For the past 3 years, the Mandela Washington Fellowship — the flagship program of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, or YALI — has brought groups of 25 young African civic and cultural leaders to study together at Wagner College, located in the New York City borough of Staten Island. Each Fellow is a leader in a nonprofit organization in their own country, addressing issues ranging from women and infant health, gender rights, youth development, and the rights of the disabled.
This year, one additional focal area has dominated the nonprofit activities represented by Wagner’s Mandela Fellows: culture and its role in unifying and uplifting society. Of the 25 young African women and men studying at Wagner College this summer, nine are either arts practitioners or leaders of organizations teaching the arts, coordinating arts festivals or advocating for the preservation of African cultural heritage.
Why is culture such an important aspect of the nation-building work supported by the Mandela Washington Fellows?
Well, if “history is written by the victors,” as the saying goes, then reclaiming the right and the power to tell your own story in your own voice must play a part in taking control of your life, whether we are talking about the life of an individual or a nation.
We explored this subject with three Mandela Washington Fellows at Wagner College. They were chosen for their geographic, linguistic and gender diversity as well as for their powerful stories:
- Aicha Macky, female, an award-winning documentary filmmaker from Niger
- Tiara Gendi, a transgender woman, a research assistant and advocate for the LGBTIQ community in Zimbabwe
- Josphat Namtenda, male, a filmmaker and co-founder of the Slum Film Festival in Kenya
“What if you created a platform where we celebrated stories pulled from the slums? Because I see you are so passionate about those stories.”
That was the question posed to Josphat Namtenda that brought his life into focus.
Namtenda was born in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, the son of an electrical engineer.
“My father wanted me to become an electrical engineer, like he was,” Namtenda said, but he didn’t have the grades for it, and once he finished secondary school, he wasn’t interested in any more classroom lectures or tests.
“I wanted to learn from observing and seeing what’s happening in the wide world,” he said.
After taking several paths, only to find dead ends, Namtenda enrolled in a 6-month, hands-on filmmaking course at the Kibera Film School, taught by practicing filmmakers. After completing the course, he was offered an administrative job with the school’s parent organization, the Hot Sun Foundation.
“We had young people going through the school, then leaving,” he recalled. “They told us that they could not get jobs ... and it seemed their education was for nothing. That’s when a friend of mine, who was then a cultural attaché at the embassy of Spain in Nairobi, asked me, ‘What if you created a platform where we celebrated stories pulled from the slums?’ ”
With that question, the Slum Film Festival was born.
“Back home, the only time the mainstream media would come to the slums for a story was when something bad happened,” Namtenda said, “riots, or disease, or poverty. And the reception to these stories in the slums was, ‘Why are people misrepresenting us? Why are they not telling the real stories?’
“That’s what the Slum Film Festival is about: a platform where these young people from the slums can tell their own stories in their own way. And it’s not just the slums of Nairobi that are represented — Uganda, South Africa, Mumbai, all slums, bringing them together to celebrate the rich cultural diversity that comes from these areas.”
The first Slum Film Festival was held in 2011, and it has continued each year since then.
Namtenda became interested in YALI a couple of years ago, when the program began. It seemed like a great way to sharpen his leadership skills, both in a U.S. classroom and in discussions with fellow leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa. He applied for the program in 2014, and again in 2015, but to no avail.
“This time, I had to think, do I really want to apply?” he said. “But then I got an email from one of the program administrators, saying, ‘Don’t give up!’ ”
He got the email welcoming him to the program while he was attending a Slum Film Festival board meeting.
“I just jumped up, and the guys asked what was going on. I just said, ‘Guys, I made it!’ It was like a new breath of life for me.
“I knew that, outside Africa, I would be able to interact with people who were beyond my skill level,” he said, “but I would also be able to interact with my fellow Africans, because at no one point back at home had I been able to meet lots of other young African leaders, and we sit down and talk about something that we had in common: to make Africa better.”
Namtenda used his YALI experience in New York City to make numerous connections with film festival organizers and filmmakers.
“Another Mandela Fellow, Butholezwe Nyathi of Zimbabwe, connected me with people he knew who were involved with the Zimbabwe International Film Festival,” Namtenda said.
He also made contacts on his own while visiting facilities or attending screenings in New York: Senay Berhe, one of the filmmakers behind the “Afripedia” project, who was attending the New York African Film Festival at Brooklyn’s BRIC House; and Derrick Cameron, artistic director of the Ghetto Film School in the Bronx.
Aicha Macky, from Niger, has earned two master’s degrees: the first, in sociology, from the University of Niamey, in the capital city of Niger; and the second, in documentary filmmaking, from Senegal’s Université Gaston Berger.
“Over half of people [in Niger] are illiterate,” Macky told a French newspaper last year, explaining why she had pursued a second degree. “So for whom do we write our theses? All these writings end up in the dust, and even intellectuals do not read them. So I decided to make the documentary, another form of sociology, but more accessible.”
Her thesis project was a short film, “Savoir faire le lit (Know-how in bed),” about taboos surrounding sex education and relations between mothers and daughters. The 2013 film, which was screened at a number of film festivals in Europe and West Africa, led to her first feature-length documentary, “L’arbre sans fruit (Fruitless Tree),” which won the Best Documentary prize at this year’s Africa Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria.
“Fruitless Tree” tells Macky’s own story — and the story of many other Nigeriennes — about a childless marriage.
“This is ‘non-standard’ in my country, where marital status expects the couple to give birth as soon as possible,” Macky told reporter Souley Moutari. “But in Niger, as everywhere, there are problems with infertility. ... Through my personal experience, I try to probe the fate of women concerning childbirth, and gather the feelings of alleged infertile women.”
The film clearly struck a nerve at home.
“At the launch of her film in Niger, once could easily sense the cathartic experience that spectators went through by witnessing such an honest narrative,” said a writer for the U.S. Agency for International Development. “Spectators’ questions, comments and personal stories did not cease for hours after the screening.”
Not satisfied to develop just her owns skills as a filmmaker, Macky has become involved with a USAID program called Progress through Development, or PDev, as a “mobile cinema” volunteer, teaching young people how to use mobile video to facilitate conversations about peacebuilding.
For Macky, “YALI is an opportunity to learn about American experience, and to meet some young African Fellows ... to enlarge my network and give me new ideas. We cannot accomplish things alone.”
Like many African cities, Macky’s hometown of Zinder, Niger’s second-largest urban area, is multicultural and multilingual. Both Hausa and Tuareg people live in this former French colonial city — but Macky did not learn English, the lingua franca of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, until she decided to apply for the YALI program. She taught herself English from the Internet.
“For me, YALI is an opportunity to learn about American experience and to meet other young African leaders, enlarge my network and give me new ideas,” she explained. “Just to meet people like Jos, like Tiara, like you is very important, because the diversity of cultures, of education, and the countries from which we come is very important to me. And I truly believe that we cannot accomplish things alone, that we need to come together in order to multiply our strength.”
Participation in Wagner College’s Mandela Washington Fellowship institute also gave Macky access to some of the film industry practitioners who work for the school, like former film company executive Stephen Greenwald, who introduced her to an old friend who runs a film distribution company. If arrangements suitable for everyone can be made, that company will distribute “L’arbre sans fruit” to American theaters.
When she returns home, Macky will continue her work with PDev while working on a new documentary, “La voix de l’eau (Voice of the water),” about the way water issues in Zinder have been politicized over time.
“Before coming here,” Aicha Macky said, “I really didn’t know what LGBTIQ was. I didn’t know they had flags. I didn’t know that they had people advocating for their rights.”
It was Mandela Washington Fellow Tiara Gendi, of Zimbabwe, who opened the eyes of Macky and the other YALI Fellows at Wagner College to the issues facing lesbians, gay men and bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning Africans, as she has for more than 3 years now in her home country, Zimbabwe.
Gendi works with two equal rights organizations. The first, GALZ — Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe — has been active for more than a quarter century, advocating for LGBTIQ rights at the regional, national and local levels in southern Africa. Gendi collects data for GALZ on how its members use its services, and she coordinates activities for the GALZ transgender and intersex group.
The second group for which Gendi works, TREAT — Transgender Research, Education, Advocacy and Training — is “a newly formed organization created by a transgender woman this year,” she said. “We conduct baseline surveys in Zimbabwe, documenting the lives of transgender people and their needs.”
Gendi is clearly a very bright person, but has only a secondary education — a consequence, at least in part, of her status as a transgender woman.
“It’s not a bed of roses, being LGBTIQ in Zimbabwe,” she said. “You find many young people being kicked out of their homes once they come out. There is also a tendency to drop out of school because of the bullying. Those who actually manage to finish their education cannot find a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And to those who manage to get jobs, once they get outed, they get dismissed.
“We find that we end up having a huge number of highly talented, well-informed, well-educated young people who have nothing to do, and they can’t really express themselves for who they are.”
And members of the LGBTIQ community are not given any support by their nation’s leaders in finding a satisfying, useful place for themselves in society, Gendi says.
“Our president is very vocal about his opposition to us enjoying our rights in his country. We don’t really have any national leaders who are pro-LGBTIQ. From the political side, the religious side, the traditionalist side — everything is anti-LGBTIQ,” she said. “So even if you’re trying to live your life to the best of your ability to be comfortable, as a person ... everyone is already on your case.
“And it gets worse during political campaigns. Instead of explaining why they have such poor services in the country, they say, ‘We don’t want homosexuals,’ and everyone cheers.”
Public advocacy for gay rights is important, Gendi says — but, in a society that wants to exclude them altogether, Gendi says that her organizations have started providing services to help LGBTIQ Zimbabweans make their own way through life.
“We are trying to introduce informal skills to people, saying, ‘As much as you are not going to work, we can actually teach you some skills so that you can sustain yourself,’ ” she said. “That takes away the burden of where you have to go out and look for a job somewhere that they have to conform and live a double life. But if we give them skills that they can actually do, then they can become their own boss ... and you don’t have to conform to anyone else’s idea of what’s ‘normal.’
“Rather than expecting other people to become accepting of us, we are doing things for ourselves.
“It’s not easy,” admits Gendi, “but somebody has to do it.”
Allies in Zimbabwe outside the LGBTIQ community sent Gendi the information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship. She applied with the hope that she would get the skills to become an effective administrator and leader.
For Gendi, YALI was an opportunity “to become more professional — because I am a very casual person,” she said. “And it didn’t disappoint. I learned things like grant-proposal writing, organizational profile making, and how to create an organization’s curriculum based on the activities you engage in with the community of people you serve.”
Gendi’s contacts with the other Mandela Fellows also provided her with revelations and inspiration.
One particular connection she highlighted was with Sibongile Khumalo, from South Africa, who became any ally.
“It was her open mindedness toward the LGBTIQ community, and her willingness to engage in deep conversations, that allowed her to explain LGBTIQ struggles and challenges to other Fellows,” Gendi said. “She provoked conversations about these topics, and she made people ask themselves questions that allowed them to be more open minded and understand issues outside what they would call ‘normal.’ She really made my stay comfortable.”