Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Youth media training in Bamessing, Cameroon

Posted by Joe Pavey
When the YETAM (Youth Empowerment Through Technology, Arts, and Media) program was introduced in Bamessing, Cameroon just over a year ago, it was first offered to students from the local high school’s journalism club. But when word got around that the program was offering youth training on, and access to, ICTs like PC computers and Flip cameras, it wasn’t long before a many more participants began showing up.

The youth involved in the program drew up a list of issues they wanted to advocate on in their community: High rate of school dropout, prevalence of malaria, early and forced marriage, domestic violence, and lack of potable water were just a few.

Over the course of the year they used their new found knowledge of media and advocacy to create drawings, music, art, and films that raised awareness about these issues. A youth led awareness campaign on the ill effects of early and forced marriage led their traditional village council to outlaw the practice (though enforcement and education remain problematic). Also, a short video piece the youth created on the community’s lack of clean water led an international NGO to pledge a grant they hope will solve that crisis. Based on the strength of this work, YETAM members were invited to speak at local council meetings, giving youth a voice in community decisions for the first time.

The week that Rebecca and I arrived in Bamessing coincided with the first days of a refresher course for youth in the program. This was our first chance to engage with the group first-hand and observe how the project worked. Lectures and activities were held at GBHS Bamessing, the local high school just down the main road from the village square. Its simple classrooms were decorated with dusty cobwebs and fading, daisy yellow paint. Inside the classroom, rows of heavy wooden benches lined cold concrete floors. An old fashioned chalkboard loomed large at the front of the room, its dull black surface smeared thick with the white residue of previous lessons.

We had been told that the refresher would start at 8am, but when students and staff members were still trickling in at 9:30 I realized my expectations about timing would need some adjustment. During my stay here patience would most definitely serve to be a virtue.

By 10am the room was filled with the smiling faces of over 40 of the youth involved in the program. Ages ranged from as young as six to as old as twenty-four, with the average somewhere in between. The six days of activities we were about to embark on would give these kids a chance to revisit some of the lessons about media and advocacy that they’d covered in greater depth the year before. It would also serve to kick-start a new series of campaigns they would work on over the next six months.

Topics covered included radio production, basic cinematography, interview techniques, citizen journalism, and more. As an ICT intern on the project, I was curious about the access (or lack thereof) that these youth have to various technologies. As you might imagine, even for youth in this program these are not everyday tools.

Though they are trained on basic computer skills as part of the YETAM curriculum, none of the youth I spoke with had regular access to a PC. The school where the training took place is rumored to have a small computer lab, but when I asked about it I was told that all of the computers except one were broken, and no one seemed to have access to the key.

The youth also told me that the lab was mostly for demonstration purposes, and that little of the computer training they’d had at school was hands-on. This meant that YETAM was their only chance to actually use a PC. When it came time to do practical sessions on Internet skills, Rebecca and I were happy to let the youth take turns on our personal laptops. For some kids who were new to the program this was their first time using a computer. (Note: Though GBHS Bamessing allows YETAM to hold trainings and workshops here, Plan Cameroon is not responsible for the maintenance of its resources, including the computer lab.)

Because of this lack of access, I found myself questioning the impact technology can have on the youth’s advocacy projects. Traditional media like theater, art, and song seemed to me a more effective way for these youth to engage with the community on issues. No one I’ve met here owns their own computer, and even the nearest internet cafĂ© is a 10 minute motorbike ride away. Because of this blogs and social media seem somewhat irrelevant here.

However I also learned that the access that YETAM does provide to these technologies is one of the driving forces behind student interest in the program. In this respect, it’s a long game. Through its lessons on advocacy, YETAM is helping shape the next generation of young leaders in this community. As access to technology here increases, and computers and cameras become more affordable (the way cell phones already have), the youth who have taken part in this program will be well positioned to benefit.

From what I’ve seen so far, the foundational philosophy behind YETAM seems sound. Engaging with youth through arts and media gives them a chance to explore issues for themselves, which in turn helps reinforce the principles of child protection through participation. The chance to access new media technologies like Flip cameras and audio recorders not only draws the youth’s attention, but also helps build skills that empower them to be better communicators. Many of these youth are passionate about local issues, and want to enact real change. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next.


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