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Africa’s youths can be more assertive, without being disrespectful; timidity will not bring about change, Chimamanda Adichie says

Chimamanda: I would like to say, there is a big problem when young people on this continent are always being told to ‘be quiet because adults are speaking

I would like to say, there is a big problem when young people on the continent of Africa are always being told to ‘be quiet because adults are speaking’. However, I also think that it matters how African youths speak up. 

I remember very well that as a young girl who excelled and achieved A’s in secondary school, often, in the teachers’ comments section, they wrote: ‘She has no respect for her teachers!’

That really used to bother me because I’m a very big believer in being respectful, civil, and courteous. When I did ask questions, I did so respectfully. I was raised to respect my elders and I still do. It is one of the many wonderful things about being raised in an African culture, continues Chimamanda Adichie, as culled from an interview reported in the NEWAFRICAN magazine.

But I realised that what my teachers saw as disrespect was my questioning spirit. The idea of respect is a beautiful thing, and I hold that dear. However, we need to be very careful and draw the line when respect starts to turn into fear, and eventually silencing.

My confidence – again I have to keep saying this because it really is true – comes from my family. I was just very fortunate to have parents who encouraged and built my confidence, and who made me feel that I didn’t have to apologise for being who I was. 

I didn’t know I was confident until people started to ask me why I was confident. But honestly? I’m just normal. 

However, as I have become older and a public figure, I’m more aware of what people mean when they say you are too confident. For many, you are expected to speak your mind a little less when you become a public figure. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, ‘Don’t talk about that subject, you will upset people,’ or ‘don’t say that because you’re going to be misunderstood.’ 

And it is true, there are certain things you will say that will upset people and there are certain things that people would deliberately misunderstand.

So, for example, when I talk about feminism in a conservative society like Nigeria, the people’s reaction is like: ‘Oh, you are upsetting people’ or ‘God, she’s gone too far’.

People think that when I say fairly harmless things like, men and women are equal, or that in a marriage, both people are full partners, somehow that is controversial. I find this so ridiculous because this is just common sense in my opinion.  Men and women are equal.

But if I can change one person’s mind, and make one man stop beating his wife, for me that’s success. If I can change the mind of one woman and make her stop shrinking herself and make her feel more ambitious, that’s progress. That’s the point and the lesson of speaking up.

In a place like Nigeria, it’s not enough to sit down and say, ‘We are not being allowed to participate.’ The youth must make themselves a voting block that becomes almost impossible to ignore.

For example, in Nigeria, a country where voting is often rigged and rubbish, young people should organise and decide they will go to polling centres and push back those paying money to buy votes or stuff ballot boxes.

If young people organise themselves in such ways, governments and potential candidates will court you for your vote. It’s then that you should ask for concessions. For example, tell them: ‘We’re not voting for you until you fix that road from Kano to Kaduna.’

The youth need to not only become more politically active, but also more politically educated about the issues. When I talk to young people, I’m impressed by how much they want a change, but often, I am also struck by how little they know about the actual things happening in their country!

Part of the problem in our societies is how little we know about how things are supposed to work. We know that things are not working in general, we know the roads are bad, we know that education is failing. But when we begin to talk about specific ways of solving the problems, I don’t think that we have that language yet or that we have that knowledge. And this is one of the ways youth can get involved.

Go on your blogs, and instead of writing gossip about the latest musicians, take pictures of the big potholes and write about the bad roads. Call out the person who is responsible. For me that citizen journalism, factually done, is one way of being politically active. Politicians don’t like being publicly shamed.

And yes, youth feel very intimidated, but you can do it anonymously, and for now, I recommend that young people do such things anonymously.

There is also a lot of performance on social media, which can be very shallow. But at the same time, social media can be a force for good, and young people can get politically active on these platforms. But it depends on the choice you make and how you want to use your social media platforms.

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