Rutgers hosts young African leaders as part of State Department initiative
Seeking support for their efforts to usher progress in their communities, a group of young African leaders journeyed far from home to the Banks of the Old Raritan.
In February, the State Department selected Rutgers as a host institution in the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The contingent of 50 fellows from various countries across sub-Saharan Africa arrived at the University in mid-June.
The visitors, who are all between ages 25 and 35, engaged in specialized coursework, community volunteering and networking during their six-week stay at Rutgers. Being established pioneers in academia, social justice, entrepreneurship and other fields in Africa, the fellows got a chance to fine-tune their areas of expertise.
“What touched me a lot in this experience is the notion of leadership,” said Diane Folakè Edea, one of the fellows. “I always thought leadership was about the person in front leading the others, but through this fellowship, I also understood that leadership is being able to listen to others and learn from others.”
Edea, a part-time English teacher in the West African country of Benin, said the opportunities offered by the fellowship — which part of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative — are indispensable for the continent’s future generations.
The exchange of ideas between nations is another testament to the fellowship’s success, Edea said.
“No nation can develop standing alone,” she said.
After returning home, Edea expects to lobby the French-speaking country's government for the integration of English classes into primary school curricula. She said the Civic Leadership Institute, one of the two multidisciplinary programs offered to the fellows at Rutgers, provided her with the knowledge to bring her plans to fruition.
The other institute, the Sustainable Business Institute, hosted half of the visiting leaders. One of those leaders, Tim Kipchumba, is a co-founder of a construction and engineering company in his native Kenya.
His firm, Questworks, employs more than 100 people, constructs student housing and is responsible for assembling the largest rooftop solar plant in sub-Saharan Africa, Kipchumba said.
Kipchumba sees Africa as the globe’s “last growth front” and said business investments between the continent and the United States yield mutual benefits.
“For Africa, it would be the opportunity to grow rapidly with the technology that the Americans are using, with the information and cutting-edge knowledge that say Rutgers University is already doing in areas such as sustainability.” he said. “Americans also get to export technology, export expertise.”
Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar’s area of interest is one of the most distinctive among the 50 fellows. The Ghanaian native conducts counter-terrorism research in West Africa as executive director of the West Africa Centre for Counter Extremism.
Africa’s vast economic inequality, sectarian disputes and cultural differences make the region a fertile ground for radicalization, especially among youths, he said.
In West Africa alone, extremist groups like Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have orchestrated multiple terrorist attacks in recent years. These include the abduction of 200 Nigerian school girls in 2014 and the attack on a hotel in Mali’s capital city last year.
“Terrorism is big problem in West Africa. Comparative to what happens here in the U.S., it doesn’t even come close,” Muqthar said. “We are talking about thousands of people who are losing their lives to terrorism on a regular basis.”
Rigbe Gebrehawariat Hagos, an Ethiopian native, praised the diversity of the Rutgers student body and the degree of accommodation she found on campus for individuals with disabilities.
“I have a disability and I use a power wheelchair. I love the access and I get to go everywhere I want,” she said.
During her stay, Hagos was able to partake in a professional development mentorship at the Office of Disability Services. She hopes to use the lessons learned to improve accessibility for people with disabilities at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia’s capital city.
To conclude their trip in America, the Rutgers fellows will gather in Washington, D.C., with the rest of the program’s participants to meet President Obama. The town hall meeting will take place on Aug. 4.
“This is going to be the greatest moment ever,” Edea said. “Everyday I’m getting ready. I don’t know how this is going to happen — all I know is that I’m going to meet this man.”