When Theresia Morfaw first heard about the Mandela Washington Fellowship from her brother, David, an alumni of the program, she wanted to emulate its “exemplary way” in her own work. That desire brought Morfaw from her native Cameroon to UMD, where she is working as a fellow this summer on inclusion, diversity, fairness, and respect.
Founded in 2014 under President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), the Mandela Washington Fellowship is a flagship program that aims to empower young Africans. YALI aims to develop participants’ skills both to accelerate their own career trajectories and also to contribute more robustly to strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, and enhancing peace and security. The tracks for the fellowship include business and entrepreneurship, civic engagement, public management, and energy. Over the past two years, 500 young leaders were selected annually from different African countries through a rigorous competitive process to participate in the yearlong program. This year, up to 1,000 fellows were selected.
“Seeing that the Mandela Washington Fellowship believes in young people and has confidence that the future of Africa dwells in our hands, was another strong reason for me to dream of being a fellow,” she said. “The most important reason was when I picked up on some of its values—respect, equality, diversity, and inclusion. All these strongly resonate with my core values. And, I deemed it very important to be part of this program not only because it is a great fit for me but also because my presence at the fellowship will complement the team in achieving its overall goals in the promotion of social justice towards achieving a sustainable positive change in my country, Africa, and the world at large.”
Morfaw’s specific goal as a Mandela Fellow is to strengthen her capacity in individual advocacy for vulnerable groups, and to build on her organizational management skills. “Sexual and reproductive health and rights violations, as well as gender-based violence, are forms of discrimination that cannot be under-looked, and advocacy to eliminate this kind of discrimination in my community will achieve a free, equal, and inclusive space for the vulnerable groups.” She continued, “I hope to develop skills on how to strike a balance between the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the organizations, how to better structure staff and volunteers to work towards achieving a common goal, enhance fundraising skills to better secure funds for the sustainable execution of activities, and smooth functioning of the organizations.”
Morfaw describes her first UMD experience as enriching and promising. “Currently at the University of Maryland I am getting all the support I need. Nick Sakurai and all the staff I have met, make it even easier for me,” said Morfaw. “I had a few cultural shocks, but I adjusted very quickly.” She adds, “I am gaining a lot through seeing the various organizational structures (at UMD) and how they function, and learning more about diversity and inclusion in empowerment, through workshops and having meetings with various sections of the departments working directly in promoting diversity, like the Career Center and MICA.”
One big difference she noticed between Cameroon and the United States is government policies that protect minorities and promote diversity. “Back in my country there are so many good policies but some do not really protect the rights of minority groups, and this goes a long way in preventing free and equal access to health services.” Other differences are cultural and religious. Morfaw notes that Cameroon has more conservative cultures and religions that do not encourage people being vocal about certain aspects of human rights. “Taboos and secrecy are major drawbacks to my work, as most violated minorities do not have the courage and confidence to talk about the issues they face, and when a problem isn’t shared it may remain unsolved,” she said. “Here at UMD, most people are very vocal, and it helps UMD figure out pressing issues and timely intervention.”
Her experience has become an “emotional and personal one” after working with closeted rape victims and other victims of sexual assault, and she intends to use that experience to fight back against regressive sexual cultures around the world. Morfaw hopes to continue building on her activism and encourages young Cameroonians and Africans to continue being a big part of the change.
“I shook the hands of the President twice, and I thanked him for the opportunity and told him I love him and he responded ‘I love you too, keep doing the great work,’” Morfaw added. “He spoke to us not in the capacity of a president but as an ‘uncle’ as he referred to himself. This challenges me even more as a young leader to practice humility every step of the way,” she said.
“We are the ideal generation that has the power to bring positive change,” she said. “Africa’s time is now; our time is now; our ideas are ripe, so I will leave you with a few quotes from Golden Maonganidze: ‘we will never be remembered as complaining heroes’ and ‘there is nothing as perfect as a good idea at the right time.’”