Welcome everyone, to the U.S. Embassy. Congratulations to each of you. You are the fifth class of Mandela-Washington Fellows from Cameroon. Let’s have a big round of applause.
The fact that you are present here this afternoon is already an achievement. This year, 1,271 motivated young Cameroonians completed their applications for the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program for Young African Leaders.
After thorough review in Washington and in Yaounde, panels here at the Embassy interviewed 107 semi-finalists. Seated before me are the 17 selected fellows. The staff here has been so impressed with you, and this is my first opportunity to actually meet you.
Speaking of staff, I would also like to congratulate my team that got you to this point – Public Affairs Officer Lee McManis, Cultural Affairs Officer Leila Kamgar, Cultural Specialist Mathias Tientcheu, YALI Coordinator Charlene Wantong, and many other colleagues at the Embassy, and in Washington.
Ultimately, through this competition, you 17 were selected because you represent the drive, potential, and competence of Cameroon’s youth. You stand out because, despite the challenges you face in your communities, you have shown resilience, tenacity, and gumption.
It is young leaders like you that the United States wants to cheer on. We want to help you refine your skills to reach higher heights and inspire others to become the “better angels of our nature,” a phrase that former President Abraham Lincoln coined in his first inaugural address. There is a lot of darkness in the world, and we want you to be among those who lighten it up.
Each of you is already doing meaningful work your communities. For example, Nadege Zeshung is defending victims of domestic violence. Jerrat Bongeh is working to reduce stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities.
Through her fashion and design brand MadeInCamer, Fichian Nfi is working to put Cameroonian apparel and garment products on the international market.
And Clifford Niba is standing for democracy, development, peacebuilding, and transparency by aiming to mobilize two million youth for electoral participation in Cameroon through his “Not too young to vote campaign.”
These are only a few examples among those selected and here before us, but I have to stop there so we can have time to chat afterwards.
As you get ready for your Mandela Washington Fellowship experience in June, know that you are embarking on a fascinating journey that will equip you with the additional skills, training, technology, and connections to expand your businesses, strengthen your communities, and foster good governance and accountable leadership.
You will be hosted by some of America’s top colleges and universities. You will learn how to build a grassroots organization, run a business, and manage public or private institutions. You are going to engage with some of our nation’s leading voices.
My hope is that you take advantage of this opportunity. I know that you will develop your own ideas and strategies for meeting the challenges relevant to your communities and to Cameroon at large.
Of course, I am not forgetting the fun part of your trip. During your stay in the United States, you are going to experience America first-hand. You will discover American society and culture and will taste – and hopefully, for the most part, enjoy – some of our traditions and food.
You won’t necessarily like everything you see, but our notion is that if you see America the way it really is, you will for the most part like it, and understand it.
As you experience America, I would like you to remember that you are Cameroonian Youth Ambassadors to the United States. Therefore, Americans will surely be learning from you as well.
I trust that those interactions will be a chance for Americans to understand Africa as I do – a continent full of hope with a talented, innovative, and dynamic population.
I’m certain this experience will not be just a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, but the beginning of a long-lasting relationship with the United States.
When you return, there will opportunities for you to explore, such as through the YALI Reciprocal Exchange program whereby you independently get in touch with U.S. citizens with a certain expertise that you’d like to partner with.
For example, just next week YALI alumnus Stella Dopgima and Keith Jones, a city official of New Brunswick, New Jersey, are co-conducting in Douala a week-long workshop for 30 Cameroonian civic leaders on strategies to mobilize citizens to register to vote.
With their support, I’m confident you’ll have a rewarding and successful experience in the United States. Upon your return, you’ll be part of an alumni network known to be successful, and motivated.
You’re already successful and motivated, which is why you made it here. But hopefully, this experience will make you even more inspired, even more motivated, and hopefully, even more successful.
We anticipate that some of you will be making positive changes in your country, and I know you expect it even more from within yourselves.
And that’s, of course, why you’ve been chosen – you have come far, and you will go far.
I’m excited for you, and I look forward to hearing about your experiences and impressions when you return. My hearty congratulations again! Bon voyage and bonne continuation!