Jill Murray was working as a youth leader in Lucan Youth Service, CYC when she participated in the exchange in 2006. She is currently working for the Big Brother, Big Sister programme in Foróige.
When I journeyed to Zambia almost five years ago, Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy was still booming. Like many other Irish 21 year olds at the time, I had a full-time well paid job, and was living independently of my parents. The future was bright.
In Lusaka, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet many other young people of a similar age, many of whom I was surprised to find were better qualified than me. However their futures were not so bright. Or at least not at first glance. Living in a country that had never experienced a ‘Celtic Tiger’ or any other sort of Tiger for that matter, with an unemployment rate us Irish could not even fathom, these lovely young people were without paid employment and had little hope of ever enjoying a career in the profession they were qualified in.
But instead of sitting around at home waiting for their lives to start, these Zambian youths were out embracing life. They all volunteered with a youth organisation or other charity part-time if not full-time. They did not seem to overly dwell on what they did not have, and were not embarrassed or ashamed by a situation they had no control over. Instead they gained satisfaction and a sense of self worth by helping others.
Of everything I witnessed and experienced during my time in Zambia, I was most struck by the motivation, enthusiasm and selflessness of these young volunteers. I tried to imagine the young people I worked with at home in Dublin volunteering their own time each day for nothing in return. I could not.
Now, following the rapid decline of Ireland’s economy and the consequential rise of unemployment levels, things have changed in Ireland. There is a so-called ‘lost generation’ of young people with no full time well paid job waiting for them. This is a situation we children of the 1980’s and 1990’s have never experienced before, nor ever expected to. Gone are the days of immediate gratification and thoughtless consumerism. However, the old habit of putting oneself first and an obsession with personal advancement dies hard.
While most of our situations are nowhere near as difficult as our Zambian counterparts (we rarely have the worries of hunger, lack of medicine or HIV/AIDS), we are so worried about a lack of material wealth or professional career that we cannot see beyond ourselves. We do not have to put our lives on hold, dependent on the economy for our inner happiness - it is still possible to gain satisfaction and meaning from the immaterial while waiting for this recession to pass.
Ireland has always had a great record of people giving their own time to help others whether in a formal or informal capacity and I would encourage this generation of Irish to continue with the tradition. Yes, it is certainly a terrible situation that we are in at present. However, I feel we should be inspired by my Zambian friends. Sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves is not going to help matters for either the individual or indeed the country. We do not need to be ashamed of our employment status. We have a significant pool of talents and skills to offer. There is a wealth of experience to be gained that will look fantastic on a curriculum vitae. If the Zambians can get out there and get involved in their communities then so can we. We will feel the better for it.
Irish youth workers Tara Madden, Joanne Keohane and Jill Murray with a Zambian friend and companion for the duration of the exchange Royd Mundongo at Victoria Falls