The group of young leaders from 16 African countries learn, network and give back during a six-week leadership institute at the university.
When the Mandela Washington Fellows arrived at Texas Tech University in mid-June, they knew there would be some adjustments. Lubbock is a long way from the homes of the 25 young African leaders, who hail from countries like Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, South Africa and Burundi.
Three weeks later, there's one thing they're still trying to adapt to.
"The weather has been very unpredictable,” Sidney Chahonyo, of Kenya, said amid laughs from the some of the other fellows. "It's 112 degrees in the morning and then raining in the afternoon.”
Thankfully, the predictably unpredictable West Texas weather hasn't slowed the fellows in their quests to learn as much as possible about Texas Tech, Lubbock and the United States. The group is part of the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) which was established by President Barack Obama and empowers young African leaders through academic coursework, leadership training and networking opportunities.
The fellows spent the first half of the six-week program participating in a Public Management Academic and Leadership Institute at Texas Tech sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. They visited businesses, media outlets, nonprofit organizations and governmental offices in the area and participated in daily lectures and discussion forums about leadership, conflict resolution and public policy. They also have given back to the Lubbock community through service projects at various sites like the South Plains Food Bank GRUB Farm and the Guadalupe Neighborhood Center.
"This is truly a magnificent program with major potential opportunities for participants from both sides,” said Ambassador Tibor Nagy, vice provost for international affairs in the Texas Tech Office of International Affairs. "These are Africa's future leaders and they are gaining tremendous insight into how America truly is and some of the factors that make America unique. We gain by their presence just as much as they gain from being here. Some of these fellows could become their countries' leaders, and contacts made today can lead to gains in students, research opportunities and influence.”
Thursday (July 6), the fellows had the chance to gain insight into policy between the U.S. and Africa during a panel discussion led by Nagy and retired senior diplomat Louis Mazel. Together, Nagy and Mazel have more than 60 years of experience serving in diplomatic positions in Africa and other areas around the world.
Chahonyo has extensive experience in public, private and social impact fields related to banking, finance, human resources, agribusiness and cancer-related activities. He also serves as the board chair for the nonprofit organization Hope for Cancer Kids. He said the fellows were fortunate to gain new perspectives from Nagy and Mazel on the issues the people in their countries continue to face.
"Just having the platform to be able to hear from them, gain from their knowledge, and at the same time, ask them questions about how to best attain our goals, how to best serve people back home or how to best implement our initiatives,” he said. "It was a very well-rounded discussion, and they were very honest and candid about everything, so that made it even better.”
The discussion covered a wide range of topics, including a history of U.S.-Africa relations and the importance of those connections. During a question-and-answer segment, several fellows demonstrated their high levels of knowledge regarding the scope of the challenges and opportunities facing their countries.
"The fellows posed excellent questions about some of the most difficult challenges facing the African continent, including terrorism, corruption, poor governance and lack of opportunity for many young, educated Africans who are yearning for the same prosperous, secure future that their counterparts in America seek,” Mazel said. "They also came away with the knowledge that there are many Americans from faith-based organizations and in government who share their desire to see Africa prosper and live in peace.”
Nagy said he hopes the fellows share that knowledge with others back home.
"I wanted them to know there are people in the U.S. who are knowledgeable and care deeply about Africa and Africa's future and understand there are several possible outcomes, some positive and some very worrisome,” Nagy said. "One point Mr. Mazel and I stressed is that Africa is one of those rare issues that has a constituency across the U.S. political spectrum that is not divisive. U.S. faith and business communities, democracy and human rights advocates and anti-terrorism experts all want Africa to succeed.”
Nagy said hosting the fellows at Texas Tech is a way to present a different side of America those in other countries may not realize exists.
"I want folks overseas to realize that America at its heart is much more than the East Coast or the West Coast,” Nagy said. "There is a great middle with hard-working, friendly folks who represent America's values each and every day, along with great educational institutions like Texas Tech that eagerly welcome students from all over the world. Texas Tech, Lubbock and the State of Texas all represent themselves in an exemplary manner – the more people come here, the stronger and more our positive our global reputation becomes.”
Chahonyo said fellows have been overwhelmed by the welcome they've received in Lubbock. Locals are eager to learn where the fellows are from, what they're doing in the U.S. and how to help. That sense of community is one the fellows said has been apparent in all their activities in Lubbock and at Texas Tech.
"Lubbock is one of the friendliest cities I've ever been to. People are very open,” Chahonyo said. "Everyone is supporting some kind of community initiative, everyone is helping people in the community who need some type of assistance. That sense of wanting to help is something I really admire about Lubbock.”
Those attitudes aren't noticeable only in the nonprofit sector of Lubbock, said Joel Ankunda, an attorney from Uganda. The sense of community also extends to the way students learn at Texas Tech.
"It's evident that they embed practicality and skills development in learning,” Ankunda said. "Back home, most learning is theory-based. You sit in a classroom, learn and graduate from university without any employable skills but theory. Texas Tech gives you the skills and practice on campus before you graduate, so they release you into the job market with the desired tangible skills ready to compete favorably, and this drives Texas Tech graduates to give back to their communities.”
He said he observed the same type of attitude in the way the criminal justice system treats offenders. In Uganda, Ankunda is the director of Know the Law Prison's Project, an initiative geared toward helping inmates who cannot afford lawyers get access to justice through legal representation. His goals include restoring hope, dignity and reformation to inmates.
He said the Lubbock criminal justice system uses a "human rights-based approach,” which exhibits professionalism during initial arrests, access to an attorney at the expense of the state to provide free legal representation and, after a verdict, provides resources like a law library in jails or prisons to allow offenders to learn the law and participate in rehabilitation programs while they are serving their sentences.
"I had a ride-along with the police and I also visited the Lubbock Detention Center,” Ankunda said. "There's a relationship they create with the offenders in that they aren't only on the prosecution, they also want to help them in their journey thorough justice. Justice doesn't stop at sentencing. They walk with you through the journey of jail and equip you with skills and information so that when you leave the jail, you are a resource to the community and the community can benefit from you.”
Another interesting aspect of the local criminal justice system was the way juvenile offenders are dealt with, Ankunda said. Many young offenders resolve their cases in teen court, where they face a court of their peers instead of a judge or jury of adults.
"It's a diversion away from the mainstream criminal justice system,” Ankunda said. "It's not that you are running away from criminality, but you're giving an opportunity to juvenile offenders to own up to the responsibility of their actions, take responsibility and then give back through community service.”
He said it's a good approach because young offenders are made to realize their actions were wrong, they admit it and receive help by walking the journey of reformation to help them become better persons.
"I really intend to work on some of these ideas that have been really eye-opening to me here in Lubbock,” Ankunda said. "I intend to majorly influence public policy towards the criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system and then the prisons or detentions center system.”
Planning to take the knowledge they're obtaining here back to their homes is a main goal among the fellows, but it comes in different forms, depending on their areas of expertise and interest.
Mercyline Lubia, of Kenya, is a state counsel in the Office of the Attorney General and is currently deployed to the Business Registration Service. She uses her experience in employment and labor relations, insurance and commercial law in her work for the service, which registers and regulates business in Kenya. She is passionate about eliminating corruption in her country and said this experience is making her even more active.
"I'm getting to actually see what corruption is doing to my country because I'm seeing projects here that are working,” Lubia said. "Looking at the cost of the projects, when I translate to the Kenyan currency, I get to see what I'm actually losing in terms of health care and infrastructure, and in terms of the standards of living, we could be better. I believe when I go back home, I need to take a more active role in really speaking out against acts of corruption, lack of integrity or poor leadership in my country.”
The program also has helped the fellows see the connections between those struggling, no matter where they are.
"Human beings have the same intrinsic problems,” Chahonyo said. "You see that everyone goes through the same thing, it doesn't matter if you're in Africa, America, Australia. It's just how you deal with the problems you have with the system and the resources you have that makes the difference. It's good to see different ways of people dealing with the same problems to shed light on what we might be missing ourselves back home.”
Chahonyo said this kind of learning and growing is exactly why he decided to apply to be a fellow. Every fellow wants to propagate change in their own community and influence the direction their country is going, he said.
"When I looked at the Mandela Washington Fellowship, I saw it is equipping young African leaders who are already doing things in their communities and reshaping their minds,” Chahonyo said. "It's making them think big, saying what are they doing in America, what are they doing right, what could they be doing better, and then, what can you take from that and implement back home? It's an eye-opener because it's almost a road map of where Africa could be, of where we could go.”