By Steven Bernardus /Hara‡geib
Getting out of the San Francisco airport June 17th 2016 marked the beginning of me being a Mandela Washington Fellow for class 2016. The first thing that popped into my head was “Hello its me I am in California dreaming about who we used to be.” How did this happen? Am I dreaming? What could a young boy from a dusty town such as Karibib be doing in the United States of America? All these questions flooded by mind mixed with feelings of excitement, fear, and uncertainty.
I met some of the fellows who were waiting at the airport all of us looking tired but super stoked to be there. Hearing some of their stories I could hear threads of the dream of President Barack Obama for the program, which was to connect young African leaders from the continent. As a background, the Mandela Washington Fellowship, begun in 2014, it is the flagship program of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) that empowers young leaders through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking.
The Fellowship provided 1,000 youth from Sub-Saharan Africa the opportunity to hone skills at a U.S. higher education institution with support for professional development after they return home. I was one of twenty Namibian Fellows to participate in the 2016 Fellowship. The rest of my Namibian team was spread across the across the country. I was here with 26 other young leaders who all are making significant contributions in their respective fields from about 16 countries.
With about seven of us in the shuttle heading to our university the conversation immediately took off. We spoke very passionately about politics, socio-economic disparities, the African narrative to name a few and how each country is faring in these various issues. If these shuttle conversations were anything to go by the next six weeks was going to be riveting.
Each of us had a personalized welcome on our doors. I felt immediately at home. We got an comprehensive introduction to the campus by Ms Sudha Shetty, The Assistant Dean from the Goldman School of Public Policy who was our host faculty. Fun facts about the University of California – Berkeley. It is rated the number one public university, seven Nobel Peace prizes are held by current faculty and 29 Noble Peace Prizes held by alumni. They have over 12 million book volumes in their library.
Being boarded at the International House was a huge honor. The International House, Berkeley is a multi-cultural residence housing students from all over the world. According to the International House, its mission is to foster intercultural respect, understanding, lifelong friendships and leadership skills for the promotion of a more tolerant and peaceful world. it also has housed ambassadors, politicians and Nobel laureates. I was in the presence of greatness.
Expand your Scope
The classes we had were thought-provoking and academically stimulating with a wide range of experts in each topic. Even though our work as a cohort is in civic leadership, the themes we covered allowed us to see interlinkages across sectors and disciplines. We grappled with issues around “Good Governance, Climate Change and Environmental Preservation, Gender, Politics, and Diversity, Collaboration between Public/Private Partnerships.” Even though we work in seemingly different fields as a cohort at the end of the academic work we grew a new respect and appreciation for each other and our particular work. The underlining theme from our dean was for us to get out of our comfort zone.
Networking Site Visit
As part of the program we had an opportunity to visit various organizations learning not only about their work but engaging along possible partnership opportunities that are available to drive the developmental agenda forward. Key takeaway for me through these networking spaces was that the history of Africa begging is over. We need to leverage our bargaining power.
Brown Paper Bag Events
I spent every Wednesday at the Berkeley Public School Fund learning about the work they do in the public school space to resource teachers. “Our mission is to inspire and empower an extraordinary public education for every child”. The Berkeley Public Schools Fund invests directly in teachers’ ideas and creativity with classroom and volunteer support in the classroom. Coupled with the volunteer program, the Schools Fund annually contributes $1.5 million in grants and in-kind donations. We visited various Schools Fund partners to also get a sense of the larger network within which the BPSF operates Berkeley Repertory Theatre to the BUILD program; from sitting in on a BSV volunteer orientation to meeting with the Public Service Center on Berkeley’s campus I was able to witness meetings, observe work, and network with many organizations. On the last day of our fellowship the team hosted a “Brown Paper Bag Talk” where I shared about Namibia and the work I do. The whole idea of the brown paperbag talk is you bring your own lunch and listen engage in an event over lunchtime. Brilliant!!
Baseball and other funners
Apart from strict learning and networking we also had sometime to goof around and get lost in the city. I attended my first baseball game, which turned out pretty cool. Before the game though there is a tailgate party with some beer and barbecue outside the stadium reminded me a lot of home. The only difference was that no one was blasting any music from their cars. It was a very quiet affair
Getting Lost in the City
Best way for me to travel and get immersed in the culture is to meet the locals and or walk around aimlessly throughout the city. The city has beautiful architecture, and fairly easy navigation system. The day and nightlife of Berkeley and SF was amazing to observe. They are very strict with ID checks and everything closes at 2am. The people are warm and friendly for example the drivers wait for pedestrians before you even reach the crossing. The food is amazing with a huge Mexican culinary influence in the Bay area. I was spoilt for choice and yes all the food is MEGASIZE!!! P.S. There was always a party in the mouth because of the fusion of these international flavors.
Home is where the heart is…
The comrades at Berkeley became a family in such a short time. We disagreed, we cried together, we shared meals and most of all we became each others greatest cheerleaders. However I did not only have the privilege to have family in the cohort but many of the American people opened up their homes and hearts and shared it with me. Some of them would drop me brownies and all sort of goodies randomly others would pick me up for unplanned adventures through the city. With others we would make amazing music in their homes playing and singing for days.
The last few days were tough we hugged, cried and said our goodbyes knowing that we each that each of our lives has significantly changed. As Robin Hobb says “Home is people not a place, if you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there anymore.” I said goodbye with a heavy heart to California as I braced myself to meet the most powerful man in the world the President of the United States of America – Barack Obama.
Part 3 continues next week