Fifteen year old Marie-Ange smiles as she explains how participating in the Award has made a difference to her life. She has decided that she wants to be a teacher when she finishes school, having worked in her local primary school for the Service section of her Award. She’s kept fit by learning Handball and has developed her sewing skills, which, she tells me, were always pretty good, but are now excellent; really excellent. Her adventurous journey was long and hard, she tells me. It rained. And half way through, she really wanted to give up. But she and her team knew they had to finish. They wanted to earn the little bronze badge that would show other people that they had successfully completed their “Mérite” – The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award.
It’s pretty much the same story all over the world. In the 144 countries and territories where the Award is run, young people tell stories of their activities. The Adventurous Journey is always hard. And I haven’t met anyone yet, myself included, who didn’t want to give up half way through. But the experience teaches everyone the importance of fortitude and persistence; of not giving up, and so provides important lessons for life.
But Marie-Ange is not the same as every young person I’ve met. She’s had to overcome some challenges that many young people will never have to face. She is growing up in Cote D’Ivoire, a beautiful country in West Africa, but one that in recent years has been racked by conflict and civil war. As a small girl, she saw things that no child should have to witness.
Marie-Ange’s school is now back up and running, but her older brother missed out on the entirety of his secondary school career. He’s only now trying to fit in studies alongside running a mobile phone charging kiosk at the end of the street. Her teachers were caught up in the conflict. Some left the country; others were combatants. The country is rebuilding its infrastructure as fast as it can, but there’s a severe lack of text books in her school. She can work in the school library, where a number of donated novels and course books are on the shelves, but she can’t take any books home. The school has a number of computers, but, as yet, no access the internet. Marie-Ange has a smartphone and uses that to access most of the information she needs. In any case, she tells me, the information she gets from the web is more reliable than the out of date information she reads in the books in the library.
The Award is providing a framework for non-formal education in Cote D’Ivoire that contributes significantly to community cohesion and the development of trust, aspiration and hope amongst the young population. It was adopted by the extraordinarily charismatic mayor of one local municipality in Abidjan, the capital of the country and has spread quickly, with her championing, and the appointment of an equally charismatic National Director, to become a national programme – and the third largest Award Operator in Africa.
Most young people in the world use a paper-based printed record book to list their achievements and chart their progress through their Award programme. The chaotic situation over the last few years has meant that Marie-Ange and her friends haven’t been able to get access to the printed materials. She shows me her record book. She has done what all her friends have done. She went down to her local store, bought a school exercise book and laboriously copied from a chalkboard the contents of the official record book into it, as directed by her teacher who is also her Award leader.
In my broken schoolboy French, I explain that we are creating a web based online record book that will be used by every participant in the world to record their Award adventure. If you can get access to the internet, then you’ll be able to take part on an equal footing with young people from all over the world. Marie-Ange grins at me and gets out her smart phone. “Well, I’m ready”, she exclaims. “When are you going to switch it on here?”