One of the enduring legacies of the Barack Obama presidency will be the relationship built between the United States and young Africans. As part of Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), each year 1,000 young people from sub-Saharan Africa travel to the United States to spend six weeks at a U.S. college or university. The program will continue this summer.

But building enduring relationships is a two-way street, and many in Africa want to see Americans coming to their continent as well. That’s what 26 Americans selected to participate in a Reciprocal Exchange program, a new component of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, are now planning to do.

The U.S. Department of State partnered with IREX, a nonprofit organization focusing on international education and research, to help continue collaboration between 27 Mandela Washington Fellows and 26 American professionals. The program will take the U.S. citizens to 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa during March.

Exchange program

Brian MacHarg is director of academic civic engagement at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, which hosted 25 young African leaders in 2016. Now, MacHarg has been invited by two of those young leaders to travel to Niger and Benin to conduct workshops.

“We had spent six weeks talking about connection to the community, so this is an opportunity for those fellows to share with their communities what they learned during the institute and, me being there, I can help foster those conversations to take place,” he said.

In northeast Benin, MacHarg will be joining Mandela Washington Fellow Abiona Jean Bamigbade, who is the founder of Education for Development, an organization that advocates for girls’ education. 

MacHarg’s academic specialty is helping professors integrate experiential learning into their curriculum and getting them to build connections with the communities in which they teach. 

“My hope, in conjunction with the fellows who I know, is to facilitate some of the conversations in those communities and help NGO leaders and workers think a little bit about civic responsibilities and how can we foster that in our communities. How NGOs can partner with educational institutions for mutual benefit,” he said.

Project in Ethiopia

Another participant in the program is Rudy Hightower, a retired U.S. Naval officer and Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University who is traveling to Ethiopia. There he will work with Dr. Enque Endeshaw, an Ethiopian psychiatrist who is looking at ways to improve delivery of mental health care and services for migrants and refugees. 

The two will use nonlinear modeling software to do “scenario planning” that will help policymakers decide whether the country needs to do things such as increase training for psychiatrists or give nutritional supplements to refugee populations. The modeling will also look at things like high rates of post-traumatic stress and domestic violence in refugee populations. Ethiopia is home to an estimated 700,000 refugees, according to the United Nations.

“We’re going to try to build some models to kind of better explain what’s going on so that policymakers can make better decisions on how to intervene and how to make things better,” Hightower said.

But as important as the actual work will be, Hightower believes the people-to-people connections may be equally significant. 

“I would hope that Ethiopians and people around the world still know that America cares and Americans care no matter what you hear in the news,” he said. “I hope I bring something a little bit new in the way of research methods and decision-making tools, but more importantly I’ll let them know that Americans haven’t changed. America has a lot of compassion and caring for countries throughout the world.”

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