Washington — Africa deserves to have a more positive image in the world, and its young people can help make that happen, according to a group of young Africans visiting the United States on a professional exchange program.
“We have to finish with the idea that Africa is the continent of war, the continent of diseases, of every problem,” said Joannie Bewa, a physician and social activities coordinator for the Young Beninese Leaders Association. “We have to finish with all of that and know that there is hope on our continent.”
Bewa is one of 23 Africans from French- and Portuguese-speaking countries who converged in Washington April 30–May 5 for the beginning of a three-week visit to the United States under the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Last year, the program brought 5,300 current or emerging leaders in government, media, education, the arts, business and other fields from around the world to America.
The African group will travel to other U.S. cities to learn about the U.S. political process, volunteerism, youth and women’s programs, and other aspects of American civic life.
Bewa expressed hope that solutions to Africa’s challenges will come from its young people. “The U.S. gives money to programs to fight HIV/AIDS, and that’s great,” she said. “But what about getting young African girls and boys to be more involved in science in order to find the vaccine or tablet against HIV/AIDS?”
“We don’t have to wait for every solution to come from Europe or the USA,” she said. “They have to be our solutions.”
LOOKING TO YOUNG PEOPLE
On May 2, the group met with Grant Harris, special assistant to President Obama for African affairs, and senior State Department officials, including Ronan Farrow, special adviser for global youth issues. The Americans stressed the Obama administration’s commitment to supporting Africa’s democratic and economic advancement, and its priority on empowering young people. They encouraged the Africans to offer ideas for ways the United States can work with the people of Africa, and to continue the dialogue after they return home.
“Young people are the primary architects of economic growth and innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa,” Farrow said. As Bewa suggested, “the cure for the next great pandemic may be in a young African’s mind,” he said. “That is why we work so directly on partnering and empowering young Africans.”
U.S. embassies around the world are developing youth advisory councils where young people can offer policy recommendations, Farrow said. The councils are also asked how the United States can empower them to build their own grass-roots solutions to problems they identify.
Erick Nwiyo Sankum, an IVLP participant and founder and chief executive of the SANER World Foundation, which promotes mental health among young Cameroonians, said he agrees that education “is a vehicle of transformation in Africa.”
He said he is gratified that support for education is an important part of U.S. foreign policy, and he stressed the importance of building strong institutions. “Innovation in the classroom is good,” he said, “but seeing that an institution is established wherein policies can be generated and the government can be challenged or criticized through institutions — that’s going to be better.”
Akere-Maimo Ano-Ebie, communications officer for the Cameroon Coalition Against Malaria, said the IVLP participants are being challenged to ask “How can we be engaged? How can we take issues into our own hands rather than waiting on our leaders to push the issues?”
“There are so many ideas we can give,” he said, “but they need to be more strategic rather than emotional.”
Gilberto Macuacua of Mozambique, a journalist and activist against gender-based violence, said he hopes to learn more about American approaches to gender equality and violence prevention, and also to improve his leadership skills.
He hosts a weekly television program that discusses issues such as masculinity, violence against women, and women’s empowerment. “My vision is to build a ‘new man’ in Mozambique,” he said.
“I would like to see how [American] young people and organizations use social media to achieve youth initiatives,” Macuacua said. “And I would like to share the experiences of my organization. We are doing very important things and I think they have a good impact on Mozambiquen society.”
Sankum echoed the feelings voiced by many other participants. The discussions with U.S. officials and IVLP participants “gave me another perspective about African issues, that of being positive, that of having hope for change in Africa,” he said.
“It’s all about collective efforts,” he added. “Stay positive, act strategically, build on ideas and build on a positive image about Africa to the world. There’s so much we can do.”
See the International Visitor Leadership Program website. For more about Ronan Farrow and the State Department’s Office of Global Youth Issues, see "U.S. Focuses on Grass-Roots Partnerships with Youth."