As the 44 alumni of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) trickle in to a hot and unpredictably rainy Dakar, Senegal, many for the first time, it is still a day until the seminar and the exchange has already begun. From late night political discussions over a bottle of wine, to breakfast rendez-vous over French pastries and jus de bissap, and a cultural excursion to Goree Island, a place full of history and painful remembrance, these dynamic young leaders don’t waste a second sharing their stories, ideas and plans – big plans – for the future with one another.
It is during these moments, at the sidelines of the two seminar days packed with speakers, panels and receptions, where much of the meaningful exchange and learning happens. “Les poses cafes”, or coffee breaks, as Adama Sylla from Guinea describes in rapid-fire French, provide a unique opportunity for her to hear and share with her compatriot African leaders the “personal” experiences that have made them pioneers in the development of their countries, and this she admits, is what she came for. It was this kind of exposure and networking during the 2010 YALI program that led her to grow her peace-building organization, the Mano River Union Youth Parliament, an initiative under the West African Youth Network, from its founding members to over 500 participating youth across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
This type of informal exchange is happening around the clock. On Goree island, as alums from the Mentoring Partnership for Young African Leaders 2012 reunite at “La Maison des Esclaves” (House of Slaves), a discussion ensues about the importance of mentoring and providing opportunities for the next generations in Congo-Brazzaville and Burkina Faso. Ken Mwenda from 2012 and Chikondi Chabvuta from 2011 meet for the first time and discuss their initiatives in Kenya and Malawi.
These young leaders are here for a reason. Selected from an elite cadre of participants in 3 different programs under President Obama’s Initiative, they take their leadership roles seriously. After a long and sweaty day of sightseeing under the brutal Senegalese sun, one young leader, Emmanuel from Cameroon walks beside me and points to a colorful house that bears the sign “Center for Democracy, Development and Culture in Africa” for the Goree Institute. Immediately, he insists on going inside. “What are we here for if not to find any opportunity to exchange ideas and grow our capacity for promoting peace and democracy throughout Africa?” Indeed, the cultural excursion quickly turned all business as 30 YALI alums piled into a conference room to hear from Goree Institute staff about their mission and programs.
Look out for these young leaders. Take note of what they have done and what they will go on to do. In the meantime, I will continue to listen in on the conversations in between and hope to pick up some leadership know-how myself.