Mandela Washington Fellows: Being A Young African Leader in Their Own Words

If given the chance, I want to change policy and speak for the voiceless. -Martin Nduati Wangari, Mandela Washington Fellow, Kenya

From failing, I've learned that persistence is key. -Sim Cele, Mandela Washington Fellow, South Africa

Martin and Sim are two of the 1,000 inspiring Mandela Washington Fellows from sub-Saharan Africa who attended the Presidential Summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in Washington, D.C a few weeks ago. I had the opportunity to interview several fellows during the three-day summit. With my camera in hand, I witnessed these fellows sharing ideas and building networks amongst themselves and also with U.S. government, private sector, and civil society leaders. These relationships are further strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, and enhancing peace and security across Africa. 

As I interviewed several Mandela Washington Fellows, I was moved by their passion and drive to shape the future of Africa. Each of them shared stories of their lives back home, their work, and even their favorite “American” dishes (the majority loved tacos in my unscientific poll). Their individual backgrounds, languages, and countries were vastly different, but I could see the bond they formed with each other throughout the six weeks that they spent developing skills at institutions of higher education across the United States. I was honored to share a few of their journeys on our Instagram, @ExchangeOurWorld. Here's just a glimpse into what I learned from these amazing leaders in their own words:

Titilayo Nadia Fafoumi, who traveled from Benin to participate in the Business and Entrepreneurship Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.


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Aug 1, 2016 at 1:37pm PDT

"My father was not that happy to see me in entrepreneurship at first. He changed his mind when he went with some of his friends to a restaurant, where they sold him the product I'm making. I'm a fruit juice manufacturer. So when they got there and they ordered fruit juices and all the fruit juices were mine. He recognized the brand, he was proud, and he told all his friends, ‘My daughter is making this.’ When he came home he told me he was proud of me.”

Georgina "Gina" Mumba, who traveled from Zambia to the Public Management Institute at Arizona State University.


A photo posted by Exchange Our World (@exchangeourworld) on    Aug 2, 2016 at 11:00am PDT

"I remember the first week when I got this wheelchair, I took a stroll around the my campus. Later in the evening I just sat and tried to reflect between my home experience and the American experience in just those few days and I just became so emotional, I cried. I was thinking, 'I went on the road today, I crossed the street on my own, this is something I don't do at home. I can't even imagine doing that back home.' There was nothing special about this place. I just rolled through with the traffic lights, people like you and I, we were just people. Why can't we make that happen for my own people? So for me, it felt like a lot of emotions coming through, looking at everything I've been through, all the pain I've carried all my life, in that moment it washed away. This is what I've always wanted—just this small sense of freedom. It's just a mundane thing, crossing the street, but it is the small things build up to big things." 



Martin Nduati Wangari, from Kenya, attended the University of Delaware’s Civic Leadership Institute.


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Aug 3, 2016 at 10:26am PDT

"I was initially brought up in a different town. My Mom, she was working for the government then, and she was the sole bread winner of our family. At some point the government was doing retrenchment, which was not based on merits, or how good you were at your job, they did random selection of people. But somehow maybe it was based off someone you knew. Unfortunately for her she didn't know anyone. Then we lost everything. Now she didn't have a job, she couldn't sustain us. We as kids gave up our privileges, we moved from towns to the rural areas. That has been an anger in me. Why has government that is supposed to give you security, why have they messed it up? If given the chance I want change policy and to speak for the voiceless.”

Zola Songo, from South Africa, also attended the University of Delaware’s Civic Leadership Institute.


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Aug 6, 2016 at 3:38pm PDT

“The rhetoric in Africa is, ‘Just make enough, just stay alive.' For me, the take-away from this fellowship is that I see Africa as a place that has so much. Everything is art; everything we see, everything we touch, everything we listen to is art. How do we not recognize this so we can use it to our advantage? We don’t need to have big cars to have happier lives—we need to focus on creating an Africa we want.”

Sim Cele, South Africa, attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Civic Leadership Institute.


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Aug 8, 2016 at 9:12am PDT

"For me, it was failing that inspired me. From failing, I've learned that persistence is key."

Meeting these fellows in person and hearing their stories demonstrates how platforms like President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative and other youth initiatives bring together leaders from all backgrounds, interests, and regions in ways that empower them to change their communities. Check out #YALI2016 on all social media platforms to hear more stories and follow the Mandela Washington fellows as they continue to change the face of Africa.

About the Author: Ginnie Seger is a Video Producer for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

For More Information:



Natnael F.
October 4, 2016
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders participants at the Presidential Town hall in Washington DC on August 3, 2016. [State Department Photo]
Posted by Ginnie Seger
September 7, 2016


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