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Africa/America

Recently I have had the great privilege to work with some of the 1,000 Mandela Washington Fellows, a select group of young sub-Saharan African leaders ages 25-35 placed for six weeks at about 40 universities around the US. The young leaders are electrifying.

The opening ceremony, some weeks ago, featured some of the world’s best drummers—Ghanaian—and the usual welcomes from university officials. Then came the opening address by one of the cohort at Portland State University, a young man—not even 30 yet—from Sierra Leone, Ansumana Bangura. He was a 12-year-old boy when the rebels came for his father during the horrific war of the 1990s. His father was at work so they hacked off the boy’s right arm.

Imagine being brutalized, living in wartime, driven from the country to live as an amputee refugee for four years, and repatriated only because the host country’s citizens were suddenly told that “all Sierra Leoneans are terrorists,” and all the refugees had to flee again.

Ansu, who works with slum children in Freetown (capital of Sierra Leone) is a brilliant public speaker, forceful, charismatic, with rhetorical power that connects instantly, stressing equal access and equal opportunity for every child. He is the very definition of resiliency, which is the hallmark of the best of Africa right now.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF) has forged many new deep connections at Portland State University and, I’ll wager, at all the other host universities around the US. Beyond that, I’ve observed the Fellows developing profound relationships with my fellow Portlanders and I’ll similarly bet that all host communities are also now benefitting from these new relationships with young African leaders from all sectors of all sub-Sarharan African countries. I watch as a young Nigerian pursues knowledge of best practices for floating homes, an innovation that both promises housing relief in his homeland but also a threat if poorly regulated (“That’s how it is now,” he told me). And a young environmental official from Ethiopia engages with public officials and public policy professors and practitioners to seek out the newest US methods of dialing up commuter efficiency while dialing down carbon footprint. She has both science and development degrees and is drawn to Portland’s model in several areas, just as other MW Fellows are learning from other communities across the US.

The MWF grew out of President Obama’s surprise visit to the late Nelson Mandela and began with 500 fellows in 2014, the same in 2015, and expanded to 1000 this year. We are confident that this initiative will weave vital, enduring mutually beneficial relationships, individually and organizationally, in direct links, Africa to America.

While this is a State Department-funded-and-conducted Obama initiative, there is an excellent chance that it will continue, depending on the 2016 election. In our enlightened self-interest, I hope Americans make the choice that will indeed result in this ongoing exchange that ties emerging African leaders from politics to architecture to agriculture to banking to education to energy development and much more to America. Our assumptions about Africa often flip when we meet young women and men who work on peace, human rights, gay and transgender rights, sustainable agriculture, alternative energy, and mix in traditional Africa wisdom and ancient sustainable technologies hybridized with the latest high tech advances.

Continuing the MWF will be good for Africans and good for Americans. Africa is an incredibly rich continent with Russia, China, and America all vying for the most favored status with many of the 54 countries on the continent—this initiative goes a long ways toward strengthening the healthy, positive, peaceful connections that will advantage more Americans and more Africans. Anything else would be a pity.

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Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and founding director of PeaceVoice

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