JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
IT IS a torch that has been passed from one First Lady to the next since 2010, and for the past three years Esther Lungu has been the inspiration for young and ambitious boys and girls enrolled in the Junior Achievers programme.
The Junior Achievers programme is a mentorship programme that gets some A-grade students from poor backgrounds in mainly rural areas and exposes them to the corporate world.
For some boys and girls, the visit to Lusaka provides a rare opportunity to sample city life and interact with people they could only have met in their dreams such as bank executives and even the Zambian President.
Over 76,000 young people across the country have now participated in the programme since its inception in 2002, with life-changing results.
The programme has turned some young people’s dreams into reality.
Like Nsatusile Mgode, who dreamed of becoming a lawyer when she was in Grade 10 seven years ago.
During her interaction with the Stanbic Bank board members, Nsatusile had wrote her dream on a piece of paper: “I want to become a lawyer.”
She went on to study law, fulfilling her dream.
But without doubt, one of the highlights for the 60 young people enrolled in the programme each year is a visit to State House, where they are hosted by the First Lady.
Some Presidents have joined their wives in these informal interactions with the boys and girls.
Mrs Lungu cherishes the interactions she has had with the young people and speaks highly of the programme, describing it as a noble work which must continue.
“Having dealt with the Junior Achievers from the time I got into office has been a very humbling experience because these are children drawn from the 10 provinces of Zambia, meaning that these children have come from different backgrounds with different cultural values and from the low income bracket, and them being exposed to State House and interact with the First Lady and the President and other prominent people from institutions like Stanbic Bank has made such a huge impact on them,” she says.
Stanbic Bank, which has become a traditional sponsor of the programme, contributes K200,000 yearly towards the mentorship programmes.
Mrs Lungu sees herself as not only a mentor for the young people, but as a mother-figure as well.
“As a mother, I’m to show them the way to go about life and I can give myself as an example to them. I have to be humble and focussed in life. I have to be educated in order for me to even get married to an educated man. You may think that if you don’t get educated, you will get married to an educated man,” she says.
Mrs Lungu is a firm believer in education, and like her husband, she speaks very strongly against early marriage for girls.
“This programme teaches them not to rush into marriage and sex because they know what will come out of that,” she says.
Mrs Lungu is also familiar with the hardships the children go through, having come from a humble background herself.
“I tend to put myself in their shoes – what if these were my own children, what would I want out of them. As we interact, it is my desire that they can develop into responsible citizens through education, which is their right. I’m sure they would stand on their own, help their families and help Zambia to develop as a country,” she says.
“I see great potential in them because although they come from humble backgrounds, they have the zeal and enthusiasm to excel to higher heights in life. These are people who will become influential locally and internationally,” she adds.
Mrs Lungu believes that when the children go back to their communities, they can easily become role models among their peers.
The Junior Achievers programme also has the support of President Lungu (her husband).
“The President equally gets excited,” when asked how involved President Lungu is in the event at State House.
“Having come from humble backgrounds, we feel excited both of us to host these children because it is in us to see that these children are happy and feel loved,” she says.
After their visit to State House, some children have written the First Lady letters to say thank you for the opportunity, while others have written to ask for help with their school needs.
Mrs Lungu is happy that the programme now includes children with disabilities.
“This is something that excites me because it means that no-one will be left behind, in line with our vision as a country,” she says.
She believes the disabled children are just like anybody else.
There are a number of success stories Mrs Lungu has come across in the Junior Achievers programme, but one in particular stands out, and she beams as she shares it.
It is the story of Michael Matomola, who came from a rural school in Senanga district, Western Province.
When Michael visited State House a few years ago, he was so impressed with the police officers he saw there that he decided he was going to become a cop himself.
Today, Michael has realised his dream. He is a police officer working at State House. And he is also studying at APEX Medical University.
“It is something I’m proud of and which I want to see in every child,” Mrs Lungu says.
She wants the programme to include more children.
“We want this programme to be expanded because currently, it is only limited to 60 pupils every year, yet there are a lot more children out there who would want to have this opportunity,” she says.
Her desire is to see more sponsors joining in the programme.
“It is my plea to the stakeholders and to the corporate world to come on board so that they can supplement what Stanbic Bank are already doing, what my office, FAWEZA [Forum for African Women Educationalists of Zambia] and Junior Achievers are doing,” she says.
“We need to expose a lot more children to this programme so that they can become independent when they grow, but we need to put our efforts together.”
As for Stanbic Bank, it is the inspiring stories that come out of the Junior Achievers programme that is a motivating factor for their sponsorship.
Stanbic Bank chief executive officer Charles Mudiwa, believes that Zambia’s economic prosperity depends on the ability of today’s young people to understand and compete in a global economy.
He says Stanbic Bank will continue investing in the programme in order to keep the dreams of young people alive for a better tomorrow.