If all you knew of Africa was what you saw on television, you’d think it was a continent littered with unhappiness, full of desperate people in need of food and shelter and water. You’d be forgiven for thinking that in such a poor and insecure environment, the time and space to practice yoga would be a luxury.
But you’d be wrong.
The obstacles facing this continent are real — but so too are the opportunities. And yoga, as part of a burgeoning health and wellness industry encompassing self-care, clean eating and exercise as a way to combat the rising trends of obesity and heart disease, provides a great opportunity.
One of the very real challenges in Africa’s 54 countries has to do with how to effectively and meaningfully harness the power of young people. One in three of the continent’s one billion people is aged 10 to 24. And these young people need to learn, to achieve and to work: to become part of the economic engine that is driving investment in Africa, not just foreign aid.
Without work, they risk being idle — the perfect foils for those who wish to recruit for insurrection and terrorism, for petty crime and abuse. Without work they are consigned to the scrap heap of humanity rather than being seen as the vessels for growth, and change, and transformation.
So what we do at the Africa Yoga Project is bring these two ideas together: health and wellness, and employment. We work with young people from the most marginalized and vulnerable environments — urban slums — and mentor and teach them. And we’re not just teaching them yoga. We are teaching them how to be leaders in their community, showing them that through meaningful work and financial independence, they have the power to lead the change.
Our professional development model incorporates self-discovery to help unlock young people’s ability to transform themselves while also looking for ways to transform their environments. We offer two free or heavily subsidized programs, thanks to generous and enduring support from our network of mentors, donors and partners.
The first is a three-year certification program that includes East Africa’s only accredited yoga teacher training, international mentorship and job placement. Our second, newly launched program provides two years of business development, which helps our teacher graduates create yoga-inspired enterprises. Some of our graduates have launched home-grown clothing companies. Others are managing their own pop-up yoga studios. Still others are exploring how to manufacture and market Made in Africa yoga mats. The possibilities for tapping into the multibillion-dollar health and wellness industry are constrained only by imagination.
For each of the 200 young people who have graduated from our three-year program, these possibilities have been life-changing. I am talking about people like Jill (not her real name), who was forced into marriage with an older man at the tender age of 12. Raped repeatedly and beaten daily, she mustered the courage to leave him, only to find herself alone and on the streets. To survive, she turned to petty crime. Somehow, she made her way to one of the more than 300 free classes we teach weekly, and began practicing yoga regularly. This regular practice helped her to find her inner strength and inner voice and she joined our teacher training program. Now, 6 years later, Jill is one of our star teachers, who has private clients including executives at Nokia and senior officials at the United Nations. A proud mother of a beautiful two-year old, Jill supports her family of five with her teacher salary. And she is also giving back, teaching those same outreach classes that helped her find herself, in communities around Nairobi including to HIV-positive women currently serving time in a local women’s prison.
There are tens of thousands of young women like Jill all over this continent. All of them deserve the investment of time and energy and support through innovative programs like ours. Meaningful change drives passion and purpose, and helps people discover that life is about creating something bigger than they are. At Africa Yoga Project, we are committed to giving African youth the opportunity to find jobs that they love, that they are proud of, and that will help transform their communities (and maybe even the world!).