Maryam Shehu Mohammed is one of the 500 young leaders selected from around Africa, to participate in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative in the U.S. She recently returned to Nigeria after the completion of her program. Maryam wrote about her experience through the entire process, from application to completion of the fellowship. Her piece was originally posted in Synopsis, a Facebook group we both belong to. I have reproduced it below, with her permission, and that of the group’s admin. If you have been following this blog, you will know that I am an unabashed supporter of YALI, warts and all. Yet, Maryam’s reflective article is sincere, constructively critical in some respects but overall, very appreciative of the experience and the lessons learnt. It is a long read, but should be worth your time.
MY YALI EXPERIENCE
It began here, on this page. Zainab Usman, bless her, posted a link on the Young African Leaders Initiative. I saw it, applied and shared with friends and colleagues. 1,500 of the 15,000 Nigerian applicants were called for the interview. 43 qualified. In total, there were 50,000 applicants but only 500 qualified. The US Embassy calls us the top 1%.
The Young African Leadership Initiative is the flagship program of the Obama Administration to hone leadership skills of African youth in their capacities either in Public Management, Civic Leadership or as Entrepreneurs. As part of the requirements of the application process, I wrote three essays on “An initiative I had and how I garnered support for it;” on “A problem in my Community, Country or Workplace” and how I wanted to resolve it and an essay on what “skills I had in addition to those I needed to make the required change.”
I was a bit conflicted regarding the track to choose because I am a Public Servant but have a strong leaning towards civic leadership. Public Management won, that was my first choice and that is what I got. The 500 Fellows were divided into batches of 25 to be hosted by 20 different Universities spread all over the states, each university specialising in one of the three tracks. The US Government would cover all expenses including feeding, accommodation, transportation, phone bills, we even had a mini health insurance in case of emergencies in addition to weekly stipend.
Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland was to be my host University for the six week academic session. Prior to my arrival, I’d received tons of emails and reading materials from the school to prepare for the classes. I had also received emails requiring that some vaccines must be taken before I was admitted to stay in their hostels and asking me to bring my sheets as the school would not provide same. The questions in the medical history form were so personal, (questions bordering on sexual behaviour, preference of partners…) I didn’t even know how to fill it. Reading materials flooded my inbox too.
I didn’t feel welcome at Morgan State, nor did the other 24 Fellows as MSU was challenged even before we arrived because even the welcome email was cold. They retracted their demand for African sheets but insisted on the vaccines. I didn’t take the vaccines, decided that if push came to shove, I’d take them there. Most of the Fellows that took the vaccinations reacted and were sick for a few days after our arrival. Upon my arrival, they didn’t ask, I didn’t say. Before I left Nigeria, my colleagues were calling my school “Morgan Military School”. Their schools wanted to know their interests, asking them to come with party clothes and swim gear; it was to be a fun experience for them. I arrived Baltimore with a sense of foreboding. Farouk (a Nigerian also) and I were received at the airport. We arrived to decent accommodation but I wasn’t provided with sheets! The issue of logistics was something that was sorted out within the course of our stay.
The food! We ate at the school canteen for the first two weeks, suffice it to say that the African appetite no resemble d oyinbo appetite at all. It was grease, fat and fries which we found too bland for our taste buds. Some of the canteen staff had a bad attitude, such that YALI Fellows would hardly ever say “no” to each other but would imitate a certain canteen staff who would say “unh unh baby”, moving her pointing finger from side to side and shaking her head from side to side. In my language, that would simply have been a “no ma’am.” We were told this about Bo’morians, “we rude, but we nice…” How rude can be nice, I’m yet to figure out.
The Course Content we received before we arrived was packed full. Classes on infrastructure, transportation, leadership, professional writing for public officials (my favourite), theory, practice and ethics in public administration, policy analysis, conference calls with US officers, interactive sessions with key officers from a Congressman (Elijah Cummings, I will never forget how powerful a speaker he was), the Liberian Foreign Minister, to the Mayor’s, to the Governor’s office to the US State Department. There were visits to the World Trade Center, the World Bank, National Security Agency, etc.
Within the first one week at MSU, we realised that there was a disconnect between the school and the program itself. The Academic Director ended up doing everything with little or no support from the school. While some of the facilitators came prepared to meet professionals to help in the direction of capacity building, others just assumed they were meeting some random students from Africa. The latter group always got a reality check after spending time with us.
I remember the first video we watched, it was a one hour video on Uganda’s President Museveni and Uganda’s animals (like an hour of watching National Geographic). Andrew (South Africa) walked out. I drew in my book, many others were on their phones. No one was interested. Anselm (Burkina Faso) captured the mood of the class when he told the facilitator that “I am an African, coming from Africa, I know lions and zebras and I know Museveni, I did not come to America to watch this kind of thing”. It gave the facilitator the chance to reorganise himself and re-evaluate the kind of content we expected him to provide for the class.
The next facilitator had a chance to read our diverse profiles, had meetings with us to discuss his content and our expectations. It gave a whole new insight to him and us. The second week was great! The sessions were deeply insightful, the sessions interactive, group work challenging and we felt the shift to a better ground. All this while the schools involvement had started manifesting, there were changes in the feeding arrangement for the better, IREX (Samantha and co) and the State Department (Elizabeth, Aimee and co) were always on ground to ensure that we got the best of our YALI experience and I had been given sheets.
The other weeks passed in a haze, (not without a drama or two) the highlights of my week always being the writing classes, but the best were the last two weeks where we were treated like the guests of the POTUS (President of the United States), thanks to Qimmah (MSU) and Aimee (IREX). Our diverse backgrounds were considered in scheduling classes/meetings, visits to hospitals (Johns Hopkins, Maryland Trauma Center etc) with a view to making meaningful connections.
Most of the people we met were more than willing to help out with information and direction. MSU became more involved. We visited the White House, the MSU President hosted us to dinner at his house, the Vice President African Affairs took everyone out to dinner, boat cruises, shopping sprees, tourism, fun… The highlight was the send-forth banquet – School choir (world renowned), excellent food, well attended and 5 certificates (from MSU, the Governor, Legislative Black caucus, two Councilmen) were given. It was a preamble to the certificate that crowned it all, one signed by the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
I learnt that the American style networking could mean meeting people in a semi dark crowded room with everyone holding a glass of wine. I was no good at it. Especially since the first thing I say when a hand is extended towards me for a handshake is “I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands”. There’s always that profuse apology which makes the whole situation awkward and then… there goes the chance. Sometimes, I’d hold my ground and continue with the conversation, other times… I learnt the 30 second elevator speech and it helped, some.
Imagine being in a class with 24 super intelligent folks from 18 countries within Africa, all within the same age bracket (25-35) and all super achievers! There were doctors, lawyers, financial experts, economists, PPP experts, etc. There was harmony and there was chaos. There were really good times and there were times when the tension was thick. But above all, there was a mutual quest for learning, a collective demand for accountability especially regarding MSU living up to its expectations as a host University and a feeling of togetherness. We had fun, we were encouraged to have one to one discussions with each other which always made it easy to understand one another. We supported one another, teased each other, laughed and generally bonded as brothers and sisters. I miss them.
Sometimes, one needs to relate with a few others to be able to assess oneself. I’ve been described as “stern, serious, strict…” and have been advised to “remain the same, let loose a bit, let my hair down, suffer fools, speak up a little bit more, utilise the power I have in words and respect….”
The Presidential Summit in DC was the last leg of the Fellowship. It was simply amazing! All 500 Fellows were under one roof and like the royalty they treated us, we were treated to visits by Susan Rice, John Kerry, Michelle Obama and President Barrack Obama himself. I was in awe. And they kept telling us how much in awe of us they were. Fellows got presidential handshakes and hugs from the First Lady.
I’ve learnt so much from my YALI experience.
I learnt that as much as I think there is poverty in Nigeria, there is also poverty in America, there is stark poverty in Baltimore. Abandoned homes in thousands, and thousands of homeless people. Crime – it was not the safest of places as I’d been warned over and over again to always go out with someone and not to stay out too late. My veil/hijab always caused a lot of unwanted attention especially when I was on public transportation. The difference between them and us is that they have a system that is working. They have reliable statistics, they have the basic infrastructure and we don’t.
If we are disorganised, my first week at MSU told me that Americans can also be. One can’t prepare to host 25 young people without thinking of the basic things like towels, sheets, toilet paper, etc. I realised that what we went through in that first week was as a result of their problems as an institution. But towards the end, they rose up to the challenge and righted their wrongs. They did not want us to leave with a bad impression of the institution.
There were six Muslims in the class although not all of us fasted during Ramadan, (fasting lasted 18 hours each day). There was utmost consideration for us especially when we wanted to pray- if we were out for a function, there would always be take away packs for us, etc. I learnt that they are very tolerant, accommodating and respectful of differences. I met people who had never been as close to a Muslim woman as they were to me. It was a delight to answer their questions and explain how we saw things.
I learnt the importance of not having to be the one in the spotlight – a leader doesn’t always have to shine. Sometimes, you have more impact when you facilitate the change. Leadership is also not about how many times one is heard, but the impact one makes when one chooses to speak.
Our group at MSU taught me so much. I learnt a lot from studying, listening and observing. The group dynamics, the politicking, the tension when it came to choosing one speaker from the lot and the fact that getting one paper written between the 25 of us was to say the least, chaotic.
There was a lot of scepticism about YALI. Someone said to me, “when you go, they will indoctrinate you into one a fraternity”. I’m yet to be indoctrinated. I came back as someone that has learnt a lot from my fellow Fellows and from MSU. I got the exposure that I would never have gotten on my own, except on a platform like that. It was reemphasised that one must assert himself or herself to get some things done or changed. And one of the best lessons of all is in not accepting mediocrity, not in myself and not in what I am involved in.
Finally, I realised that it’s our complacency as a people, the fact that even when it’s not right, as long as it suits our purpose, we accept it that makes us remain in this quagmire that has become our nation. If only we could be a little more honest, a little more patriotic, a little more ashamed of stealing public funds and a little less selfish, if we can set aside our massive egos and materialism, maybe we might be better for it. No one will change us but us, no one will make our houses homes but us, not America and not President Obama. It’s entirely up to us.
Maryam Shehu Mohammed
Mandela Washington Fellow