When she got an internship at Family Health International, one of Zambia’s top public health organizations, 20-year-old Towela Nyirenda took the time to reflect on the road she’d traveled over the last five years. “The most significant change in my life has been transforming from a shy and timid girl to someone who is confident and assertive, with clear goals for the future.”
Towela’s hometown of Kanyama has a reputation for being an overcrowded, unsafe place with few opportunities beyond high school. She joined the Children’s Radio Foundation as a youth reporter at the age of 15. “I wanted to change the narrative about myself and my community.” While her years of radio training gave her confidence and helped hone her research, interviewing, and critical thinking skills, just as importantly, she learned how to bring people together to analyze problems and find solutions that work.
Among the pressing issues in her community, Towela wanted the broadcasts to address the high rates of teenage pregnancy across Zambia. She realized that young girls did not have ready access to basic health information and weren’t aware of services available to them at local clinics. Towela and her fellow youth reporters took to the airwaves to create a space where youth could ask questions about sex — questions they might be too embarrassed to ask their parents, teachers, or peers. Across Zambia, their shows reached two million listeners. They featured health workers as guests to share information about HIV, teenage pregnancy, and other health concerns. Young women asked questions about accessing contraception. Teenage mothers spoke on air about their journeys. Youth living with HIV shared strategies for disclosing their status to family and friends. Towela took pride in her ability to “provide answers to the youth and parents on how to take care of their health.”
What’s next for Towela? She plans to carry on with her work in public health, while pursuing a degree in development studies at the University of Lusaka. After that, she says she’s set her goals high. “I am working towards becoming the next UN Secretary-General. There has not been a woman in the post before. I want to change that narrative too!”