Wani Michael,30, the executive director of the Okay Africa Foundation (OAF), who also doubles as a South Sudanese civil society activist was recognized and awarded as one of the top 60 emerging young African leaders from 20 African countries for his role in advocating for youth inclusion and participation in governance.
He was awarded at an event organized by the Africa Focus Awards 2020 in Lagos-Nigeria last weekend.
Wani’s life has however not been rosy and he grew up grappling with the challenges of being a refugee, forced from the then Sudan to refugee life in Uganda at a tender age.
“I spent most of my life as a refugee. I went to school from primary school to university as a refugee till I graduated. I survived attacks by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. That was one of the major challenges in the refugee camp in Adjumani in Uganda.” Wani told Rado Tamazuj.
He says growing up as a refugee was very challenging because of the lack of opportunities, “We did not have access to certain important services like normal children would have. We had huge challenges and we grew up knowing that we were second-class citizens in some else’s country. We lived in the backyard of some people. Struggling through that situation taught me that things will one day change for the better.”
According to Wani, being a refugee boy and getting recognized among the 60 emerging leaders in Africa is an encouragement that being a refugee is not a permanent situation. He encouraged the refugees in neighbouring countries to remain resilient, work to achieve their dreams, and said their situation now will prepare them for the future.”
“I am very proud that as a refugee boy, I got recognized as one of the emerging leaders in Africa and I want to tell the refugees out there not to despair. One of them might one day become the president of South Sudan. You never know. We have had ministers who were once refugees,” Wani said. “Being a refugee is very tense, challenging, frustrating, and depressing but they should not lose hope. Even as a refugee I knew that I would be able to contribute positively to my country, and here I am contributing to my country, the region, and the continent at large.”
Even after completing his studies and returning home from refugee life in Uganda, tragedy continued dogging the intrepid activist. He lost his first child, a 3-year-old girl, who he says was his best friend in March earlier this year.
“In March I lost my first child, my daughter. She was my best friend, somebody so close and dear to me. When I lost her, I got depressed, and I thought I had no reason to live because she was a part of me. So I dedicate this award to her, and I wish she was alive to celebrate with me. I have not fully recovered from the tragedy but I have managed to get up and continue with my work,” Wani said.
He added, “My daughter died in a road accident in Juba. She was 3 years old. She would have made 4 in November. We celebrated her birthday with the orphans and will continue to do that every year.”
The youth activist says that the youth in South Sudan faces many challenges, key among them being the lack of genuine unity to collectively fight for their deserved rights.
“The challenges facing youth in South Sudan are many. People think that it is about competition and that is very challenging. Others think you are there because of popularity or publicity. It is a huge challenge,” Wani lamented. “We have been fighting to let them know that it is not about me as Wani Michael. It is about the youth of South Sudan.”
“The other thing is that the youth are not united. You are fighting for the youth but the youth are also fighting you. The resistance that we get is not from the elderly people but the youth themselves. We do not come together to confront youth issues. We always confront issues in a fragmented way. Even if you belong to different political parties, at the end of the day you are youth,” Wani admonished.
He said the youth have a collective responsibility in addressing youth issues. It is not only the responsibility of Okay Africa Foundation, “but we need to sensitize the youth to understand their fundamental role and rights in society. My message to the youth is that we should work together for a better future.”
The youth activist holds a bachelor’s degree in Development Studies from Uganda’s Gulu University and currently also sits on the National Constitution Amendment Committee (NCAC) as a youth representative.
Okay Africa Foundation was formed in 2016 and registered in 2017 by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC). OAF focuses on democracy and governance with an emphasis on youth empowerment programs, reproductive health, and gender-based violence.
OAF also spearheads and coordinates a cleanliness campaign dubbed ‘Nadafa le Beledna’ (Clean our country) which periodically brings the youth out to do communal cleaning of public spaces.