New Eyes and Renewed Hope: A Mandela Washington Fellowship Reflection

Cooper Chibomba participated in the 2016 YALI Mandela Washington Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nearly six months since arriving in Madison, Chibomba shares his personal and professional reflections from the six week institute. Chibomba has over nine years of experience in the fields of spatial planning, fundraising, and community engagement. Currently, Cooper is the president for Zambia Institute of Planners, a professional institute.

The year 2016 has been an exciting year because I made more friends in a single year than at any one point in my 34 years. What I found very interesting is that my newly found friendships were committed to overcoming a challenge in their community. The 25 Mandela Washington Fellows at UW-Madison taught me how to win – I don’t know if they even know that about themselves. My attitude after the U.S. experience is that it is possible to stay optimistic and you don’t have to apologize to anyone for that.

Photo courtesy of Cooper Chibomba.

Today makes it 119 days, to be precise 3 months 27 days since my U.S. Fellowship ended. Everyday has presented itself with opportunities and more opportunities, and I really don’t know what happened to the challenges. What I miss the most about my time at UW-Madison are the Tuesdays with the Leadership Institute – Jorge, Raymond, Emilie, Emily and Seema. Those sessions were simply transformative, not because you facilitated but because we simply came to dialogue.  The Fridays were always awesome at the Union Terrace.  Most of my evenings were spent at the Monona Terrace. I may forget everything about the U.S. and about Madison city but not the great people I met. Each one of you, Deane Anderson and Susan with your girls, thank you for hosting us. You are simply remarkable.

So, I am back in Zambia, Southern Africa and life goes on. My wife Ethel and the kids are so excited to have me back home. They say America made me more handsome!!! I want to share you a bit about the people that have influenced my work in the recent months since returning from the US. To Jason Valerius, Daniel Rolf, David and Bruce Wilson, thank you for the coffee in Colectivo at the State Capitol, the conversations we had have turned into projects. I am pleased to tell you that I found ways to change the world not just through my eyes but through the lens of children, women, and people that feel like the current design of our cities excluded the view from their eyes. What does it really mean to bring these eyes on board, the voices of people that are feeling left out in our cities? Is it even possible to design such a city? Yes, just listen, listen, and listen! Eileen Kelley, that exclusive tour of Middleton was life changing and your advice I treasure always. From you, I learned that places become great when we do only what we would want on the front page of the papers. I am reminded all the time on the importance of talking with everyone, even those we don’t agree with.

So, why am telling you about these people? It’s because I wouldn’t have experienced life in the U.S. all by myself. It’s not even possible to immense myself in every aspect of the American life, but they spent time talking with me. So, here is what I have been up to since I returned: Firstly, I had to get back my deep Zambia accent (Tonga) which I somehow lost because Meagan and Anita had difficulties getting my words clearly – Anita and Meagan, you are amazing! Secondly, I went on to develop two new city plans in the Copper Rich mining region of Zambia where I work that will be the most bicycle friendly cities in Zambia. I must confess here that the towns are a small Madison with an African way of life. Just last week on Nov. 23, 2016, I organized my first planning conference with over 240 professional planners drawn from every sector of the country. My meeting in Washington, DC with Jeff Stoule, Director of International Outreach at American Planning Association, was very helpful in providing direction on how this planning conference could look like.  Through the annual planning conference, I was able to share my experiences from the fellowship, especially my time at UW-Madison.

Photo courtesy of Cooper Chibomba.

Lastly, since returning from the U.S., I have been able to increase the visibility of my community project that is transforming poverty and injustice into opportunity and freedom for children living in difficult conditions such as HIV or have been sexually abused or are involved in hazardous labor. Global giving was able to profile my project which was shared on their website and a number of people in Madison shared this on their social media pages. Thanks Lori Di Prete, Meagan, Anita and all others that helped me with this cause. Even though I did not reach the target, I have become confident in the possibility of online fundraising and I know that Madison has amazing people. Daniel Bornstein, your friendship throughout the fellowship was incredible. I believe in a collective future, a future which will be better than our past, and that’s the faith I have in being an honorary alum of UW-Madison. My dreams are greater and scare me, that’s what the Mandela Washington Fellowship has taught me.