Researcher earns Fulbright grant to boost community engagement efforts in South Africa

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Having grown up poor with five siblings in a rural Zimbabwe village, Wilson Majee was the only member of his family to pursue college.

“Growing up in a family of severe deprivation, early struggles in my life built the motivation in me to seek educational opportunities and work hard to get out of poverty,” Majee said. “My family didn’t have the means to support my college education, but my ingenious brother and others assisted me to eventually attend university. Experiencing poverty and hating it as a teenager, poverty ignited and fanned my desire to work in resource-limited communities, particularly with youth. My heart bleeds for the millions of youth living in even worse conditions that I experienced the first 20 years of my life.”

Now an associate professor in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions, Majee has earned a federal grant from the United States Fulbright Program, which he will use to travel to South Africa for 10 months to conduct community engagement research aimed at boosting community development initiatives to assist disengaged, vulnerable youth in rural areas.

Majee also will teach community development and occupational therapy courses to students at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. Since 1986, the UM System has partnered with the University of the Western Cape, one of the main intellectual centers of the anti-apartheid movement, to advance mutual understanding between the faculty at both institutions and foster cooperative teaching, research and service projects.

Majee studies compounding factors that contribute to the growing number of global youth who are ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ – a status known as NEET. According the International Labour Organization, one-fifth, or 20%, of young people ages 15-24 globally have NEET status, and the number continues to rise. Between 1999 and 2019, the global youth population increased from 1 billion to 1.3 billion, yet the total number of young people engaged in the labor force decreased from 568 million to just 497 million.

“Throughout Africa, there has been a huge growth in the population of young people coming out of high school, but that has not corresponded with the same generation of employment opportunities for these young people. So, many end up on the streets, doing nothing productive with no jobs,” Majee said. “When you combine this with high levels of poverty that already exist in rural Africa, these underprivileged populations continue to fall behind, so there are compounding factors at play.”

Majee said his passion is empowering young people to become more productive, contributing members of their communities. In a 2019 study, Majee found that community engagement efforts in rural areas and the establishment of strong mentorship programs can help connect vulnerable youth with opportunities and resources to improve their livelihood and contribute to society.

“Identifying opportunities for rural youth to have their ideas heard and be included in community decision-making process and programs help not only at-risk youth, but also the community as a whole,” he said. “We need to create opportunities for youth to stay positively engaged because everyone has something to contribute to their community.”

Majee also identified compounding challenges that limit advancement opportunities for disengaged youth in rural areas, including a lack of higher education and employment opportunities, and poverty in a 2021 study.

“If a nation does not invest in its young people, the future of that nation will be dark,” Majee said. “We often say young people are our leaders of tomorrow, but if they lack educational opportunities and are unemployed, we are creating an environment that encourages criminal activity such as drug use, fraud and corruption, or other crimes. So, we need to better understand these issues so we can better support these struggling young people.”

Majee earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics from the University of Zimbabwe before coming to the United States in 2003 to earn a doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin. He worked in rural northwest Missouri for four years with MU Extension before joining the MU School of Health Professions as a faculty member.

“With my rural background, I was not shy while working for MU Extension in very resource-limited communities. Whether it is rural Missouri, rural Zimbabwe or rural South Africa, poverty is poverty, and I have seen the struggles many rural communities face firsthand,” he said. “I was the only Black person in the northwest Missouri town I worked in, and it was hard, but my upbringing gave me the support I needed to work in those environments.”

Now, Majee teaches a ‘health and community development’ course to MU undergraduate students and an ‘interdisciplinary perspectives in global health’ course to MU graduate students.

“With my personal experiences and research background, I try to provide students with not only the theoretical understanding of concepts, but also with real opportunities for them to go out into their local communities and volunteer with organizations that help people in need,” Majee said. “In any rural setting where young people want a more meaningful and impactful life, I want to provide resources, mentorship and education to help struggling youth contribute to their communities. We also need financial commitments from governments to increase access to higher education, jobs and health care so youth feel more included in their communities.”

In South Africa, Majee plans to collaborate with Lisa Wegner, a professor at the University of the Western Cape, as well as with youth in the Kouga Municipality in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. He will continue his community engagement and development initiatives, including engaging Kouga Wind Farms to develop a 5-year plan focusing on youth engagement programs.

“Our previous research involved listening to rural youth in South Africa about their desires for various job aspirations, which has helped us come up with additional ideas for interventions that could be very beneficial,” Majee said. “Whether it is developing agricultural training programs, building internet cafes or promoting brick-laying skills, we want to create opportunities and do what we can to support youth and help them escape poverty.”

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