reasons or false intentions, it is often difficult to convince companies and government parastatals of our genuineness and sincerity of purpose especially at the teething stage. Meanwhile, there is no way a Centre like this can go it all alone without hinging on Corporate Social Responsibility

- Finance

This is always a knotty issue. If an organization is not sustainable, then it most likely will collapse someday. Many NGOS die due to this challenge. Besides, there is the fact that after training the youth, they often face the problem of how to source for funds in order to translate the knowledge acquired into wealth.

- Corruption

Our society is bedeviled with the problem of corruption in high and low places. This is a major factor that our organization has to contend with regularly. The tools of conscience, probity and integrity become instrument we use to fight against the tide, and believe me or not, this slows down growth.

- Incompetence in Administrative Skills.

Most of our young graduates lack skills and are not equipped for the task ahead. They are therefore not often good enough at given assignments especially those that have to do with administration or practical. A lot of investment has to be sunk on them for them to reach a suitable level of competence over time. How many up and struggling organizations have such patience?

Next Step

With OFFERCentre, the Church has already started the mission of empowering youths for integral transformation through self help initiatives. Although still at its infancy, it is only a matter of time before this vision will become a reality.

Let me quickly add that there are other projects like OFFERCentre being run by Priests who are passionate about agriculture as well as some other dioceses and religious congregations. These are laudable programmes but they are tiring and frustrating most times because of lack of proper information or technical support or lack of support from the hierarchy and most especially lack of adequate funding.

Our next plan of action is that come the first quarter or first half of 2015, OFFERCentre plans to host all stakeholders in agriculture in the Catholic Church in Nigeria. We shall come under an umbrella with the aim of:

Having a registered and recognized body by National and International Communities.

Upgrade some of the existing farms to Centres like OFFERCentre with the motive of promoting youth empowerment.

Establish a network for development.

Create a pool for technical support.

Empower the Centre and stakeholders in Agriculture under the umbrella of the Catholic Forum to have access to funds.

Spread this initiative to the rest of Africa.

Other Skill Acquisition Centers Run By the Church and Government

This paper will not be complete if I do not shed some light on the efforts of some other Congregations in the Church that are making frantic effort in youth training and empowerment as well as the efforts of successive governments in the country to bring about a transformation agenda for our dear nation through self help initiatives.

While we commend the efforts of the Local, State and Federal Governments on their initiatives and contributions to youth training and empowerment, we however cannot but call on the various tiers of government to do better. Of major concern is the fact that the amount being spent by government is not commensurate to the level of development on ground. In other words, there seem to be a lot of leakages and wastage in the execution and financial management of the entire scheme. Another source of concern is that a whole lot of youths are sent outside the country for various trainings at huge expense. If only these trainings were done here but for cross-fertilization of ideas, certain individuals could be invited from outside the shores of the country to add pep to the training and empowerment package of our people. This will go a long way to give the desired support for Training Centers in Nigeria to have better infrastructures and improve their capacity. Many of our youth empowerment programmes therefore are scams that flush money down the drain.

This is where the various Congregations in the Church that has various Centres for youth training and empowerment will have to buckle up as well. Congregations like Don Bosco, De Lassa and the diocesan JDPCs across the nation need to be better sensitized to have a bigger and bolder vision for the African youth. Rather than glory in the past or carry out parallel isolated training programmes we must on the contrary impact by embarking on a transformation agenda that is purposeful, interconnected, pragmatic, committed and determined to transform the lives of youths and change the face of Africa.

Recommendations

1) Government should change her approach on youth training and empowerment by ensuring that any further intervention in this regard should be a joint venture with private partners. I must say the Catholic Church is the most robust partner that can ensure and sustain the impact.

2) Frantic efforts must be made by the state to develop clusters like OFFERCentre that will be places of attraction for the youths and invariably of integral transformation for them.

3) Empowerment of our youths can come in different ways and form. Training or skill acquisition is itself empowerment. However, the greatest challenge is in financial empowerment to transform the knowledge gained into wealth or at least a means of livelihood. It will take government intervention on Micro-credit to bring this about. The Church must not shy away from this.

4) Promoters of such development programmes in the Church must realize that it is a duty that calls for a huge sum of self sacrifice and a whole lot of attention, commitment and focus. It wouldn’t succeed with half measures or wrong intention that promotes mecatura.

5) Facilitators must ex cue acts that could bring about a setback of the developmental process like managing crisis situations most times rather than being focused on development. Negative practices that promote wastage of resources, sin and corruption must also be avoided as much as possible.

6) There is the urgent need to overhaul our educational system to promote technical education from the elementary stage rather than focus on certificates or paper qualification. I recommend that Catholic education should take the lead.

7) The Church must not be afraid to take the bold step. She should lead as she has always done and others will follow. For Seneca would say, ‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult’.

Conclusion

Empowering youths for integral transformation through self help initiatives having the Church as a model is easier said than done. However, I am highly convinced that this is the path the African Church must thread now if she must bring the gospel message to the people and breathe new life into them.

Policy makers in the Church must draw up a road map for this and develop an agenda which must be pursued vigorously by every diocese and monitored strictly. I dare say it is a new apostolate the Catholic Secretariat must fashion and the Bishop’s Conference embrace.

Thank you for listening