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From Africa to FIU, young leaders find some inspiration

After six weeks at Florida International University, Danbala Garba leaves with much more than good memories. The Nigerian human rights advocate plans to return and redouble his efforts on behalf of those seeking justice.

“I intend to work harder and fight through the court, now more than ever,” said Garba, 32. “I’ve been triggered by what I’ve learned here.”

Garba was among 25 young African leaders who spent six weeks at FIU as part of an Obama administration program to groom the next generation of leaders on the continent. The group left FIU on Saturday and plans to meet later in the day with Obama in Washington.

FIU was the only university selected in Florida to host the 25 young leaders between the ages of 25 and 35. They were selected from throughout sub-Saharan Africa for the Washington Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which was created in 2010.

The administration selected 500 Africans and assigned them to universities throughout the United States. FIU received 25 based on those interested in public management.

The program focused on young people for a reason: Nearly one in three Africans are between the ages of 10 and 24, and about 60 percent of the continent’s population is below the age of 35, according to a State Department report.

Kwezi Kondile, a South African fellow, says engaging the youth is a problem he knows all too well. At 26, Kondile is an economic development consultant for McKinsey & Company in South Africa, but in his spare time, he works with an advocacy group called InkuluFreeHeid, a youth-led NGO, to foster social cohesion and democracy.

Specifically, he oversees a project called the National Youth Engagement where he and other youths work with senior leaders on national development policy.

In South Africa’s post-apartheid reconstruction state, Kondile says “with the youth right now, there’s a lot of apathy,” which he works to reverse.

The average age of a South African leader is 63, compared to 19 for the population, Kondile said.

“We have a young continent,” he said. “But what are we doing with these youths? How are we creating opportunities so we can ensure the continuity of our development?”

Each fellow — their backgrounds range from public health to agriculture — work or aspire to serve in all levels of government, the private sector and for non-governmental organizations.

Harriet Yayra Adzofu works as a psychiatric nurse with the Accra Psychiatric Hospital in Ghana and has hosted health talks to spread awareness of the stigma attached to those with mental disorders.

“When I tell people I work with those with mental disorders, they look at me with a third eye,” said Adzofu, 28. “People say you have to be crazy to work with crazy people.”

With the skills and networks she has built through the fellowship, Adzofu says YALI is a major resource for her future plans.

“I plan to start an NGO when I get back,” she said. “I already have some people on board.”

Many of the fellows say they applied for the program, still little-known in the U.S. and Africa, to improve their skills.

At a farewell reception on Thursday, the fellows heaped praise on Susan Webster, the director of training and international research initiatives at FIU, who quarterbacked efforts to bring them to the university.

In her 12 years with the university, Webster has been part of the Training and International Research Initiative, which helps minorities to excel in various fields.

“FIU is near and dear to my heart,” said Webster, a 1987 graduate of FIU. “This program says a lot about who we are as a university.”

Many fellows said the university’s “Worlds Ahead” slogan also speaks to why they were attracted to YALI.

Kondile says he takes pride in having grown up in Eastern Cape — just 40 miles from where Nelson Mandela was born — and in growing up in a family with deep political ties that taught him the importance of being socially active. His family even participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up as part of the transition from apartheid to enable victims and perpetrators to come to terms with the country’s past.

Kondile attended Obama’s town hall in Johannesburg in 2013, where he talked about the initiative. Intense security prevented him from shaking the president’s hand, but he left eager to get involved because he wanted to give back to his country and the next generation.

“I consider myself an African first and a South African second,” he said. “If Africa doesn’t benefit, South Africa doesn’t benefit.”

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