Youth voices in a troubled land

Somalia, June 22, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mohamed Jama/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A young boy in the riverside community of Burini-Sharifow, Somalia. The Juba River floods over the neighboring villages twice every year, devastating the villages and agricultural lands and leading to malaria, diarrhea and other diseases. Photo: Mohamed Jama/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Mohammed Jama/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The chief of Malay-lay village in southern Somalia says there's been fewer water-related diseases since Mercy Corps built a well there. In the past, women and children walked as far as six kilometers to get water for their drinking, cooking and cleaning needs. Photo: Mohammed Jama/Mercy Corps

In the northern Somalia semi-desert regions of Somaliland and Puntland, clans fight fiercely over dwindling supplies of wood, water and grazing land. The fewer the resources, the greater the competition. It’s an age-old conflict that jeopardizes the country’s future, especially its youth.

For centuries, traditional councils of clan elders played the role of nabad doon, or peace-seeker. Today, conflict has frayed those social bonds and customs. Civil war and severe poverty have eroded the elders’ authority. Elders complain that young people have no respect.

And yet, from a youth’s point of view, elders don’t seem to listen. The young have little voice in their communities. For a young person lacking education, jobs and any healthy engagement in sports or culture, it’s hard to resist temptation: gang-related crime, chewing the addictive stimulant khat, scoring a quick buck making charcoal that degrades the environment.

As young and old draw apart in increasing frustration, Mercy Corps – with funding from USAID – is showing communities how to resolve their disputes peacefully. We’re getting clan elders, local government officials, religious leaders, the business community, women and youth to join forces on projects that benefit everyone. For young people, it’s a chance to learn a marketable skill, gain wisdom – and grow up to earn respect of their own.

Joining Forces to Benefit All
As young and old draw apart in increasing frustration, Mercy Corps – with funding from USAID – is showing communities how to resolve their disputes peacefully.

  • A fair solution to grazing. Mercy Corps sponsored a forum to mediate a dispute over grazing land. Clan elders, religious clerics and Puntland authorities ultimately reached an important agreement – land redistribution plus government repair of damaged property – that has been widely accepted as a fair, legitimate solution.
  • Water for all. For years, groups fought over spring-fed farmland. After Mercy Corps-trained elders provided mediation, they agreed to work together to repair three kilometers of irrigation canals. Our cash-for-work funds paid their wages. The repairs ended hostilities and opened new land to cultivation. Elders, women and youth then formed committees to handle future disputes.
  • A circle of old and young. The Somali circle process is an ancient tradition in which people share stories, explore problems and apply their wisdom to find solutions. Mercy Corps’ Somaliland team has conducted three such circles. Young people had the rare opportunity to approach their elders and ask to participate in peace initiatives. Together they made plans to establish a community network of elders and youth – a remarkable step forward.
  • New skills and jobs lead to more education. Mercy Corps is teaching women and youth skills such as carpentry, sewing, cooking. We’re also showing women how to build and sell fuel-efficient stoves. The income pays school fees for their children, whose education is key to stabilizing the region.
  • Especially for youth. Some Mercy Corps projects are specially designed for young people. We’re soliciting their ideas – building a dam, running a football-for-peace tournament – and tailoring experiences such as peacebuilding and carpentry workshops to meet their needs and interests.

One of the most remarkable achievements of Mercy Corps’ work in Somalia has been the change of attitude among clan elders. They’re now more willing to open traditional dispute-resolution practices to new voices. Lasting change will not happen overnight, but with the perspectives of women and youth added to the conversation, we envision a new era of more balanced and sustainable solutions.