As the young people walked past hundreds of onlookers and took their seats you could sense skepticism in the air. The small group of high school students from Chifubu township had summoned their local MP to give account of himself and his colleagues. The subject was affordable education for orphans and vulnerable children. The local community had been invited to the debate and 550 of them had turned up to witness it.

The teenagers are part of Junior Parliament, an initiative set up by Jubilee Centre in Zambia, partners of Tearfund. The idea is a simple one; to engage young people with the issues that are affecting them now and at the same time grow the leaders of the future.

Seeds of hope

Churches all over Chifubu have been mobilised to help in this project. The young people are trained and mentored. As a saying in the local Bemba language goes; ‘Imiti ikula empanga’, or ‘Today’s seedlings are tomorrow’s forest’.

And in a township where over half of the population are under 15, there are plenty of issues for the young people to speak up about: limited educational opportunities, poverty, HIV, and a lack of livelihood choices to name a few. Worst affected are the many thousands of orphans and vulnerable children.

‘When wrong things are happening in the nation the people that suffer are the young people,’ says member Ray Zola. ‘We believe we can make a big change in our communities and in the nation.’

This Junior Parliament currently numbers 70 trained young people and is still growing. For this session 30 are present. They may not have any official political office but they are already building a reputation for ‘making things happen’. An earlier campaign to remove a vast expanse of uncollected rubbish from a local district in Chifubu – causing potentially fatal disease – led to the speedy instigation of a clearance project by the local government.

Gone were the looks of doubt and scepticism. The young people were met with shouts of praise, high fives and grateful hugs from the audience.

Ready for a reckoning

Like the diligent students they are, the Junior Parliamentarians had done their homework for this latest debate. They had spent several weeks researching what the Zambian Government is currently doing to provide affordable education for orphans and vulnerable children. And they had carefully catalogued the shortcomings of these initiatives.

As the debate got started, the hours of research and preparation became apparent. The young people spoke passionately about the lack of wheelchair accessibility, the exclusion of special needs children from schools and much more besides.

They were impeccably well-mannered, but took no prisoners in debate, pouncing on the MP when he attempted to evade one line of questioning. ‘If I didn’t know any better, I would think they are colleagues!’ he was heard to remark.

And at the end the Junior Parliament team were walking past a very different crowd on their way out of the debate. Gone were the looks of doubt and scepticism. The young people were met with shouts of praise, high fives and grateful hugs from the audience. They had earned the right to speak up on behalf of their community.