A group of young African leaders recently converged on Orange County from Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda and many other African nations. In classes with scholars at James Madison’s Montpelier and over informal dinners with Orange County residents, they discussed key political and social issues in their home countries and soaked up lessons on American history, government and cultural traditions.
The Presidential Precinct, a nonprofit organization based in Charlottesville, is hosting 25 participants in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, a national initiative with 700 fellows spread out across the country, many of them staying at universities.
The idea behind the program is to give the fellows, who are between the ages of 25 and 35, the opportunity to study and discuss “human rights and justice, good governance and women’s empowerment through the lens of civic leadership,” according to the Presidential Precinct’s website. They attend lectures, receive leadership training and are encouraged to network with each other, their American hosts and guest speakers. The fellows come from many different professions including law, public health, journalism and nonprofit organizations dealing with social issues.
According to Katherine Griffin Hand, a Rapidan resident and the Presidential Precinct’s director of development, there were a staggering 38,000 applications for this year’s national fellowship program, which is in its sixth year and is part of the Young African Leadership Initiative created by former President Barack Obama. Those selected by the U.S. State Department then chose, based on their interests, where they wanted to study during their stay in the U.S.
The fellows in the Presidential Precinct’s cohort arrived in Williamsburg on June 19 and came to Montpelier on July 4. They are getting an eyeful and earful about early American history, with a focus on the foundational work of Virginia-born U.S. presidents. They are now in Charlottesville, where they will stay until July 31, when they leave for Washington.
During their four-day stay at Montpelier, the fellows heard talks by University of Virginia law professors Mila Versteeg and Pierre Verdier, both authorities on comparative constitutional law. Emily Voss, director of education at Montpelier’s Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution, said the young African leaders considered what a constitution is and what makes it succeed. They also talked about major challenges the governments of their home countries are facing.
“At Montpelier, we have a healthy respect for the U.S. Constitution,” Voss said, pointing out that “constitutions only work when people believe that they work.”
She said the vexing matter of “constitutional enforcement” inevitably comes up during the fellows’ discussions at Montpelier: “Everyone bound under a constitution needs to know what their rights and responsibilities are to keep their leadership honest and keep their leadership focused on the constitutional path.”
The questions fellows ask themselves and each other during an exercise at Montpelier requiring them to create a constitution for an imaginary country may prove useful someday, Voss noted: “There’s a very good chance some of our fellows could be in elected positions and be involved in constitution-building in their home countries.” What they debated in class at Montpelier may have a major impact on the future of those countries, she explained.
It isn’t all work and no play for the fellows. They attended the Playin’ the Park Independence Day celebration at Booster Park. Also during their time at Montpelier, local families held small dinner parties where fellows could relax over a home-cooked meal and talk informally about their interests and goals.
Gail and John Marshall of Rapidan hosted Abubakar Salim, a community organizer focusing on youth empowerment and gender equality in Kenya, and Melene Rosalie, a lawyer and the founder of the Women Lead Movement in South Africa. Orange County civic leader Rebecca Coleman also attended the dinner.
“We were thrilled to be able to spend an evening with these two intelligent and thoughtful young people, both to hear their impressions of the U.S.—very favorable—and to understand more about the challenges they face in their own countries,” said Gail Marshall, an attorney.
She added that she and fellow lawyer Rosalie quickly bonded: “She is very much interested in affecting policy in the realm of women’s rights and is extremely passionate and charismatic when she discusses her policy aims. I can easily see her in a high government position, elected or appointed, in a few years.”
Katie Hand and her husband, Patrick, also hosted two fellows for dinner. Katie Hand said she learned a lot listening to Elfi Kashori Martial, a training officer and coordinator assistant at Congo Peace Network in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Dina Peter Cerillo, an attorney who does pro bono work defending women and girls imprisoned in South Sudan.
Commenting on her conversation with Cerillo, Katie Hand said, “I could have read 25 articles from various sources but never really understood the way that women are treated in her community and in many cultures—as second- and third-class citizens. It was very eye-opening.”
The Presidential Precinct is hosting a fundraiser in Washington in support of the Mandela Washington Fellows on Thursday, July 25. For more information, click here.