In 1990, I was eight years old when people gathered in my parents’ home, erupting in joy as they watched a seemingly frail man with a raised fist shouting “Amandla”! “Amandla” means “power to the people,” and the phrase was often used in resistance to the South African Apartheid. These words excited the guests and yet to me this meant nothing. It’s been 25 years since I first heard these words… today I am a Mandela Washington Fellow. The life of a man that meant nothing to me has now become the focus of my leadership goal and role model.
“It can be said that there are four basic and primary things that the mass of people in a society wish for: to live in a safe environment, to be able to work and provide for themselves, to have access to good public health and to have sound educational opportunities for their children.” – Nelson Mandela
After a long haul to the US, we finally arrived at UW-Madison to a memorable welcome. Special thanks Meagan, Tess, Kyra, Anita, Daniel, Aleia and everyone that sacrificed their time to make us feel at home. That night I called my wife to tell her how organized and welcoming Americans were. She asked me what I thought of the U.S. My reply: “It’s so beautiful; the roads and architecture are amazing and you should see this.”
The next day my first impressions were tested as I tried to take my first selfie. Well, it wasn’t as easy as you think. For the record, it had nothing to do with the selfie stick (okay, maybe a bit). But the real problem was choosing the background for my first selfie… first impressions matter, right? I wanted to fit in everything – from buildings, trees and Burger King to my finger pointing at the U.S. Flag flying at half-mast. The selfie informed me about impressions and interests while in the U.S.
Madison is among the best-planned cities in the world. I know this because my selfie speaks a lot about the planning. I am an Urban Planner who is passionate about environment and climate change issues and how we model societies around these. My first unguided walk along State Street to the State Capitol on the second day was the most daring thing I had done since high school. Thanks to GPS devices! What struck me the most was just how perfect the street layout is designed and how inclusive it is. After years of practice, every planner wants to achieve such legacy: a functional city. Quickly my mind drifted back home with ideas of what I would do differently after the Fellowship.
The words “Amandla” to professional planners means taking decisive actions to create safe and inclusive spaces where people can live, work, play and learn from each other. We must give power to the people by planning for the things that matter most to them. We must honor the people we serve by being inclusive.
As we come to the end of the 4th out of the 6 weeks of our stay in University of Wisconsin – Madison for the Public Management track of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I reflected on whether we are achieving our objectives of this program at this institution and the good news is that we are learning.
The lesson that first came to my mind following recent activities is that of equal opportunity and inclusiveness. Recently, I observed that when two or more fellows raise their hands to indicate their interest to ask a question or make a comment and they lecturer points in their direction, there is always a selfless exchange of offer of opportunity for the other to take the lead. This to me is putting the understanding of equal opportunity to practice. Personally, I am not left out as I have tamed my curiosity, to comment and get answers to bothering questions, during this unique and rare opportunity with great teachers of UW-Madison and other personalities that I get to meet during this fellowship.
Another landmark event that speaks to the fact that we are learning is our ability to organize ourselves and conduct a free and fair election that had the best, a Fellow who is visually impaired, emerge as our representative for the ignite talk during the forthcoming presidential summit for Mandela Washington Fellows in Washington, D.C. Clearly, we are learning to be more responsible and inclusive.
One of the major challenge in many African countries is the problem of leadership the Mandela Washington Fellowship, a flagship program of President Barack Obama, seeks to solve this by empowering young leaders with the right values they require in current and future leadership roles. With the above positive observed positive value change and many more that now plays out among fellows here at UW-Madison, I am certain that the expectations of the originators of this program are being met. However, this will have a greater impact on Africa if all fellow Fellows take these positive values back to their home countries and put it into practice in their public management roles so that together, we will build an Africa with more responsible and inclusive leaders that ensures equal opportunity.
L’Afrique noire est mal partie: Africa is off to a bad start. This is the title of René Dumond’s premonitory book written in 1962. In his book, the author criticizes strenuously the agricultural policies adopted by the new African states within a context of decolonization and the euphoria of independence. Though the book deals with agricultural policies, the same title could be applied to economic, cultural and military policies that have failed to yield the expected results.
Several complex factors can explain our failures. The most striking of these is the fact that decolonization occurred only on paper, while the mindsets remain colonized. In the wake of independence, dependency treaties were signed with the former colonizers. Though Western political models were blindly duplicated, re-establishing and improving our own indigenous institutions would have been best fit our conception of society. Moreover, external and competing powers have been shaping our policies with the complicity of incompetent leaders largely driven by their own interests and that of their entourage.
Therefore, over the last 50 years and notwithstanding strengths such as our youth, raw materials, fertile soils, wildlife, beaches, sun and water etc.; most African countries have been marked by wars, famines, epidemics and massive external debt. To save them, they have been bombarded by aid of all kinds, provided by international rescuers who are not always inspired by humanitarian aims. Up until today, one of the wealthiest continents in the world in terms of natural resources remains unable to respond to the most basic needs (food, education and health) of its people, and even less able to guarantee territorial security.
During this particular time when the threat of terrorism is destabilizing our continent, Africa tends to outsource the strategic task of its defense to “rescuers” who are seeking a respectable justification to secure wells and mines, or an endangered ‘protégé’. But who is to blame for our fate? We have been inexorably pointing out the responsibility of foreign powers. In their defense, they are legitimately preserving their own interests and the material well-being of their people. In contrast, our leaders are mostly concerned about diverting our assets in tax havens, ‘their heaven,’ breaking opposition and holding on to power.
Following long periods of growing Afro-pessimism, here are just a few of the headlines of respectable international journals in recent years: Africa rising; A hopeful continent; Emerging Africa; and Africa – the great opportunity.
But for whom is Africa rising, emerging and providing opportunities? What is the continent hopeful for?
Global demand of Africa’s resources is increasing, and the major powers hope to secure their needs in terms of raw materials and fertile soils. Multinationals operating in strategic sectors have risen, and foreign investors are hoping for a higher and rapid return on investments. The GDP of a few African countries is also rising, along with the bank deposits of a few African kleptocratic elites. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Africans declare they cannot “eat economic growth.” While more and more Chinese and European migrants are seeking opportunities in our continent, the cost of living and the unemployment levels are relentlessly rising. Furthermore, hope among youth for a better life is decreasing.
The scramble for the big cake of Africa is being repeated with some of our leaders taking the role of insane traders of our future. In order to break this vicious circle, solutions to Africa’s problems must receive answers arising directly from the Africans themselves. To realize this, a critical mass of skilled and educated Africans dedicated to thinking for our future are needed. My hopes lie on our new generation of young African leaders who feel a sense of duty to stop the looting of Africa, and enhance their people’s lives. Here are some areas where I believe that reforms could significantly change lives of generations of Africans: Agriculture, Education, Institutions and Defense.
With respect to agriculture, better management of fertile lands and policies supporting local farmers and promoting jobs in agriculture could help to deal with our food security. To emerge many Africans from poverty, our education system must teach our children how to feed our people, how to enhance the value of our raw resources; how to understand ICT systems, and how to develop the manufacturing sector. With regards to institutions, a deep reform that will facilitate fair distribution of power and accountability among several stakeholders of our societies would help increase transparency, notably in the management of Public Finances. Furthermore, to address our global, regional, trans-regional and trans-national security challenges, a skilled, well-equipped and united African Army is needed desperately.
In a system trapped in corruption and impunity, the task of turning around the fate of our people, even to a modest level, might appear daunting for young leaders. Nevertheless, as a colleague put it: “He who wishes to bring positive change in a failed system ought to sup with the devil using a long spoon, while retaining the conscience of an angel.”
In recent years, Africa has faced serious health issues such as HIV, malaria and cholera. With reference to HIV/AIDS pandemic, for example, Africa is paying a heavy price. According to the World Health Organization, more than 25 million people were affected in 2015. My country is not spared. Cholera for claimed more than one thousand cases during the period between January and June 2012 in Congo-Brazzaville. Recently, the whole world recoiled in horror at one of the worst epidemic of ebola, which caused the death of more than 10,000 in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
These issues are basically due to the lack of resources, which is the main problem in my home country. They are a threat to health, and an obstacle to sustainable development.
In Africa, the practice of medicine has always been focused on the treatment of illness. It’s time now to change that tendency, and adopt a holistic approach to health in order to find solutions suitable to our sociological, cultural and economic context.
This idea is a holistic or multidisciplinary approach of health, based on prevention. Most of the time, prevention is cheaper than treatment. In limited resource countries like us, we should build on and develop preventive strategies.
For instance, In Congo-Brazzaville, we have lots of stereotypes and misconceptions about diseases. The holistic approach to health I advocate for is aimed at stimulating changes in behavior with regard to public health.
In so doing, we want to create a large network of preventive care, including professionals in areas closely linked to health such as anthropology, urban planning, nutrition, surgery, psychology and community leadership.
This idea came from my experience in community health as a volunteer. I have observed significant changes in my three years as a health volunteer in Senegal. For example, we organized a public campaign to raise awareness about prostate cancer. This has reduced the number of metastasis prostate cancer cases and increased life expectancy for patients in Senegal. In 2010, I participated in a public awareness campaign in a small gold mining community, which had the highest prevalence of HIV in this region. Most of people I interviewed have never received information about HIV, ways of transmission or prevention. I It was only after our awareness campaign that they were able to protect themselves. In 2012, a high level of social mobilization after a public campaign in Burkina Faso has prevented the occurrence of this epidemic. Those examples confirm that we can obtain significant success if the community is involved in the process of change.
So, with the knowledge and connections I will gain during the Mandela Washington Fellowship, my goal is to build a large network of professionals in different fields of knowledge to tackle the challenge of community health in my country. My main focus will be public epidemiological surveillance and preventive consultation in collaboration with local authorities. In this way, I think we can improve the health and the well-being of people in my country and the world.
“Am I unique? Well, I believe I have lots to offer even a song. Back in Lesotho, I would get to the hospital clinic early to find a queue of patients waiting to receive their Anti-Retroviral Medication and they never looked happy. I thought, why not sing? I began with two patients. We would sing a hymn and pray and this then became infectious… I call it ‘infectious happiness.’
“Sometimes we would sing ‘ke khale rele emetse.’ Translated from sesotho, it means it has been long we have been waiting for medical services (health care service, drugs, medicine) to heal us, and other times even as we queued on line we would hum. I ask myself why I picked midwifery and where I developed my passion for fighting for rights of those with HIV/AIDS. To answer the first question, I guess I wanted to fill a gap in the health care system. Looking back, it was the best decision I could make.
“I would like to meet the virologist here at Madison to ask if we could get an anti-retroviral implants to avoid patients defaulting on their medication, the resistance and the compliance. Someone out there should explore this. You may not believe me but HIV/AIDS will soon be a thing of the past.”
Looking at Masello, I cannot help but smile…. here is one determined young female leader.
When I was informed that I would be “Coming to America”, I was first excited to meet all my African fellows in one place and learn from them. I was also thrilled about being in The United States of America and seeing real American people in their natural environment, between McDonald’s and Coca Cola.
So I met them, and I realized that “Thiébou dieune” * is the first word that springs to people’s minds when it comes to my country Senegal. I also learned that the Congolese culture goes beyond Papa Wemba and Sakasaka; discovered that Mauritius is located in Africa, and that Kenya is not only populated by lions and Maasai. I even met an Ethiopian who was not a marathoner; a Somali who was not starving to death and a Liberian free of Ebola.
However, I was less prepared to meet diverse samples of Americans: African American, Asian American, Latino American and even Native American called “people of colour”. They did not have the bright Colgate smile of Donald Trump, his Hollywood tanned skin, and his shiny blond hair. They taught me that America (or should I say the Americas) was not a country and cannot be reduced to the United States of America.
I met brown Americans just like me, some even darker, others lighter. I heard them speak perfect English, some with this recognizable melodious accent of our far away countries, others not. I told them how much I was impressed by their country, a rainbow nation, that could inspire Africa in resolving its ethnic conflicts. I felt their sorrow of not seeing their colour blend homogeneously with that of the American flag.
On my way to Chicago, I met a young African American, Kadil who could not locate Africa on a map, nor America his own country. “I am not that much educated” he told me, and I realized that USA and Africa shared the same problem of educating their young people.
Nurtured by the myth of the American dream displayed on TV, I have seen in Madison that for some people, the American dream comes true directly in the streets, on the sidewalks, or in beautiful parks with hasty bystanders as spectators.
I have met “low income families” and I saw them depicted in their natural environment by some of my fellows. It reminded me of what I have seen in my country with western tourists who also wanted to capture poverty’s soul… and the saying “do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you” took all its meaning.
Sometimes, I feel scared by the idea that in THE country of freedom, young people celebrating life could get shot by an another fellow citizen celebrating his right to carry a gun. United States of America, the same country that has been nurturing the dreams of a better life of generations of young people, all over the world.
*Thiébou dieune is the national dish of Senegal. It is made from fish, rice and tomato sauce. Other ingredients often include onions, carrots, cabbage, cassava and peanut oil. The name of the dish comes from Wolof words meaning “rice” (ceeb) and “fish” (jën).
**Tassou: in Senegal is a kind of speech with some rhythms, reminding one of rap music.
I arrived in the University of Wisconsin, Madison on the 17th June, 2016 in the evening. The warm welcome by the university officials and my fellow participants from the other countries across Africa gave me hope by all standard that, YALI is real.
I was very excited and was busily taken photos to send to family members and friends. Shortly, we were ask to go to the dining hall for dinner.
Even though I was happy, the food changed my mood of happiness to sad of missing home when the food entered my mouth and my tongue witnessed the change. The food I have eaten so far are different from the food I eat back at home. Honestly some of the fruits I eat at the first two days did not taste nice to me at all! However, I started enjoying them from the third day. I then remembered what was said: “Food in the United States will be very different from the food you are accustomed to at home. You may find it challenging to adjust to the food in the U.S., just as an American visitor to your country might find it challenging. Open-mindedness and flexibility will make the adjustment easier.” I am tasting all the food and fruits in order to make selections.
As a person with visual impairment, a mobility instructor was arranged for me the next day at 09:00 Madison local time. I arrived at the venue at 08:59 and at exactly 09:00 the instructor arrived. That is my first lesson. “Americans consider punctuality very important and consider lateness disrespectful.”
One of my expectations is to learn how to do some basic things on my own using some public devices. As part of my mobility training, I have learnt how to use the elevator on my own. I have also learn how to buy some items using the Vending machine.
Truly with my short experience so far, “YALI is real.”
This gives me hope that I shall get the right connections and partners to learn from. Looking at how the game is nice and excited at the beginning, I have no doubt that it will end well.
Following a sumptuous Saturday dinner hosted by the amiable UW-Madison staff team at the Great Dane Pub and a cozy night rest in a city where I am yet to witness power outage like in my home country, I woke up excited to have seen another new day in the city of Madison, Wisconsin. I said my prayer of appreciation to God and then picked up my phone to read mails and social media updates. There were lots of messages about Father’s Day and this got me thinking as I had already celebrated Catholic Father’s Day back in Nigeria this year. It then dawned on me again, that I am now in the United States of America.
As it is my tradition to use good wishes on such memorable day to keep in touch with my network, I began to compose text messages on my phone for those in the United States who have, at one time or the other, played fatherly roles in my life. I decided to get more insight on the meaning of father. The Oxford dictionary defines father not only as a male parent of a child or a person who is acting as the father to a child, but also as the first man to introduce a new way of thinking about something or of doing something. I had a quick flashback on the activities of the past few days since we arrived the United States and how we have been pampered like children. I said to myself, ‘an amazing father must be responsible’. I also thought about my new way of thinking about inclusiveness and taking care of those with disabilities. I also said to myself, ‘an amazing father must be responsible’. Unmistakably, this father is President Barack Obama. The man who initiated the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and the Mandela Washington Fellowship that made all these possible. He is the amazing father of 1000 young Africans, now in the United States of America, being pampered like children but more importantly, acquiring new leadership knowledge, improved way of thinking and better ways of doing things.
Although I do not have Obama’s phone number to wish him a Happy Father’s Day, I will drop this message below and hope it gets to him.
Thank you Daddy Barack Obama for this fully-funded opportunity to acquire new leadership knowledge and for the fatherly role you have played in our life that now makes us think better and do more for humanity. I pray that God will continue to bless, guide and guard you.
Happy Father’s Day, Barack Obama.
Our team of fearless staff and dedicated campus partners laced-up for a half year of curriculum building, event planning and logistics figuring for this day.
But how, exactly, did we get here? Six weeks of intense leadership training, academic discussions, local site visits and facilitated networking does not plan itself.
We could not have done it without the support of campus partners. Staff and faculty from the Global Health Institute, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, School of Education, Law School, La Follette School of Public Affairs, Learning Communities for Institutional Change and Excellence and the Provost’s Office have been nothing short of supportive.
Community partners, you’re next. There are dozens of local organizations and businesses who have agreed to provide tours, Q&A sessions, service activities and a variety of other engagement opportunities for the fellows. We are proud to share your work with these young leaders and looking at their bios, are excited for all that you may learn from them.
Lastly, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the diligent, detail-oriented and generally phenomenal program management of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and IREX, the implementing partner. The deadlines and expectations were challenging, but in-part produced the full and rewarding program we have today.
Today is the day, and this is the behind-the-scenes-blog-post look at the people and places that have made organizing the Mandela Washington Fellowship at UW-Madison possible.
We look forward to sharing behind-the-scenes-blog-post updates from our Fellows as they experience the life and learning and cheese of Wisconsin.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. government and is supported in its implementation by IREX. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a sub-grantee of IREX and is supporting the U.S.-based academic program of the Fellowship.