Longwe Mtongais is a child’s rights advocate, climate change activist, UNICEF Young Reporter, and currently the youngest Regional Advisor from Zambia for the African Union Child Participation Platform of Southern Africa, which advises the African Union Commission on the enhancement of child participation platforms and develops implementation plans for child participation programs. 

Longwe started his advocacy journey after participating in Grassroot Soccer’s SKILLZ program in 2019. Participating in SKILLZ helped Lungowe recognize the different challenges that adolescents face, which grew his passion for advocacy and motivated him to contribute to positive change in society. His drive is deeply rooted in ensuring that adolescents have access to information on matters that affect them and their local communities.

When Longwe first heard about Grassroot Soccer while in secondary school, he remembers a distinct feeling of excitement since soccer is such a massively popular sport in Zambia. 

“Not many details were said about the program, but the name Grassroot Soccer was motivating enough for me and all the other boys in school to join,” Longwe recalled. “Before the first session started, the Coaches assembled us at the ground and I could see soccer balls and cones, and my excitement almost got the best of me. The Coaches proceeded to lead us in what they termed as energizers, which were fun and interactive songs which I really enjoyed.”

Joining the program helped Longwe discover his passions and boosted his self confidence. Adolescence is a critical stage of self discovery for every individual, often presenting challenges with peer pressure and struggling to fit in. For Longwe, those challenges were compounded by moving schools. He had just started grade 8 at a new school and was initially struggling to adapt to a new environment with new teachers and peers when Grassroot Soccer came into his life. 

“The idea of starting at a new school did not sit well with me, and my low self confidence contributed to my fears,” Longwe said. “The SKILLZ program gave me the opportunity to engage with some peers from school who I never really interacted with in class. This helped me come out of my shell and make friends.” 

Beyond helping Longwe build community and form important social connections with his peers, the SKILLZ program opened his eyes to important yet sensitive health topics that he had never before learned about.

“Back then, terminologies such as sexual and reproductive health and rights, SRHR, sexually transmitted infections, and STIs were foreign to me. I had no idea what SRHR was all about,” he said. “However, the SKILLZ lessons opened my mind to these topics. I got to know important matters like how STIs are transmitted and how to best prevent them.”

Longwe’s experience before joining SKILLZ rings true for most adolescents, and due to lack of knowledge on health issues, many young people fear accessing health services. For example, testing for HIV is a critical service that young people too often bypass because of stigma and fear. For Longwe, the SKILLZ program and especially the support of his Coach, Kunda Mwitwa, paved the way for him to get tested for HIV for the first time.

“The SKILLZ program helped me know the importance of testing for HIV, and eventually I gathered the courage to test,” Longwe said. “I was able to conquer my fears of HIV testing because of Coach Kunda’s encouragement. She conducted a home visit and explained to my mother about the GRS program, including some of the services I could access, and my mother gave consent for me to get tested. Coach Kunda was very supportive and even escorted me to the health facility. It was at this point that I knew I had found a mentor and a supporter.” 

When Longwe completed the SKILLZ program, his mentee-mentor relationship with Kunda didn’t end. “My journey with SKILLZ came to an end, but not with my Coach,” he said.  “Coach Kunda has always been a friendly and cheerful Coach who created a safe space for me and the other participants. Being my first mentor, she always calls to check in on my progress and motivates me to continue with my work.”

Longwe Mtonga with his former SKILLZ Coach, Kunda Mwitwa.

Grassroot Soccer helped set Longwe on his course to be a youth advocate, and Kunda’s mentorship along with the lessons imparted through SKILLZ have guided him along the way. One of these avenues has been starting a podcast called “That Action Cause Reaction,” which aims to reach adolescents in Zambia with conversations on the most important issues affecting them, such as mental health and youth rights. Guests on the show are experts in relevant fields and have included the Global Head of Climate Change for Save the Children International and the Chairperson of the African Group of Negotiators. 

“After my journey with GRS ended, I graduated as a certified community game changer, and this marked my starting point to changing the narrative through advocacy,” Longwe said. “I used to see a lot of my fellow peers who were already established advocates with their own platforms, but I didn’t really have access to those opportunities and so I wanted to make my own. I almost gave up but remembered how I learned about resilience during the SKILLZ program and eventually got the courage to start my own podcast. The fact that I never really had a lot of equipment like a computer or microphone couldn’t stop me, and I’ve managed to grow the show from a few listeners to hosting influential guests.” 

When thinking of advice to give to other young people, Longwe goes back to his experience with Grassroot Soccer and in particular to testing for HIV. Mastering the courage to know their HIV status will help young people know how they can best protect themselves and others, including adopting a healthy positive lifestyle if they learn they are living with HIV. Equipped with this knowledge, Longwe highlights that self belief is the most wonderful gift young people can give themselves, and this is exactly what Grassroot Soccer imparted on him.