When she got an internship at Family Health International, one of Zambia’s top public health organizations, 20-year-old Towela Nyirenda took the time to reflect on the road she’d traveled over the last five years. “The most significant change in my life has been transforming from a shy and timid girl to someone who is confident and assertive, with clear goals for the future.”
Towela’s hometown of Kanyama has a reputation for being an overcrowded, unsafe place where opportunities are hard to come by. She joined the Children’s Radio Foundation as a youth reporter at the age of 15. “I wanted to change the narrative about myself and my community.” While her years of radio training gave her confidence and helped hone her research,interviewing, and critical thinking skills, equally as important, she learned how to bring people together to analyze problems and find solutions that work.
Among the pressing issues in her community, Towela wanted the broadcasts to address the high rates of teenage pregnancy across Zambia. She realized that young girls didn’t have access to basic health information and weren’t aware of services available to them at local clinics. Towela and her fellow youth reporters took to the airwaves to create a space where youth could ask questions about sex — questions they might be embarrassed to ask their parents, teachers, or peers. Across Zambia, their shows reached two million listeners. They featured health workers as guests to share information about HIV, teenage pregnancy, and other health concerns, allowing the community to tackle these issues in a way that made sense in the context of their community. Young women asked questions about accessing contraception. Teenage mothers spoke on air about their journeys. Youth living with HIV shared strategies for disclosing their status to family and friends. Towela took pride in her ability to “provide answers to the youth and parents on how to take care of their health.”
She says her mom tells her friends to listen to her radio show. Towela is aware of the potential awkwardness when a parent hears their child speak about sex on the radio, but it also starts a new conversation. She understands that these inter-generational dialogues are powerful ways to ensure that young people will be better informed and supported in the future.
What’s next for Towela? She plans to carry on with her work in public health, while pursuing a degree in development studies at the University of Lusaka. She says the work stimulates her while also making her feel that she is indeed working to change the narrative of her community. After that, she says she’s set her goals high. “I am working towards becoming the next UN secretary general. There has not been a woman in the post before. I want to change that narrative too!”
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Photos: Maingaila Muvundika