Sunday, July 23, 2017

Fellowship Program Helping Young African Leaders Build Connections in Lincoln

Lincoln Journal Star
Jul 22, 2017

Daniel Auwas Pidomoi saw a path out of the refugee camp his family settled into after fleeing a brutal civil war in Sudan.

Pidomoi, 27, was dogged in his pursuit of a scholarship to the Ugandan Christian University, working hard to earn good grades at every level in the refugee camp school, while also being inspired by reruns of old American legal dramas on TV.

Now a corporate and commercial attorney with his own practice, Pidomoi wants to share that passion for education with the women and children of his country in an effort to shape its future.

He and a friend started the Children’s Initiative on Learning and Development, using their savings to print 500 comic books to teach young South Sudan students about the value of education, the importance of their cultural heritage, as well as good morals and good hygiene.

“Students learn more from storytelling than from written books,” Pidomoi said. “They try to picture themselves in the story and imitate the character. The story flows with them in the picture.”

Demand for the books grew beyond the two schools, where it started, to three more, Pidomoi said. Expanding the program would be difficult without grant money or knowledge, however.

That’s where the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders comes in. The Obama-era program, started in 2010, exposes 1,000 emerging leaders from across Sub-Saharan Africa to established leaders and leadership programs in the United States during an immersive six-week experience.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is hosting 25 fellows this summer, according to Sonia Feigenbaum, associate vice chancellor for international engagement and global strategies. It's the first time UNL has taken part in the State Department program.

The young leaders, who arrived June 16 from 21 different Sub-Saharan nations, are living in UNL residence halls, attending leadership seminars and learning from civic organizations through conversation and observation.

“We really wanted to combine the work we do with academics and the community,” Feigenbaum said. “Think about it as an experiential learning with an academic background to it.”

Feigenbaum added that UNL, one of 38 participating sites across the country, hopes to continue hosting the program in the future.

The opportunity to learn from an agriculturally-driven state such as Nebraska has provided new perspective for some of the Mandela Washington Fellows, including Margaret Mwuese Nongo-Okojokwu, a Nigerian journalist who covers that country’s expansive oil and energy sector.

Roughly 50 percent of Nigeria’s economy relies on oil, Nongo-Okojokwu said, which provides stability to Africa’s largest economy, but the foreign and domestic companies extracting Nigerian oil aren’t adequately regulated.

The drilling has caused strife among Nigerians, who feel they aren’t adequately compensated for the oil resting underneath their communities, as well as health problems as a side effect of the extraction process.

Nongo-Okojokwu is working to create a media campaign to draw attention to the issues that have risen out of the energy sector in an effort to improve living conditions for Nigerians.

Tabitha Sindani, a Kenyan living in Ethiopia, where she works for the African Union Commission in policy development and resource mobilization, called the Mandela Fellowship “an elite program that exposes young African leaders to different facets of leadership.”

Sindani, 26, uses her own money to provide orphanages in Kenya with a small flock of chickens that can be used for income in various ways — to gather and sell eggs, or their manure used to fertilize small vegetable gardens — in order to make the organizations more sustainable.

Through the Mandela program, Sindani said she hopes to connect with potential donors who could help expand the program to more orphanages, or to help empower young women, single mothers and housewives through poultry farming.

“People who have come here are doing amazing things, they’ve made amazing collaborations and networks,” she said. “I wanted to be put in a space where I could interact and collaborate with the rest of the world.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or

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