Youth performances ignite democratic discussion
“VOTE UPND” is written in large letters on a broken down grey brick wall.
One like many here, decaying, unused. Trash litters every roadside. Children play hopscotch drawn in the dirt, using rocks.
This is Matero Township, a low-income part of Lusaka, Zambia. The community has long been known for criminal activity, drainage issues, and bad roads. And it has frequently drawn negative attention for issues such as corruption in the local police force and fraud during presidential elections.
Today, the people of Matero are working tirelessly to improve on this image. Our bus pulls into Lilanda Primary School. On the surrounding walls in big letters is the alphabet for all to see. From the far end of the school grounds, the sound of gospel singers practicing their craft pierces the hot, dry, afternoon air.
In an area in size resembling an oblong tennis court in between two school buildings around 60 youths have gathered. Guitars are being played, songs are sung.
These Matero youths are called Youths Action Zambia, and they want to draw attention not to all the negativity that sometimes surround their neighborhood, but instead to their artistry: Song, dance, theater, and poetry.
They are inspired by the ambitions contained in the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance taught in creative activist trainings they have been a part of at the local ActionAid youth hub in Lusaka, Global Platform.
Hillary Cheucheu is one of the organizers of Youths Action Zambia. He explains what the charter means in their local context.
- The charter helps us understand community issues and push for more inclusive democracy. Before the authorities would make a decision like: ‘Let’s build a bridge’, without consulting anyone. That was the old way. Today, the community has a say. If a bridge is not the most important issue of the day, then there is a discussion.
Hillary Cheucheu says that Youths Action Zambia also hand out pamphlets to inform locals. But theater, song and poetry is relatable in a different way. For example, the youths perform silent theater, in which actors act out a scene, and the audience discusses what happened afterwards. Always with a focus on democratic issues.
- A pamphlet is often times not read. But when you put these things into drama, people will start talking. Sometimes they’ll say to their friends: ‘I saw this play where they talked abou this and this…' and in that way, drama spreads the message.
Just as broken walls are used to promote political parties in Matero, now with Youths Action Zambia drama has joined the fray and inspires locals to push for a better democracy. So if people do end up voting UPND - or PF - they will do so, hopefully, says Hillary Cheucheu, on a more informed basis. And they will hold people accountable, between elections as well.
- Democracy is a process, it is not just one day, election day, says Hillary Cheucheu.
These are their way of pushing Matero ever closer to a well-functioning democratic constituency, ever further from dysfunction. They are Youths Action Zambia, and they simply put are improving democracy in Matero through provocative political performances. Performances which get locals talking: Are our leaders being held accountable? How can we influence policy for the benefit of us all?
Sebastian Mwila is part of a small group of young people from Matero who founded Youths Action Zambia in 2011. They were five then. Today they are 60.
- We have covered a range of issues through the years. We always try to talk to people and find out which issues are on everyone’s minds, be it tribal conflicts or climate change. Some have written climate change poems, for example, he says.
- Back when we started, few were organized. So we started to talk to each other about how to get youth together in our community. We talked to the school here and we were allowed to come here and use the space to practice performances.
One such performance now begins in the school grounds. Four youths act out a choreographed series of movements while chanting politically charged poetry. “We are born with the chains of injustice!” “Are we really free!?” “There is struggle in my bones!” The performance then goes on to become more and more concrete in its political demands: “The African charter for democracy, elections and governance - implement now!”
After the showing, Sebastian Mwila continues to explain how Youths Action Zambia arrived at theater and poetry in part inspired by training he and others have participated in at Global Platform Zambia, run by ActionAid Zambia and home to many local youth activist groups. Trainings which are part of the ambitious project undertaken by CSOs in 8 African countries and ActionAid Denmark, funded by the EU Commission, to promote better democracy utilizing the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance and the African Governance Architecture.
“At the training I learned a lot about the issues that affect my community. For instance, how to take up issues of fund allocation: Are money being put into new drainage systems? Are our schools improving? There was a lack of accountability on these issues. So I started thinking about how to get people involved more. We introduced drama as a way to open up discussions on the issues,” says Sebastian Mwila.