For 18-year-old Zimbabwean Brian Sibanda, discovering that he had been accepted to Pomona College in California was nothing short of a dream come true. “I was very shocked and for a couple of days I thought I was dreaming.” A former participant in the Pan-African Youth Leadership Program (PAYLP) administered by Meridian International Center in partnership with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), Brian received a full scholarship to attend Pomona College this year where he is now just days away from completing his first semester. As someone who faced adversity at a young age, this feat represents a major milestone in Brian’s ongoing journey to empower himself and the lives of youth like him in countries across Africa.
Growing up in poverty in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Brian’s childhood was anything but stable. After the death of his mother when he was only three-years of age, Brian was taken under guardianship by his grandmother, Gogo. As the only gainfully employed member of the family at the time, Gogo struggled to support Brian on her modest wages. “She worked as a domestic worker and she couldn’t sustain us with the little she got from the job. In basic terms, I grew up in a very poor family.” But Brian did not despair. In fact, the adversity he faced only emboldened him to find a way to change his situation.
Hardworking and inherently bright, a life-changing opportunity emerged for Brian when he was enrolled as a young teenager in the two-year English Access Microscholarship Program (Access) sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by Hope for a Child in Christ (HOCIC). A Bulawayo-based NGO, HOCIC supports vulnerable youth and orphans by providing them a foundation in the English language. “HOCIC played a very crucial role in meeting some of my very basic needs from a very tender age and I owe so much to them.”
During his time in the English Access program, Brian saw an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of youth from disadvantaged backgrounds similar to his own. Impressing all, he became the youngest Junior Town Clerk to be elected on the Bulawayo Junior Council. In this role, Brian became a proponent of social change in his community, organizing the largest youth march against child marriages and ‘Vuzu parties.’ “Vuzu parties had become a big nuisance in my city as they were becoming hot spots for HIV transmission, drug and substance abuse, as well as other forms of illicit behavior. As a young person of influence and authority, I was called upon to act and help my fellow youths.”
Brian’s growing passion for social activism led him to Meridian in 2014 when he was nominated by the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe to participate in the pilot for the PAYLP program. This three-week cultural program recruits high school students and adult mentors from Sub-Saharan Africa to learn more about civic rights and responsibilities, entrepreneurship, respect for diversity, and the importance of community engagement. Brian describes the program as a “rollercoaster ride of memorable times,” the greatest of which being his interactions with different people from the U.S. and Africa. “I met very great people from the continent and beyond. The equally passionate rising African leaders I met in the program really showed me a glimpse of how bright Africa’s future is if we are willing to invest in young people.”
For Brian, the PAYLP program represents another major turning point in his life by not only helping him to further develop his leadership skills, but by also providing him a platform to continue to affect change. During the program, participants are asked to develop a proposal for a civic engagement project in their home countries. Brian’s compelling proposal to raise funds for boys housed at the Percy Ibbotson Juvenile Boys’ Home for Rehabilitation in Bulawayo earned him a $500 award through the program. “I had for a long time looked for a way in which I could make a long-term difference in the lives of marginalized youths of society. I chose to work with former delinquent youths because many times they are sidelined and not provided enough resources and support by government.” The proposal, known as the Bafethu Initiative Project, helps inmates create sustainable businesses by teaching them entrepreneurial skills. The profits they make through their business ventures are then used to help fill the gap in government support. Now in its second year, today the Bafethu Initiative Project supports 35 boys between the ages of 12 and 19.
Every step of Brian’s journey has been a significant one marked with determination and success. Now as a Freshmen at Pomona College, Brian continues to consider the possibilities. Although he has not yet declared a major of study, Brian says he is considering the fields of economics, politics and international relations. Pursuing law school after graduation is also on the table. Whichever academic discipline Brian decides to take on, he says that his efforts will always be linked to home. “I believe that as a bright young prospect from Africa, it is my fateful duty to spearhead development in the mother continent and change the lives of our people.”