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The Value of Awards in Giving Youth Direction

By Elizabeth Bintliff, CEO, JA Africa

A few weeks ago on a flight back to Accra from Nairobi I struck up a conversation with the young man seated next to me. He was from Namibia. He had been on a business trip in Kenya, his first time in East Africa. He was going on to Ghana for the next leg of the trip. It was also his first time in West Africa.

We talked for much of the five-hour flight across Africa; mostly about the regional differences on the continent. We talked about culture, weather, politics and food. He, like many southern Africans, was curious about the West African penchant for spicy food. He had questions about the culture in West Africa: the traffic in Accra; the comparative hurried and harried pace of things. I was thoroughly amused by his perspective. He was going on a business trip and he was really excited for the opportunity to explore and embrace the local culture.

When we landed I asked what he does for a living. He told me he is a software engineer. He asked what I do. When I told him I work at Junior Achievement (JA) Africa he got giddy. “I’m a JA alumnus!” He declared excitedly. “JA taught me so much! I even won an award.” This made me happy, of course. I was excited that we had found a connection beyond food and location on the airplane. I was excited because even many years after his experience with JA he remembered with fondness what he had learned, what he had taken away and that even for a brief moment he had been celebrated with an award.

Awards are a big element of JA’s theory of change. We believe that there is a shift in young minds when their accomplishments are noticed, affirmed, recognized or celebrated. For many people, winning an award is often validation of their skills and knowledge. It is often one of the things that confirms certain career choices. Awards say: you are really good at this. You should consider doing it for a living.

When I was in junior high school the national post office in Cameroon held a nationwide letter-writing competition one year. My friends encouraged me to enter. I was not convinced I could or should; I didn’t think I stood a chance of winning. But I took my friends’ advice (probably given with a dash of peer pressure). I don’t even recall what I wrote about. I just remember handwriting it over and over by candle light on full scarp paper till I produced a perfect version of the letter that had no misspelled words and no crossed out words. I entered the competition and I won it. The prize was some cash and a boat load of stamps, which, when you were in boarding school back then were more valuable than money (take note, young people, this new-fangled thing called texting didn’t always exist. Neither did email. In high school we used to have to write letters to communicate. In cursive, with hearts to dot our ‘i’s. We sent them by post -not Facebook post- and waited longingly by the mailbox for weeks until we got a reply). But I digress.

What winning that competition told me was that I have a gift with the written word that I should explore how to use in the future. It told me that others saw in me something I had not seen in myself. It was a revelation.

When we give awards to young people at JA Africa (or even experienced people elsewhere), we send the same message.

Later this year Junior Achievement Africa will hold its regional Company of the Year competition. Students from sub-Saharan Africa will converge in Harare, Zimbabwe to compete for prizes and awards in entrepreneurship. For many of them, this competition will be definitive in terms of what they choose to pursue later in life. When they stand on that stage to receive awards in entrepreneurship, in management, for their business ideas, for the way they run their businesses they will learn something about themselves that will set them on a certain path which, like my fellow passenger on that flight, they will remember and hopefully use later in life.

My seat mate told me plans to start his own tech company one day. I wished him great success and luck, though I don’t think he’ll need the latter. I think his future is very bright.

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