For transforming communities—and their young citizens—through peace building and education
Fiango Kumba in Cameroon has a reputation for violence and crime. Growing up, Christian Leke Achaleke saw how such conflicts tore at the very fiber of the community—and set out to change things.
"I witnessed how poverty influenced crime. I saw terrifying events like street fighting, houses burning, a young person burned alive. These experiences shaped me," he says. "When I turned 17, I went to boarding school in a different city and I realized people could think differently. I told myself I have to work to keep young people from experiencing similar realities. I wanted to provide solutions."
In 2007, Achaleke started volunteering for Local Youth Corner Cameroon, a nonprofit that aims to empower young people to prevent violence and promote sustainable development.
It was a pivotal time for Achaleke. Despite struggling in classes and with exams, he excelled in activities like theater, debating and dance, which the teachers noticed—and valued. "For the first time, people accepted me for who I was, and that recognition of my talents led me to improve my academics," he says.
Based on his leadership and community work, Achaleke has become an award-winning project manager with experience across over 50 countries in the world. In 2016, he won a postgraduate scholarship to the University of Birmingham. And 15 years after first volunteering, Achaleke is still at Local Youth Corner but now as the executive director, overseeing a staff that he has grown from one paid employee to over 25, along with hundreds of volunteers. To date, with his organization, he has implemented more than 700 projects and provided over US$1 million in resources.
One of those projects was the One Person One Hand Sanitizer campaign. As the pandemic whipped around the world, Achaleke worked to prepare his community.
"I realized COVID-19 would be an especially big challenge in a country like mine, where access to healthcare and potable water is poor, the pharmaceutical industry isn’t advanced and personal protective equipment is very expensive," he explains. "I saw an online video of people making hand sanitizer, and I said to my colleagues, ‘We can do this.’ We’re peace builders—what do we know about labs? But we brought on five young medical professionals, we bought the supplies, we transformed our office into a rapid response laboratory and, with contributions from peers, we started producing hand sanitizer. In the first year, we produced 100,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and donated them free to communities."
Achaleke recruited former and current inmates to pitch in, helping them to develop vocational skills in exchange, with the goal of helping them become what he calls "prison-preneurs." This project was named the best youth-led COVID-19 response in Cameroon by the United Nations and Cameroonian government.
And that thread carries through his work with young people, helping them find opportunities in what can be a difficult environment.
"In some of our communities, the terrorist group Boko Haram recruits children as soldiers and suicide bombers. These young people have no resources. So we started a free school to replace guns and hate with education," he says. "At first, when we asked them what they want to become, they said they wanted to join the military for payback. Today, they want to become lawyers, doctors and teachers. We now have 150 children in this program. We don’t need all the money in the world to bring about real change. It takes passion, a good team and hard work."
In the future, Achaleke plans for part of the education to include training in project management—which he believes will empower rising leaders to solve some of the biggest challenges not just in Cameroon, but across the entire continent.
Achaleke’s own extensive work in conflict-affected areas of Cameroon and other parts of the world has led to partnerships with the United Nations, the World Bank and the African Commonwealth, and has earned him a long list of awards, including the title of UNESCO Real Life Hero in 2020.