— By Lena from Malawi
It was late afternoon on 3rd May 2016. Lilongwe was not as cold as it would be around this season. Being a Tuesday there wasn’t much work related pressure as most of the work was done on Monday. As usual, emails kept trickling into the inbox but this particular one caught my attention; “CONGRATULATION! YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE YALI REGIONAL LEADERSHIP CENTER” was the title. Opening the email for more details, a deep content and proud smile that couldn’t go unnoticed was all over my face. The heading was self-explanatory, I finally got into YALI! I remembered having tried to get in the previous cohort but did not make it. However the motto “I will keep trying” helped me succeed.
The next day was colder, I envisaged South Africa being very cold this time around, but shoving the thought aside, I started imagining how fascinating this experience will be. I will finally meet 134 other young African Leaders from the SADC region. The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) was launched by President of the United States Barack Obama to invest in grooming strong, results-oriented leaders through bringing them together to learn from one another and network into fruitful collaborations that will assist their societies out of poverty, which will then replicate to an Africa that is poverty free.
Days passed by so quickly, it was already Sunday May 14th, the departure date. A few hours later I was in South Africa. The YALI banner was positioned, a tall, white medium sized lady was standing next to it. “Welcome to YALI Southern Africa” she said as she smiled and continued with a roll call. It turned out everyone she was expecting was there. Situated in Midrand SA was a 4 star hotel called Premier. A medium sized dark lean guy was waiting at the door, “Welcome to Premier hotel” he said, while signaling to a room where everyone was expected to register. As envisioned I thought it was sure going to be a roller-coaster ride.
The orientation room was packed; it seemed that almost everyone had arrived. Orientation took almost 2 hours. I noticed some air of highly achieved leaders and also some scent of competition. Self-introductions were coupled with selling oneself, the positions they held, boards they sat in, impact they have made in the community, their political positions and all the success that one could adorn themselves with. It was evident from the courage and the composure in the speech that these people were sure leaders in their domains.
It was Monday already; class day. The day was coupled with speeches and introductions and motivational talks. The day ended with a welcome Cocktail party where all were decorated in their African attire. They beauty of Africa was manifested in the people and their appearance. It was a day to remember.
The week continued with crosscutting issue i.e. Gender, HIV & Aids, and Leadership. In this week I went away with this phrase “think big, start small and act now”. This phrase motivated me and I ended up collaborating with a fellow fundraiser on a joint proposal. I also learnt that, only when I understand where one is coming from and what they have gone through, I can fully understand why they act in the way they do. For instance, I have always thought Nelson Mandela was a great leader but I was shocked to learn that South Africans think otherwise. From the reasons they gave I agreed with them that to some extent the media has really created a brand that most of us outside South Africa have found flawless.
Going into the second week to fourth week we had to disband into our respective Track choices. I chose Civic leadership track along with 44 participants. I learnt a lot of things and through sharing of experiences I gained more of it. It felt like I had been to all countries in the SADC region. I got to know different techniques of communication and fundraising, which I knew in theory, but since the program encouraged practicing I got to practice in groups. In fact, assignments started the first day; we were expected to make a group presentation for the day after. Too much work too little time was the order of the day. The intensity of the program meant teams work together almost all the time which made it easy to know each other in no time. This style of working also made me realize that big groups can be hard to manage, there were dominant characters who usually suppressed the ideas of the introverts.
In no time fourth week was here and it was graduation. I came out inspired, challenged and ready to bring out the best of my game. I was awarded a Certificate in Civic Leadership. An association called Youth Development in SADC (YODESA) which is currently in its last phase of registration but currently operational in all countries. Representatives were selected from each country with an executive committee taking lead. All in all it was very sad to see the new friends I had just made go back to their respective homes as I was coming back to Malawi.