Thursday April 23, 2015
Though the day woke with a gray film spread across the sky, Princess Ogechi Ukaga cast aside the gloom with an open smile when she welcomed me into her South Burlington home on a recent April morning. Born into a Royal Nigerian family, the Princess, whose first name is Princess, is an awe-inspiring young woman, whose experience with loss has driven her to be a survivor and seeker. With resolute determination, she has devoted her life to achieving peace.
With a BS in political science and an MSc in international relations, Princess Ogechi Ukaga has clearly utilized her education in socially impactful ways. She has served as Vice President of an AIDS prevention association and as a representative at the 2003 Tunza (“treat with care”) United Nations Environment Program in Russia. She has worked for a civil liberties organization and is one of the founding members of the African Youth Parliament, a network of young activists who work to advocate for solutions to Africa’s developmental challenges. Princess is an Ambassador of the Globalization of Common Good Initiative, which she describes as “the UK’s leading progressive think tank in the field of globalization, democracy, social justice, governance and sustainability.” She is one of the Architects of the Future with Waldzell Institution, a global network of young entrepreneurs who are committed to social and spiritual awareness within their communities. The International Shift Network has rated Princess a leader in building peace and effecting social change.
As a teenager, Princess traveled to Ghana, where she participated in leadership training under the mentorship of Nina Meyerhof, the founder and president of the nonprofit, Children of the Earth (COE). According to their website, since 1990, COE has “inspire[d] and unite[d] young people, through personal and social transformation, to create a peaceful and sustainable world.” In a phone conversation, Ms. Meyerhof said the organization has a presence in 70 countries and involves approximately 15,000 youth. Princess currently serves as the Nigerian coordinator for COE. She has traveled across oceans and continents to advance the message of unity. In 2005, she joined several other youth leaders from around the world in Switzerland, where she presented an individualized peace project.
Princess moved to Vermont seven months ago, and is now closer to Ms. Meyerhof, who also lives in South Burlington and continues to act as a mentor for Princess during her tenure at Burlington College, where she is enrolled in an individualized study program. Integral to those studies is One Peaceful Africa (OPA), a project she recently started through COE. The vision of OPA is to bring together youth who desire to promote peaceful change in Africa. But it’s Princess’s lyrical description of OPA that lures us to the heart of her project, “Peace is like green grass that is life. OPA is that green grass trying to grow among and alongside of every African to be able to make a better Africa.”
When I asked Princess how OPA works to effect such change, she said, “empowerment.” She quickly clarified that empowerment does not mean putting guns into the hands of youth; she explained it comes by “helping someone to do something practical.” In collaboration with others and with funds raised by COE, Princess has participated in several projects to help African women succeed, including the establishment of Peace Central in Nigeria. The center is a safe nucleus for young women to create art. Princess described how they make crafts, such as wooden bowls or jewelry that they can sell at local markets. Others spend their time at beauty salons, learning the art of hairdressing. These newly learned skills provide African women with the opportunity to start their own businesses, thanks to the small business loans the center is able to make available. In other words, these skills empower rural women who, as Princess said, are otherwise “treated as second class citizens.”
Princess continued to explain her personal understanding of empowerment by saying it comes through “everything”: health, education, beauty, and respect. She added, “It means listening to others in a unique way, then they’ll listen to you.” She reached a hand toward me in a gesture of openness, her dark brown eyes shimmering like a gemstone in the sunlight.
I asked Princess what kinds of barriers make it difficult to further her mission of peace through empowerment and expected financial burdens to be first on the list. But her foremost concerns are the social barriers, which she clarifies as, “People [not] listening to youth or understanding their paths.” In harmony with her compassionate character, she referred to the boys involved in Boko Haram, the Islamist terrorist group that prohibits participating in political or social aspects of the Western world adding, “They are human beings, not ghosts. We need to bring out what they need to say. If they know we see the light in them, they will see the light.”
She shared her all-consuming dream, “To hear people say the future is now, rather than hearing that the future is tomorrow.” In connection with COE, Princess is working unwaveringly toward fulfilling that dream: she plans to open a peace center in Ghana, to bring clean water to Nigeria, and to build traditional toilets in Togo. She will travel to Ghana this August to attend a COE youth leadership-training event, which will focus on OPA, and, in September, she will be taking 50 Vermont youths to the United Nations in New York to celebrate International Peace Day. Princess is currently holding a global giving campaign to raise funds for education and empowerment training for young girls in Nigeria.
Just before I left her home, Princess unclasped the sunflower-shaped earrings dangling from her earlobes and handed them to me, saying, “They’re for you.” She had made them out of rice and beads from Nigeria. Carefully, I held the earrings – compassion and unity planted in my palm.
Later that day I recalled what Princess said during our meeting, “It takes little drops of water to make a difference. Those drops can fill an entire tank.”
To learn more about Princess Ogechi Ukaga and her efforts to raise awareness and funds to help young women in Africa, visit onepeacefulafrica.wordpress.com and Children of the Earth at www.coeworld.org.
SOURCE:Melissa Cronin, Contributor