Taziwa Machiwana, a program officer with Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust (YETT) in Zimbabwe, received a Winston Fellowship to attend all four sessions of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University this summer. The fellowship is awarded annually to an international participant who applies with support from his/her organization, is new to peacebuilding, and will engage in a formal mentorship in the organization after returning from SPI. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Youth programs officer combines development experience with peacebuilding skills to help Zimbabwe’s communities

For Taziwa Machiwana, peace is not just the absence of violence, but a nationwide, structural condition in which young people can find jobs, pursue educational goals and enjoy basic human rights. It is a peace that has long been elusive for Zimbabwe, but one Machiwana hopes to facilitate through empowering young people to advocate for their rights in nonviolent ways.

The 31-year-old Zimbabwean, who was awarded a Winston Fellowship to attend Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, is the program officer for Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust (YETT). YETT partners with over 33 youth civil society organizations, each with a different focus such as women’s health, environmental protection and education. YETT builds the capacity of youth leaders from these organizations to advocate peacefully for their rights.

A history of violence, instability

Nonviolent advocacy is a tough goal in a country that has been shaped by long-term economic instability and a culture of violence as exemplified by a campaign of terror waged against the Ndebele people of western Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Current president Robert Mugabe was the prime minister during this period.

Election cycles from 1980 to 2013 also witnessed varying levels of election-related violence in which young people were involved as both the perpetrators and victims of this violence. Use of force in dealing with those holding “divergent views” and the utilization of young people to perpetrate that violence was recorded in a 2007 report on political violence issued by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.

In 2001, Mugabe established the Youth National Training Service as “the vehicle for youth empowerment, social transformation and a catalyst for the transformation of national values,” according to a government website. In reality, the camps, run by liberation fighters loyal to Mugabe, produced “state-sponsored youth gangs,” according to a 2003 article in The Guardian. The youth militia would burn people’s homes, destroy livestock and participate in all-night vigils to support the ruling party right before an election. The camps were supposedly suspended in 2007, according to an Immigration and Refuge Board of Canada report, but news services reported as late as 2011 that the camps never fully disbanded and their legacy has remained a potent and divisive force in the country.

The ongoing economic and political instability since the early 1980s also resulted in mass emigration. The emigration weakened social structures, including most importantly the social network provided by extended families, traditionally the providers of support and conflict mediation.

“Violence starts with conflict within families, then spreads to conflict with other tribes and communities and then manifests at the national level,Machiwana says. For example, a soccer match between the Highlanders and the Dynamos can end up being tribalised as a conflict between the Ndebele and Shona peoples.

“Hence, when you see young people being violent within the home, in the community and at the national level, one should not just see the violence in itself,” Machiwana said “It is in essence an expression of unmet needs of the youth which have been allowed to build up and have reached boiling point. ”

Helping youth talk together

Machiwana’s first job, a volunteer position with Youth Dialogue Zimbabwe, was to facilitate conversations between youths with different political ideologies. Within these youth groups were some who had been victims of political violence and their victimizers. The youth, who often came from poorly educated, rural families, had few other prospects in the crippled Zimbabwean economy and returned home after their time in the National Youth Service camps to live side-by-side with those they had victimized.

“We didn’t even use the word peace in the beginning,” Machiwana said. Rather he organized sporting events and established youth-led market gardening initiatives, often furthering his strategic goals by relying on neutral church leaders who were also using religion and faith as a tool for peacebuilding within their communities.

“Zimbabweans love sports, particularly soccer,” he said. “So soccer matches were a good place to draw people together to get them used to each other again. As they got more comfortable being around one another, it was easier for them to coexist and open up to more direct dialogue.”

In 2013, Machiwana joined YETT. In his role as program officer, Machiwana says he tries “to promote the culture of conflict transformation” through facilitating Trainer of Trainer (TOT) trainings. Participants learn to define and analyze conflict, as well as strategies for dealing with it and how to advocate nonviolently. He then helps participants create plans for the implementation of nonviolent advocacy within their communities. Throughout the year, he visits participants to see how well the plan is working, provide feedback, and report back to YETT.

“It is much more effective to train trainers who then return to their own tribe or community where they speak the language, know the people and are familiar with the culture, than for me to come in and try to do the same thing,” said Machiwana. (Zimbabwe has 16 official languages and two major ethnic groups). “We have empowered them with knowledge and skills to go back to their own communities and teach others.”

Pushing politicians to pay attention to youth issues

In a way, YETT is attempting to restructure the social gap left by broken families. But Machiwana also wants to help focus efforts on change at a higher level. He hopes that the youth will also use their new skills to hold policymakers accountable at both the local level and national level to enforce Zimbabwe’s two-year-old constitution.

When Machiwana isn’t conducting trainings, he tries to set up meetings between policy makers and youth representatives. “We want these members of policymakers in their various capacities to treat youth issues with the urgency and seriousness they deserve,” he said. “A lot of times when we elect someone to parliament, they think they are too senior to come back and actually hear what the young people want, but how can you represent us if you don’t know what is important to us?”

Machiwana said young people, whom his organization defines as ages 16-35, want jobs, education and access to services and resources such as clean drinking water. By empowering young people to speak out and hold policymakers accountable nonviolently, he hopes a new strong coalition will help to break the culture of violence and create true change.