Children's rights activist puts Africa on agenda
Can one person make a difference? Kimmie Weeks thinks so
By James Young, McGill Tribune
High-profile activist Kimmie Weeks gave an impassioned speech to a packed room in the Shatner building Wednesday. One of the most well-known children's rights activists in the world, Weeks spoke to those in attendance about the challenges currently facing Africa.
Weeks is currently touring high schools and universities across Canada, where he is challenging everyone "to become part of the process to end poverty in the world today."
Weeks, 24, already has significant experience in African development. He runs Youth Action International, a non-governmental organization dedicated to ending the use of child soldiers, and has worked with many other NGOs and UN agencies.
Weeks also discussed his personal history, from his childhood in war-ravaged Liberia to his escape to the United States. In 1989, Liberia slid from a stable and peaceful African country into a civil war. He recalled the hopes his countrymen expressed at the beginning of the war: "Do not worry; the international community will not let us die." But the world proved indifferent to Liberia's plight, Weeks said. At the age of 14, he decided to take action on his own.
"What was most shocking were children with weapons who killed people just for the colour of their shirt," he said.
Weeks began meeting with warring factions in Liberia to request that they stop using child soldiers. This initiative placed Weeks on an activist path that eventually helped set 20,000 child soldiers free, but it also forced him to flee to the US after Liberian warlords made attempts on his life.
In the US, Weeks has continued his mission of raising awareness about child soldiers and broadened his goal to helping children all over the world. He said he takes personal inspiration from Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
"I have a dream that the gap [between rich and poor] can be bridged," he said.
A focus on education is key to development in Africa, Weeks said. He also argued that there are genuine opportunities for economic growth on the continent, citing its huge untapped market and abundant natural resources.
One of the biggest obstacles to African development, Weeks said, is apathy and negative perceptions in the Western world. He stressed that these perceptions must change before Africa can experience significant improvement. His goal is to reach "a critical mass" of young people who desire real change.
Weeks did not shy away from condemning African leaders or Western society. When Americans spend $100-million dollars every year on beer while children die from preventable diseases, "our priorities are screwed," he said.
Following the lecture, Weeks took questions from students. Many wondered how to become involved in development projects. Weeks told them that "convincing young people is just as important as convincing governments," and promoted Education Without Borders, a new NGO that will soon have a chapter at McGill.
In the face of challenges, Weeks remained optimistic: "Despite all that I've seen, I have tremendous hope."
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