In 1952 the colonial government declared a state of emergency in Kenya during which thousands of young men especially from Central Kenya were killed. Thousands others were rounded up and put into concentration camps, away from their homes. One of the young colonial soldiers detailed to guard the young detainees was Geoffrey William Griffin.
Having witnessed firsthand the suffering of the young detainees, and the disorientation of thousands of youth who were separated from their families or orphaned during this period, Griffin founded a youth club in 1959, to provide them with a compass of life. The wazungu sneered at the then 26-year-old Griffin, wondering what good he had found in young men who were better treated as enemies, but Griffin soldiered on.
This youth club is what is now known as the Starehe Boys’ Centre and School.
After independence, President Kenyatta came to terms with the hopelessness of an illiterate and above school age youth population that needed guidance and skills training. He had noticed, and was impressed by, the progress Griffin had made in giving hope to young people.
He summoned Griffin and asked him to start a youth service which he grudgingly accepted, considering he had another youth programme in his hands. In 1964 Griffin founded the National Youth Service and served as its director, and that of Starehe, for 24 years. Griffin served at the NYS from 8am to noon and at Starehe from 2pm to 8pm.
The legend retired from NYS in 1988 to focus on Starehe until his death in year 2005 when he was aged 72.
Both NYS and Starehe are probably the most successful youth empowerment programmes in Kenya today. And coincidentally they owe their history to one man, a man whom many Kenyans have forgotten but whose history is written in golden letters.
Fifty years on, President Uhuru Kenyatta finds himself in a situation that calls for another Griffin. The youth are still restless. They need education, skills and opportunity. Fortunately for the president he can build on the foundation laid by Griffin and others.
The National Youth Service has recorded tremendous progress since its founding in 1964. It has trained thousands of Kenyans. Some of the best trained technicians in Kenya passed through the NYS. They are well grounded in both theory and practice.
If you find Kenyans driving heavy machinery at construction sites, chances are they were trained at NYS. The service trains ordinary drivers intensively for six months, while the conventional driving school gives a two-week part-time and hurried course.
The service has very advanced equipment that ensures its trainees are up to date with technology. NYS is able to train its charges practically. The Hola-Garsen road is being constructed by NYS trainees and their teachers. The dykes in Budalangi were rebuilt by the NYS, and since they left site that part of the country has not experienced flooding.
The achievements of the service cannot all be enumerated here. And because it has performed well we can only expect more from it. We can only see what it ought to have done in addition but which it has not.
First the NYS should link its programmes to other youth-focused programmes such as the Youth Enterprise Development Fund.
If NYS could intensify apprenticeship programme, its graduates would then be linked with the Fund where they would obtain capital to run their own show, creating lots of job opportunities for themselves and for other youth graduating from youth polytechnics.