“Young Africans at the White House,” The New Yorker, 10 August 2014.
America invited 500 young Africans to spend the summer. What happened next?
Earlier this week, President Barack Obama celebrated his fifty-third birthday at a summit with forty-seven African heads of state—the biggest group of African leaders ever to assemble in Washington. The guest list, while impressive, wasn’t particularly representative of the demographics of the African continent. In 2010, seventy per cent of sub-Saharan Africans were under thirty; the age difference between African citizens (average age: nineteen) and the average African leader (average age: 62.3) is forty-three years. (In Europe and North America, the gap was sixteen years). Africa’s population is poised to surpass China and India by the middle of the century, a boom that will be driven by the youngest generation.
In 2010, presumably to circumvent the elders, President Obama created the Young African Leaders Initiative, which now brings five hundred African citizens, from twenty-five to thirty-five years old, to the United States for six weeks. Last week, Obama met with the latest group of delegates at the White House, ahead of his meeting with the heads of state. He told the youth—selected from almost fifty thousand applicants—that the program is “a long-term investment in all of you, and in Africa and the future that we can build together.”
Amid cheers and applause, Obama announced that the youth initiative would be renamed the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, to reflect Nelson Mandela’s “optimism, his idealism, his belief in what he called ‘the endless heroism of youth.’ ” He went on to say that the program aimed to equip fellows “with the skills and the training and technology they need to start new businesses, to spark change in their communities, to promote education and health care and good governance.” He offered cash as well: thirty-six of the fellows received grants of up to twenty-five thousand dollars to fund business ideas. Living in Berkeley, California, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, among other cities, the fellows have taken classes in entrepreneurship and leadership, civic engagement, and public administration.
There’s a hint of American hubris in airlifting Africans to learn from us, so I was curious to see how the fellows felt about what, if anything, the United States had taught them. I spent a day getting to know a group of twenty-five living in New Haven, Connecticut—a city that, in some ways, evokes their home countries, where the social safety net is porous and public works are rarely at peak performance. Some of the delegates told me that they were struck by what they found to be a persistence of stark socioeconomic division. “Back home, you think, in the United States of America, everything just works,” Amaka Nwaokolo, who specializes in affordable housing and construction in Nigeria, said. “But some of the roads, they have potholes. You have trash. You have people begging on the street. It’s like home.”
The visitors were understated overachievers, working in fields like intellectual-property law, public health, and environmental management, with a wealth of degrees and business experience among them. Most were entrepreneurs of the type Americans call “social.” Adebayo Alonge, a pharmacist by training, distributes low-cost generic medicines to the Nigerian public. Hope Mwanake, an environmental scientist from Kenya, employs waste-management workers to clean up the midsized town of Gilgil, in the western part of the country. Ethel Cofie, a Ghanaian I.T. consultant and an advocate for women in technology, told me, “We’re all here because we are doers.”
Just one—Murendeni Mafumo, from South Africa—was interested in public-sector work. Most had mixed feelings about their governments. “We all agree that our heads of state do not know what to prioritize,” Andry Ravalomanda said. In Nigeria, Alonge added, “we leave our destitute to die on the road.”
Cofie quickly challenged Alonge. Back home, she said, “If you have a family member that is destitute, somebody will take care of them. They don’t have that here, so they have to do what they do.”
We met on the Fourth of July—a fitting moment to discuss the role of the United States in the world and in their lives. Lukonga Lindunda, from Zambia, wondered, “Why is the U.S.A. a superpower—based on what? What differentiates them? Is it the infrastructure? Is it the people? Is it the will of the people?”
“It’s the way of thinking,” Cofie said. “At home, it’s lawyer, doctor, and that’s it.”
“We’re not allowed to think outside the box at home,” Mwanake agreed. “You’re told education is everything.”
I caught up with the fellows one last time before they headed for Washington, and then home. Many told me that they were more excited about meeting the other Africans than meeting with Americans—even Obama. “The networks we have here, if we use them well, will be life-changing,” Cofie said. And almost none of the people I spoke with seemed interested in immigrating to the U.S. They found even Manhattan underwhelming. Nwaokolo, who has watched “Sex and the City,” had told me, “I was expecting to see people fashionably dressed, but it was just ‘eh.’ ”