Serving the youth

Mekele Youth Center (MYC) provides English language and computer courses as well as education on HIV/AIDS to the youth of Mekele, capital of the Tigray Regional State. Equipped with a library and sports facilities, the center aims at helping students develop their personality, including sports and leadership skills. In addition to that, the center offers services to the communities in the surrounding areas. Over four hundred young people visit the center on a daily basis to make use of the facilities. Dawit Tolesa of The Reporter sat down with the project director, Jon Nykamp, an American, to talk about the project and its general activities. Excerpts:

Reporter: How did you start working at the Mekelle Youth Center?

Jon Nykamp: Well, we came here about fourteen years ago. Our organization was interested in doing some work—particularly youth development—in the northern part of Ethiopia and so we came to Mekelle and held discussions with officials. Many youth centers were built but were not properly run. So our organization submitted a project proposal, which was accepted. Then we started working at one of the youth centers of Mekele in kebele 17. We developed the sports facilities and programs to serve the community.

What kind of facilities do you have and how many people use this center daily?

We have thousands of direct beneficiaries at any one point in time. In a day we can easily have three or four hundred children and youths coming to us. We could have over a thousand even up to two thousand users in one day. We use every space in our compound and we have indoor and outdoor activities. There is basketball, volleyball, ground tennis and football as part of our outdoor activities while table tennis, badminton and other board games are what the youth can do indoors. Additionally, we have a garden which can be used for socializing. In addition to that, we have English classes, a music room where musicians come to learn and practice, computer classes, taekwondo classes, circus training, a library, and drama classes.

What value have you added while you are running the center?

Before we came here the youth did not really have a place to go to socialize and spend their time in a good way. Now they have a place where they can come to play sports and spend their time in a good way. They come here to study, play table tennis and meet with friends. They don’t need to spend their time in bars; they actually prefer this. They want to play sports. Our beneficiaries have now grown up go to universities and have decent jobs. This was their second home. When they come back from the universities or college—after visiting their families—they come to the youth center and visit our staff. Our primary users are kids from junior high and high school. But, there are also younger kids and college age young people.

What are the challenges and how is your relationship with the government?

We have a very good relationship with our government partners. They are very helpful and supportive. We do have many volunteers from outside of Ethiopia. All of the foreigners here are volunteers. That is an interesting part of our projects, i.e. having foreigners here. And they also benefit from this. They learn about different cultures and share experiences. Ethiopians are really learning and benefiting a lot in developing their language skills, especially English. At some point, having more foreigners had started to become somewhat difficult.  That had been a challenge. So, we had to cut some of our programs.

Have you been taking part in competitions?

We took part in a national table tennis competition and a dart competition. We love to share experiences. One of our goals is to develop sports in Ethiopia. We want to develop good athletes and we are doing that by providing a space where the kids can play basketball, volleyball or table tennis. They develop their skills a lot. And our volunteers and staff are here to help train them in different sports. At local, regional and federal competitions, people are seeing that our young people are becoming good athletes. We want to encourage others to develop sports like us.

Why do you think the youth choose your center?

One of the reasons is mainly that we are not doing this for profit. If that was the case, only a few people would use our facilities. That is because most of them cannot afford to pay for this. Young people don't have money. So we provide them with everything and they don’t have to pay anything. To serve them properly, we need to have organized programs and have a committed staff ready to attend to the needs of the youth. We should also provide a good and safe environment. When there is a problem, we need to show them how it can be solved. Building a good relationship with them, caring for them, listening to them and helping them should be our priority. So, this is what makes the youth center successful.

What sort of support have you received from outside so far?

We provide all the materials and equipment. For other youth centers like this, the government, the community or other interested organizations would have provided the materials. We are a foreign NGO and we brought the funding for these things. I think we have shown that there is a need and there is demand in this area. A lot can be done.