In 2014, I got an opportunity of a lifetime to hang out with the first Black president of the most powerful country in the World, Uncle Barack and his enthralling wife, Aunty Michelle Obama. Yup – you read that correctly. I got to see President Obama in person, and got a hug from Michelle Obama. No, it was not on Google hangout or via Skype, it was real! Live and direct, in the flesh, with my ‘korokoro’ eyes and actual hands, I saw and hugged Michelle. I am sure you get the point now.
You might wonder how I got this rare opportunity to hang out with one of the most admired couples in modern history who have continued to give us #couple goals year in, year out. You might wonder if I really mean it when I say that spending time with the Obamas was not even the highlight of this experience. The real kicker on my YALI experience was the opportunity of spending 6 weeks with 24 amazing young Africans from 17 countries, and being instructed on matters of public governance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Minnesota, one of the top 10 schools of Public Policy in the United States.
I want to help you stop wondering, by telling you all about this fantastic opportunity for everyday Africans to develop the skills and networks needed to build brighter futures for our communities, our countries and our Africa.
YALI is an acronym for the Young African Leaders Initiative, an initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2010 to support young African leaders as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa. Quite a mouthful I know, but a very value-adding mouthful.
The first major programme of YALI which I was lucky to be part of was the Mandela Washington Fellowship, an initiative to bring together 500- 1,000 young African leaders between ages 25 -35, across civic organizations, private sector businesses and public sector institutions for six weeks of academic coursework, leadership training and networking at U.S. universities. The last part of the program, a Summit held in Washington DC, was led by President Obama and other leaders from the public and private sectors across the U.S.
Before I go on, I want to let you know (just in case you did not know) that YALI 2017 applications are currently open on this page here and will close on October 26,2016. There is a LOT of information on the website about eligibility, selection criteria, how to apply, tips to strengthen your application, etc, so I encourage you to go and explore the website. I would have done copy and paste for you but I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism – it’s too early in my blogging career to be entering trouble, lol.
Sometime toward the end of 2013, I heard about the fellowship through a very good long time friend of mine Stephanie Obi (Hi Steph, e-hugs and kisses to you),a beautiful soul and online courses expert who teaches women how to package their knowledge, skills and life experiences into profitable online courses so that they can be free to do what they really love. Trust me when I say that the quality of information you get is closely related to the quality of your network (your people network, not mobile phone network, lol). She knew about my continuous search for personal development programs and knew I would probably be interested so she sent me a blog post link to the advertisement and asked me to check it out.
I read up the information on the website and the very first thought that crossed my mind was ‘naa, they are not looking for people like me. This is for really accomplished and established people doing great things already’. Then I read the questions and the spirit of laziness set in ‘ah ahn, this is too much work please. Aint nobody gat time for this’. I must admit that I was wrong thinking that way.
First, the Fellowship is not looking for already-made superstars who are making impact in the public sector, private sector or social sectors. No, the Fellowship is looking for young, passionate Africans, who want to make an impact or change in their respective sectors. People who want to be solution providers, people who want to move from whining and complaining, to doing and giving, people who have decided that there is no backup plan for them and so Africa must work and rise to its full potential. The Fellowship is looking for people who have started taking steps (no matter how small) towards their dreams and goals of a new Africa (a new Nigeria or our respective countries), and need some training/education to be equipped for those assignments. The premise of the Fellowship is that the solutions to Africa’s challenges lie among Africans, and the program’s intervention is really about equipping young Africans with the skills, resources and networks they need to bring those practical solutions to life and make change happen in their immediate communities and countries.
The Fellowship is looking for people who will be selfless enough not to keep this valuable experience to themselves but come back home to share the insights and knowledge they have gained with other young people who could not participate directly in the program. The YALI Network is a platform that goes beyond Mandela Washington Fellows and includes a wide network of young change leaders. Essentially, the Fellowship needs YOU!
I finally got over my initial inertia and laziness with regards to completing the application a few days to the closing date. Not cool, if you ask me. I put myself and the ‘poor’ people I selected to be the reviewers for my essays under a lot of unnecessary pressure due to the really short timelines. This is why I recommend you start the application earlier, rather than later. Don’t be like me – be smarter and be kinder to yourself and your reviewers.
I had to take time out to think deeply about the 3 questions (now, they have 6 questions – sorry) and just write out all my thoughts. I had to dig deep to think about all my experiences and begin to write down my thoughts. In my opinion, writing a long rambling essay is easy but trying to make major sense in 150-200 words is not. That said, you will be surprised how much you can uncover when you take the time to dig deep into your past experiences. That seemingly random volunteering exercise you participate in in your estate or on your street, that community outreach project you did in church, that difficult project at work – all those experiences are part of your story. Do not discount them- you will be amazed at how important they can become as you fill out your application.
If you need some more help, there are tons of resources on the YALI website, within the YALI Network, on the YALI Network Nigeria Facebook Page and at the various YALI rollout events happening across Nigeria.
I will not be able to finish this post without talking about a few of the exceptional people I met during my YALI experience. Starting with my amazing classmates at the Humphrey School – the Zambian entomologist working with cotton farmers to empower them, the future First Lady of Zambia who does great work with the Youth and Sports ministry, my long-lost Burundian twin who runs a leadership academy in addition to running 2 airtime businesses, the Cape-Verdean guy who wants to run for Mayor in a few years,(now you all know who I am going to visit in CV), the Seychellen Member of Parliament who schooled me on how laws are really really made, the Swati prince who patiently explained the similarities and differences between South Africa and Swaziland to me, a Namibian beauty queen, my South African champ working on integrated infrastructure that will bridge socio-economic gaps, the Ethiopian scholar who is investing his life to affordable housing, and so many more amazing people that I cannot mention here due to space constraints including my brothers and sisters from the Nigerian contingent. I have very fond memories of my time with these people and a good number of them have remained good friends till date. My kids will have exotic godparents and ‘cousins’ from all corners of Africa.
So, if this opportunity resonates with you and you’d like to give it a shot, get started on it right away. Don’t think you can do it next year – who knows who will be in the White House next year! Act now – procrastination is not only the thief of time, but the murderer of opportunities. I cannot even begin to tell you how many things I missed or almost missed because of procrastination. Deep Sigh.
During your bathroom breaks at work today, actively think on your experiences and start penning down your thoughts on your phone notepad app (please abeg, remember to wash your hands after and wipe your phone too). Open up that Microsoft Word document or Google doc and start writing. Take it to the Lord in prayer to ask if this is the right thing for you to do (but still apply anyway). Just start your application today! Applications close in exactly 2 weeks on October 26 – delay is dangerous! Grab your copy NOW!!! All the best! Make me proud 🙂
p.s – Not every time play, sometimes serious work
p.p.s – I got my first TV interview (and so far, the only TV interview) when I got back from the Fellowship (Pt 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYqoYFA3ruI