The opportunity of traveling to Europe seemed elusive to Joseph Thukia, the child of a single-parent family in Kenya. That he’d be traveling to Greece seemed even more unlikely. Everything was new: the meat and seafood (back home his diet is mainly centered around ugali maize flour porridge), new friends and ample opportunities to go out, and writing and presenting academic papers for a completely new audience. He remembers his experience at the University of Piraeus with enthusiasm.
“They helped me understand people a lot better and become more adaptable. Every mistake made me stronger and more appreciative of others,” he says.
A master’s student in tourism and hospitality at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Thukia came to Greece with the Erasmus+ program and thanks to the efforts of the Greek group WE AfriHug to provide education and skill-building opportunities to young African academics and scholars.
“I enjoyed every part of my studies at Piraeus University. I acquired skills that were not limited to writing and presenting papers, but which also included participating in an international conference. I owe it to the people of WE AfriHug. They are a good example of the Kikuyu saying ‘Mwana mwega ndagaga muthabia,’ which basically means that someone who works hard will always be appreciated. They believe that training opens the door to a career. After all, who will carry out all these ideas for young people, if not young people ourselves?” says Thukia.
The idea for the program dates back to July 2016, when Konstantinos Maragkos and his sister Marilena traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, starting in Uganda. “We were curious about the work being done there by Greek Orthodox priest Father Antonios Mutyaba and were eager to explore a part of the world that seems so distant and foreign to most people [in Greece],” says Konstantinos.
Three years later, friends and university students Yiannis Ladeas and Alexandra Stellaki traveled to Tamale in northern Ghana in order to conduct research into volunteer tourism and education, respectively.
This is when the paths of the four young Greeks crossed. At around this time, they also met Julien Makalu, a refugee who fled the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and came to Greece in 2011.
Konstantinos hopes to have visited every country in Africa by 2035 and dreams of creating training opportunities for young people that will help them help their countries and narrow the skills gap with Europe. For Marilena, whose experience put her on a new career path, Africa spells happiness. Yiannis thinks it is crucial for African institutions and organizations to team up with similar European agencies, while Alexandra believes that Africa is capable of great innovation, following her experience at Ghanaian schools. And Julien, for his part, believes that new technologies will help young men and women to change the world.
The four friends joined forces last year to create Youthmakers Hub, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting equal professional and educational opportunities.
What do they do? They inform and encourage agencies and young people to participate in mobility programs like Erasmus+ by organizing special seminars at universities, NGOs and citizens’ groups. Youthmakers Hub also helps African universities organize training and education programs with European institutions, while showing the participants how to take part in such programs, how to spot a good opportunity and how to communicate their proposals.
In just two years, the team has trained 3,000 university students and academics at 13 universities in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Togo, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Algeria, has spoken on the subject of training and orientation opportunities to 210 NGO and 73 civil society members, as well as hundreds of high school students, and has also brokered dozens of partnerships between African and European universities and NGOs.
The Maragkos siblings started WE AfriHug as a volunteer initiative on a trial basis in January 2018. It went on to win the Golden Laissez-Passer prize for innovation later that same year from the organization garagErasmus, while it has also received funding from the European Commission for 2019 and 2020.
Four groups, including academics and students from Kenya and Uganda, have already been to Greece as part of the traveling abroad program in cooperation with the University of Piraeus. Another 15 groups from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana are set to take part in the program through end-2020, in cooperation with the universities of Piraeus and Western Attica.
“The sharing of know-how and the forging of collaborations between our universities and their European counterparts has been a treasure. Opportunities to travel have been presented to 450 students and professors, so we are now in the position to send and receive professors and students through Erasmus+. The impact is huge,” says Esther Kagure Munyiri, head of the Department of Tourism Studies at Kenyatta University. She came to the University of Piraeus last January and was able to create a strong network of contacts in Greece.
Between last December and the end of this 2020, “our university, in cooperation with Youthmakers Hub, will send a total of six people for research, studies and practical training to the universities of Piraeus and Western Attica,” she says.
“The WE AfriHug team has addressed one of our biggest problems, which is the lack of information and opportunities for our young people. Uganda has the second-biggest ratio of young people in the world and it keeps growing. Nothing is more important than their empowerment and this is possible through the opportunities of Erasmus+. There is a huge need and a demand for such opportunities,” says James Bulenzibuto, head of the Department of International Relations at Kyambogo University in Uganda, who visited Greece in November 2018 and is expected back soon.
“Students were given new tools, they matured and they encouraged their younger peers to the do the same. New skills herald a better future,” he adds.
Edwin Kamalha, a professor of ginning engineering at Busitema University in Uganda, would like to see more African universities participating in European mobility programs.
“They bolster our efforts to cultivate a civic-minded mentality in young people by helping them realize their dreams. The program has succeeded in reducing the gap in our academic presence and gave us motivation for the future,” says Kamalha, who is also the university’s coordinator for Erasmus+ programs.
“If young men and women do not travel, how are they suppose to evolve and debunk their stereotypes? A start has already been made by connecting Busitema to two Greek universities, so that students, professors and staff from both countries can work together. This will go on to improve our educational programs,” he adds.