Tomorrow, August 12, is the International Day of the Youth. It is themed “Safe spaces for Youth.” Accordingly, I return to my pet subject of being young and hopeful.
The Romantic Poet William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) famously knocks at the door of thought, whenever we explore the essence of youth. He arrives with rich reflections on the French Revolution (1789 – 92); that great turning point when French history refused to turn.
Yet, Wordsworth captures the essence of the hope that consumed those who dreamt of revolutionary change. The old order was falling apart. The new was setting in. Things were upbeat. The great poet says, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”
This overmastering spirit of the times is captured in 40 lines of an extract from the great poem titled “Prelude.”
The extract is aptly called, “The French Revolution as it Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement.” Both the title of the extract and its repeated exclamatory style suggest some distance between the poet and his substance. It is clear that Wordsworth did not ultimately share in the enthusiasm of the day. He only describes the experience of the believers. “To be alive was bliss. To be young was very heaven.” Wordsworth was 19 at the peak of the revolution. Together with his great friend, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kublai Khan” fame, he at first revelled in the revolutionary fervour of the time. Then he woke up to the rude reality.
Students of history know about the Reign of Terror that swiftly came in the wake of the revolution. The Ancient Regime was gone, the king and queen beheaded. The monarchy was fallen, the republic established. Yet, things degenerated very fast. Swift justice against the old order turned the republic into a sea of blood. In eleven months, there were over 17,000 beheadings.
Yet, at the start, “to be alive was bliss. And to be young was very heaven!” Regardless, bliss and heaven is the spirit of youth. If it is not, it should be. Romance is the essence of youth and the young should be afforded safe spaces to share in the spirit. For, to paraphrase the critic Alan Wood, the young soul yearns for untamed landscapes that breath of freedom.
To recast Wordsworth’s idiom, youth is a “pleasant exercise of hope and joy.” Those who do not realise this when they are young will do so when they are old, or if they get to be old. It is “a season when reason seems most to assert her rights.” The young, in their reasoned way, are in the bravest of spirits.
Where the existing order is in decay, they are impatient for its overthrow. But things often go awry, when the young are turned into cannon fodder. When we read in the daily press of scores of people injured and dozens dead in protests against bad orders, it is basically the youth.
Wordsworth himself arrived in France at 19 to wave the British flag in a revolutionary Jacobin protest in Paris. The establishment met the protest with brutal force.
Today, all over the world, young people are involved in street protests over cocktails of decadent and decaying social and political orders. The custodians of these orders make their countries dangerous spaces to live in. To be young in these spaces is very hell. For, the young will be called upon to march and to literally bite the bullets.
There are at least 20 major wars in the world, at the time of this writing. Africa is infamously represented by the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Libya, South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia. This is in a half of the wars. Africa is a dangerous place to be young. You are likely to kill or be killed, to maim or be maimed.
But even in relatively peaceful countries, few safe spaces exist for the young. Schools are becoming dangerous spaces for the youth. Alone in the world, Kenyan schools have become furnaces in which property is destroyed and life endangered.
There is an urgent need to listen to the children and address what is rattling them. Schools must once again become safe spaces for the young. Whether the drivers are in the schools or outside, the institutions must be restored to centres of hope and havens of great dreams.
Our roads are not safe spaces for the youth. We kill our children in these spaces every day. Even our homes have become dangerous. Every so often we read of murders in families, often cutting short young lives. Places of work, social places and private spaces must all be consciously made safe spaces for young people. Even government and political parties, too, must become safe spaces for our youth. They need to imbue youth with confident hope.
Our youth must dream, once again. They must have cause to hope and to believe in tomorrow. If they don’t have, the spaces they occupy today become dangerous for them and for everyone else, too. Life need not be one long dark and dreary night. To be alive can be blissful while being young could be very heaven if we each made just a little contribution. Our young people can be safe again through inclusive and non-patronizing, or domineering, dialogue with them.
- The writer is a strategic public communications adviser. [email protected]