This guest post was written by YALI Fellow Aichatou Tamba, a Senegalese national who is working in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as the Technical Advisor to the African Union Border Program at GIZ (African Union Office).

This summer marked the first year of the Washington Fellowship (now renamed Mandela Washington Fellowship) which is a component of the Young African Leaders Initiative (“YALI”) launched by President Obama in order to strengthen and invest in the next generation of African leaders.  From an applicant pool of over 50,000 young Africans between the ages of 25 to 35, the State Department selected five hundred individuals to attend six weeks of leadership training and mentoring in one of three areas:  public management, civic leadership and business entrepreneurship.  As the Technical Advisor to the African Union (“AU”) Border Program at GIZ, I was selected by the US/AU office in Addis Ababa to attend the public management track at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

The Fellowship

One of approximately twenty American universities who participated in YALI, Syracuse University hosted twenty young leaders from seventeen African countries.  The courses covered a wide range of topics including policy-making, ethics, project management, team building, self-awareness and awareness of other team members’ personalities, communications skills, message framing, networking and evaluation.  In addition to the coursework, we had a number of opportunities for practical learning through ample interaction with officials from the city, county, and state government. This provided an important introduction to the different levels of government in the U.S. and how they relate to each other and the U.S. citizen.  The stay also allowed us to learn more about U.S. profit and non-profit organizations as well as discover different ways of volunteering and serving the community.  As Syracuse is a city of origin of Native Americans and home to a number of refugees from across the world, the city’s demographics added another sense of diversity management to our experience.

The Presidential Summit

The six week fellowship was followed by a three day Presidential Summit in Washington D.C. featuring President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, First Lady Michelle Obama, Director of USAID Rajeev Shah, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and others.  The impressive diversity of our group at Syracuse paled in comparison to the Presidential Summit which gathered over four hundred more young Africans from across about fifty African countries and very diverse professional backgrounds.  Representing the health, environment, agriculture, science and technology, media, and public sectors, these individuals included public servants, community-based organisation leaders, NGO and intergovernmental relations experts, young entrepreneurs, human rights activists, journalists, gender rights advocates and educators.  In addition to giving us the opportunity to interact with other young leaders, the Summit  introduced and opened doors for partnership with many U.S. public and private sector actors including USAID, Peace Corps, U.S. African Development Foundation, Microsoft, Google, and the Mastercard Foundation.  Furthermore, following the fellowship, one hundred fellows participated in eight week internships with these agencies and companies.

As the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was being held the next week, we also were given the opportunity to produce a communique addressed to our African Heads of States. The question was “What do you, young African leaders, want to tell to your current leaders?”  In our communique, we asked for accountability and transparency, civic education that will enhance the ability to ask for accountability and transparency, space and conducive environments for start-ups and business, better deals when it comes to the exploitation of our natural resources, and fair redistribution through health, education and other basic and advanced infrastructure.

Reflections on the Experience

The overall experience was very valuable in different ways. First of all, as one of the fellows rightly pointed out and was quoted by President Obama during his Town Hall remarks on the “Investing in the Next Generation” theme:  “[YALI made us] meet Africa, the [Africa] [we] have always believed in.  She’s beautiful.  She’s young.  She’s full of talent and motivation and ambition.”  That was a good description of my experience too. Indeed, meeting all those fellows with their interesting stories and projects made me believe even more in the real current Africa of opportunities driven by its very active and talented youth who are full of innovative ideas, passion, compassion, and optimism for the continent, despite all the challenges. Second, it was amazing to see, in practice, the power of policies and how commitment to something can yield more fruits than expected. Discovering the U.S. system and its care and investment in the future was another lesson that opened my eyes about how having a vision and the capacity to dream can get one to a place unhoped for. Last but not least, I became even more convinced of the true power and wonders of education.

After having had this rich experience, our task is to share and mentor our other fellow young Africans who did not have the chance to attend this fellowship.  Sharing and practicing our learning and experience is capital.  We now constitute an alumni network which can be used to exchange ideas, learn from each others’ experiences and build joint projects.  Seed funds are being put in place to support different projects, while partnership and mentoring from different institutions will also be made available. The fellowship will also be sustained through the creation of regional leadership centres, and, next year, the number of fellows will be doubled.

While I will certainly remember our  trip to Niagara Falls and the lessons about the pros and cons of the U.S. system of public management, what will stay with me the most are the words of our ethics professor who, quoting from the movie Spiderman, instructed us that, “With power comes responsibility;  with great power comes great responsibilities.”