“Africa is a wealthy continent, and its greatest, most valuable resource is its young people” remarks Pope Francis in the September edition of The Pope Video. He says that young people in Africa “should be able to choose between letting themselves be overcome by difficulty or transforming the difficulty into an opportunity”. The Pope adds that the best way to help them in this choice is to invest in their education. “If young people don’t have the possibility of education, what future can they have? If young people don’t have a job, what future awaits them?” he asks. The Holy Father concludes “Let us pray that young people in Africa may have access to education and work in their own countries”. In line with his concern for issues related to young people, the Holy Father has convoked a Synod of Bishops next month on the topic “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment”. It will be held in Rome, from 3-28 October.
According to 2017 statistics from the International Labour Organisation, 12.9% of African youth aged 15 to 24 in Sub-Saharan Africa are unemployed. The statistic rises to 28.8% for the same population in North African countries. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation which seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture, estimates that in 2017 nearly 60% of African youth aged 15 to 17 were not attending school.
Commenting on The Pope Video this month, Fr Frédéric Fornos SJ, international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network remarks that “in order to build a future of hope, it’s fundamental that all young Africans find opportunities in their own countries”. He notes how the Pope has expressed this many times, and says “this time, he is saying it in his monthly prayer intention: education and employment are the pillars for young Africans to be able to transform the situation in their country”.
In his address to representatives of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar on 7 February 2015, Pope Francis commented on the importance of young people in the continent of Africa. “In Africa, the future is in the hands of the young”, the Pope remarked, adding that young people “need to be protected from new and unscrupulous forms of colonisation such as the pursuit of success, riches, and power at all costs, as well as fundamentalism and the distorted use of religion, in addition to new ideologies which destroy the identity of individuals and of families”. Francis said that “the most effective way to overcome the temptation to give in to harmful lifestyles is by investing in education”, which he explained “will also help to overcome a widespread mentality of injustice and violence, as well as ethnic divisions”.
Referring to Evangelii Gaudium, his Apostolic Exhortation on The Joy of the Gospel, the Holy Father explained that the greatest need is for a model of education “which teaches the young to think critically and encourages growth in moral values”. (Evangelii Gaudium, 64). He said that an important component in this educational process is “the pastoral care of students: in Catholic or public schools there is a need to unite academic studies with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel”. (Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134).
Sr Orla Treacy IBVM, who is engaged in the education of girls and young women in Rumbek, South Sudan, reflects on the Pope’s Prayer Intention for September in Living Prayer, a booklet produced by Messenger Publications and Pope’s Worldwide Network in Ireland. She outlines that as young people we may often have said “I don’t want to go to school”, and notes how as we got older we could say “I don’t want to go to work today”. “But what if you never had a choice? What if you weren’t allowed to go to school? What if you weren’t able to find a job? How would you react?”, she asks.
Sr Orla gives the example of her local community in South Sudan where is said that “if you educate a girl you will educate the village, if you educate a boy you educate a family”. She contextualises the culture, explaining that “the elders value the traditional life and customs”, and that in Africa the challenge is “getting the boys and girls to school”. According to Sr Orla the African people struggle to change, “to allow young people to be educated”. Education “is the great changer”, she says, remarking that “young people are transformed by education, they seek opportunities, they ask questions beyond themselves and their culture”. Young people, she outlines, “argue against negative cultural practices, demand more of themselves and their nation, and fight for their rights to be educated and to work”. In conclusion she says “let us give thanks for the gift our education and the chance to work…and pray for the millions in parts of Africa who are denied these opportunities”.
Writing on the Pope’s Intention in the July issue of Sacred Heart Messenger, the publication of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network in Ireland, Fr Joe Hayes SJ, who spent almost fifty years of his life in the education sector in Zambia, reflects that “the gift of life calls us to become worthy of life and a great help in that process is the enterprise of education”. In post-colonial Africa “many political leaders have invested heavily in improving access for their people to formal education”, he outlines. Fr Joe acknowledges the important role which Christian missionaries and local Christian communities “in partnering with governments to more effectively walk that journey”.
Noting that the quality of education in Africa has improved, he remarks that “the values that are communicated through the educational enterprise have often been brought to light so as to make a contribution to the wellness of society”. In conclusion he states that “the effectiveness of an educator who is competent, conscientious and compassionate, cannot be underestimated as we all continue the wonderful cooperation that reveals the very heart of God and is at the heart of the intention of Pope Francis”.