Empowerment

Lessons to African Youths from my Mandela Washington Fellowship Experience in 2016

All over the world, there is no perfect society and no, the United States of America is not perfect
Edem Dorothy Ossai is a Lawyer, Development Practitioner and founder of Mentors Assistance for Youths & Entrepreneurs Initiative (MAYEIN; www.mayein.com.). She has worked for over 6 years in areas spanning human rights and justice sector development, general litigation as well as community civic initiatives and media practice. MAYEIN’s goal is to empower many young Nigerians to become early leaders, innovative problem solvers, engaged civic actors and citizens, self-reliant and successful enterprise owners or professionals as well as accomplished and publicly acclaimed young men and women – which is our definition of patriotism. Currently over 1000 teenagers, and secondary school graduates in Oyo State, many of whom are young girls, have benefitted from MAYEIN’s leadership & civic enlightenment training, 21st century skills workshops, school conferences, literacy and speaking competitions, radio enlightenment and peer talk shows, eye care interventions and other formal mentoring initiatives.

She is a 2016 Mandela Washington YALI Fellow and recently shared her learnings and thoughts (below) following her recent trip to the US.

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I think the first impression which struck me was that there were no boundary walls separating the Arizona State University (ASU) campus from the rest of the community. Right behind the law building stood the very cosmopolitan Sheraton Hotel, next to the impressive Walter Cronkite school of Journalism stood the grand Arizona Science Centre. Also a few blocks from the University Student Centre stood tall glass offices of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. I had never encountered a University without walls or borders and so I had been in the ASU Downtown Campus in Phoenix, Arizona, for well over 10 minutes without realizing. It wasn’t until we got to the front of an attractive student dormitory building called Taylor Place, which would be my home for the next 6 weeks that I suddenly understood. At that point I looked at the cab driver and escort with a look of surprise and asked “when did we go through the university gates?”

The real value of an education is in the solutions we are able to create
I would later discover during the course of an intense 6 weeks Fellowship experience that the absence of walls bordering ASU Downtown campus was a manifest expression of the system’s belief in the fluidity of interaction between knowledge and transforming human societies. For 6 weeks I was immersed in a progressive style of learning. During academic sessions we engaged in rich discussions and team work which yielded simple solutions. During community service we visited schools, community centres, Native American tribes, non-profits, city bureaus and offices. We also helped build houses, plant green spaces, distribute food at shelters and food banks and paint school walls. As part of our cultural exchange we ate American hot dogs, went on hiking trips, watched 4D movies, attended a 4th of July baseball game and gazed at fireworks whilst making sure that we left behind in all the places we visited the reverberating sounds of our beautiful African philosophies, songs, drum beats and rhythms.

I gained many valuable lessons during my Fellowship experience and I would like to share 3 of these lessons with other African youths who might be reading this:

  • All over the world, there is no perfect society and no, the United States of America is not perfect. The Country has its issues and the citizens confront problems as well. However there are strong societies. Such societies reflect deeply entrenched values, a keen investment in knowledge and research, transparent and effective systems of governance and robust working economies. As is to be expected, such societies deliver a high standard of basic comfort to average citizens, making their borders attractive to people around the world. A lesson I gained during the Fellowship is that such societies are built and sustained through vision, effort and sacrifice.
    Our value as individuals is not limited to our personal skills or potential alone but encompasses the collective strengths of everyone who forms part of our relationship circle
    This is clear from the attitude of both the leaders and the citizens of America to work, education and innovation, governance, community service, and the deep rooted values of freedom and opportunity. Contrary to the opinion of many, Nigeria will thrive if we imbibe the many lessons of our past as well as lessons presented by strong nations like the United States. As young people we must first believe in the possibility and then we must strive to attain it through effort and sacrifice.
  • There is value in networking and building relationships. Our value as individuals is not limited to our personal skills or potential alone but encompasses the collective strengths of everyone who forms part of our relationship circle. The more relationships we build the more value we can claim or leverage and vice-versa. Americans are big on networking because they realize the importance of social integrative power. Through networking and relationship building we can easily share resources, discover opportunities, reduce costs, enjoy mentoring or peer review and accountability amongst other important benefits. As youths, we are currently the largest demographic on the African Continent and this is an opportunity. The more connected we are, the more resourceful we become. This implies that we can travel much farther today than any previous generation in Africa ever could.
  • The real value of an education is in the solutions we are able to create. We are not relevant merely because we have a university degree or we graduated with first class or second class upper honors, as many often boast. Those credits are simply presumptive labels indicating to the world what we are capable of contributing. The world will not be transformed just because we are literate or have a brilliant mind. The world will only be transformed when we take our brilliant minds and use them to create useful solutions that address current issues the world is grappling with. If we are to improve our communities and our nation we have to move beyond the current obsession with tagging ourselves as “literate”, “graduate” or “first class holder” to creating real valuable solutions. As I witnessed during my Fellowship experience, having a college degree or a fancy one at that, isn’t nearly as important as the innovative skills and critical mindset you bring to the table and how relevant those skills are to present day challenges.

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  • Finally, as citizens we must be involved in strengthening governance. We cannot run away from this. Since 2012 I have been empowering youths in my community with practical skills for democratic engagement and holding public officers accountable. This is because, in order for democracy to thrive, government must be held accountable for decisions and spending. Unfortunately in Nigeria, many citizens do not know how to hold government accountable or ways by which they can strengthen their communities. Also alarming, is the level of youth apathy for political processes and governance. One of the factors responsible for this is the absence of positive civic experiences from an early age. When citizens fail to hold the government accountable, services fail, corruption thrives and we all suffer.

Special thanks to Ogbenifemi Photography for providing the article image for Edem Ossai. Please visit http://ogbenifemi.tumblr.com/ to view more of his work.

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