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

Originally posted on State Department blog, Dipnote.

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.

President Obama addresses the Mandela Washington Fellows at the YALI presidential summit.


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.

[Caption] “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.

[Caption] “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.

[Caption] “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.

What I Have Learned from the International Women of Courage

I’ve written on behalf of the U.S. Department of State about my work as a video producer for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The link to the full article is below:


For the past two years, I’ve traveled with these women and have seen firsthand how their relationships with each other grow and develop. Although they come from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds, courage is their touchstone, their standard, and a tie that bonds them together…

Read more


This year I have the intention to live exactly how I imagined. This resulted in travels to places I always wanted to go (or return too) and one of those places is Turkey, particularly Istanbul. It often felt like a magical mix of old and new; grace, chaos, and kebabs. I spent a week wandering the cobble stones streets and letting my eye be grabbed and drawn towards whatever glimmer I saw. One of the most captivating places I visited were the Princes Islands, in the Maramara Sea. I spent an afternoon wandering an island named Büyükada. There were so many animals popping out of corners of twisted tree and abandoned monasteries. One of my favorite moments was walking through this whimsical forrest in an abandoned fair ground, called Luna Park. Out of no where I saw this beautiful dog laying in a  field of purple flowers. He looked right at me, and slowly returned to the forrest.

Buyukada forrest friend

Luna Park dog

Photos Essay: Kenya 2015

Photos from my recent trip to Kenya, and my Peace Corp site, St. Luke’s School for the Deaf.

‘Justice for Syria’

As part of my capstone for the International Media program at American University, I created a documentary regarding the influx of self-reported human rights violations which occurred during the conflict in Syria. The film was also featured on website of the non-governmental organization IREX, which supports a project called the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center. The documentary focuses on Mohammad Al Abdallah, a Syrian human rights and democracy activist, who is working to document human rights abuses in Syria. Through the creation of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) and the support of IREX, Al Abdallah works to capture the events in Syria to eventually achieve justice for victims of human rights abuses.

Justice for Syria

Kuhonga: Kenya’s Mobile Corruption Reporting

*Cross posted from Sutradhar’s Market* 2/28/12
A little over a year ago, my weekly trip into the town of Embu, Kenya from my village would be unpredictable to say the least. Potential scenarios would include goats stuffed under my seat, precarious routes and speeds, and doors or mufflers falling off the vehicle while in route, but there was one constant: the daily bribe.

The whole process would involve a barricade placed on the scarcely paved road where the police would stop every vehicle and the whole bribery dance ensued: the conductor would hop out with a few shillings disguised in his hand, and discreetly pass it to the officer on patrol, then he would hop back in the (oftentimes moving) vehicle, and we would be on our way. At first I was shocked to see such open corruption and wondered how it became so institutionalized, but after the months turned into years, I understood all too well the loss of efficacy one feels in systems of corruption. But a tool to fight corruption and empower citizens to become whistleblowers might exist in the palm of their hands, through mobile phone technology.

Kuhonga, which literally translates to “bribery” in Swahili, is a platform for Kenyan citizens to report corruption from high-level political graft, to street-side brides. The platform encourages users to report corruption by posting on Twitter, or through the site directly. The hope is to draw constant attention to bribery in order to promote not only greater transparency, but to create a shift in governance and behavior in Kenya. But is the grip of corruption too tight to break?

According to Transparency International’s 2011 East African Bribery Index, Kenya’s corruption rate is 28%, yet only 7.1% of Kenyans reported corruption. Corruption also has serious economic consequences; the African Union estimates that corruption costs African economies 148 billion dollars each year. Those most affected by corruption are oftentimes the poor, due to the increased cost of public services, and overall lack of development in the country. With all of these reasons to oppose corruption, why have so few Kenyans reported it? The reason for this could be that corruption is such an intimate part of day-to-day life in Kenya; my experience with the Kenyan Police (aside from my initial shock) eventually became so normalized that I accepted it, and I only lived there for two years.

So far Kuhonga has not had much success, it’s Twitter page only posted seven tweets, and the website only has ten reports. Although, I would not count out Kuhonga just yet, the increasing prevalence of mobile phone technology mixed with awareness of these reporting tools could lead to an institutional shift similar to that of the Arab Spring. Kuhonga is still an innovative tool to loosen the grip of corruption.

Drum Lady Documentary

Kony 2012, Lesson Learned?

Shakespearean dramas often feature the archetype of the tragic hero, a character who possesses qualities of enthusiasm and ambition; yet their ultimate downfall is tied to what Aristotle called “an act of injustice” or hamartia, which is caused by hubris, ignorance, or a conviction that the act was serving a greater good. The struggles of Invisible Children founder Jason Russell mirrors these age-old dramas; while the times and platform have changed, the story remains the same.

Nearly one month ago, the fated internet advocacy campaign Kony 2012 launched and has since propelled the most viral video in history to a huge audience.  (This post is actually a sequel to our first essay on the topic: “The Kony 2012 Campaign: A Manhunt Goes Viral.”)  Just like a Shakespearean drama, the tragic hero Russell has endured intense censure and a harrowing fall from grace (including an arrest).  Criticism of Invisible Children ranges from its controversial funding sources, to the unintended consequence of an increasingly militarized Central Africa.  (For more on this please see: “Leveraging Guilt:  The Kony 2012 Campaign & the Militarization of Africa.”)  Yet, some of the most poignant criticism comes from African writers such as Teju Cole, a Nigerian-born writer now living in the U.S., whose piece in The Atlantic “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” has received more than 700 comments.  His piece details the issues surrounding not only the Kony 2012 campaign, but also Africa’s portrayal by the West, and problems facing international development.

Whether you love or hate Invisible Children or the Kony 2012 campaign, topics surrounding Africa, non-profits, development, and advocacy have never reached viral status. When you examine other YouTube videos that have achieved more than 100 million views it is a mishmash of music videosfunny children, and reality show auditions  — never international relations issues. The Kony 2012 video also breaks the commonly held thought that viral video must be under five minutes to engage an audience.   The  Kony 2012 video has taught us that you can captivate an audience with an international issue, but over-simplification comes at a heavy price.

Invisible Children is still carrying on with its mission of seeing Joseph Kony arrested.  Recently, Invisible Children released another YouTube video featuring its CEO Ben Keesey and Director of Idea Development Jedidiah Jenkins.   In the video they do provide an overtly optimistic progress report of the campaign’s lobbying efforts with the U.S. Congress, and promise a Kony 2012 video, Part Two, which they describe as being “awesome.”  The two deftly avoid mentioning their tragic hero Russell, and only briefly address criticism of slacktivism. Like Horatio to Hamlet, perhaps these new ambassadors can avoid the fate (and backlash) of their tragic hero Russell, but maybe the hero here is the conversation itself.