My first thought, as I stepped out of the plane mid-morning Wednesday, June 8, at Indianapolis Airport after a harrowing two days of traveling, was just how humid the air was. I could immediately feel the seasonal change having just come from a cold and dry Botswana winter. For a second, I thought I wasn’t going to breathe. But, after a few deep breaths, I managed to go on.
As much as the Internet and my school had provided me with information about Indiana, it felt very different experiencing it in real life. As a first time visitor to the United States, I was eager to fully immerse myself in the way of life that I had read and seen so much of on TV.
I visited IU as a participant of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program, a 6-week program that is designed to enhance, develop and empower young African leaders from ages 25-35. The fellowship has three tracks, dependent on your area of work: Civic Engagement, Public Management and Business. In 2022 alone, over 40,000 applicants and only 700 fellows were selected to participate in different institutes across the U.S.
Almost immediately, I felt the Hoosier hospitality, as I found a welcome party stationed at the airport waiting for me and the other fellows. The IU staff were more than friendly, assisting us with our luggage and offering us snacks and water before we headed to our final destination. It was at that airport that I met with the other 23 fellows, representing 18 different African countries.
The program started immediately with an intense schedule of practical and academic sessions, panel discussions, networking events and site visits. Most of our sessions were centered around learning how to manage a non-profit organization, leadership skills, business and civil society relations and grant writing, all of which we will be using and applying in our various organizations back home.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some life-changing sessions and interactions, including a site visit and panel discussion with Cook Medical, showcasing their community development work. From them, we have learned how businesses can purposefully identify and provide solutions to community problems using the resources available to them. One such way is by building a medical device manufacturing facility in Indianapolis through their partnership with Goodwill Commercial Services. The facility will bring more jobs to the previously impoverished community and boost the economy through contracting 100% local minority owned construction companies.
We have also had a chance to visit and interact with some non-profit organizations that do amazing work, such as the American Printing House for the Blind, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, Middle Way House, Girls Inc., The Mill and Ivy Tech Community College. However, my favorite part of the fellowship has to be meeting and interacting with the amazing fellows from the other African countries.
This year’s cohort consisted of human rights lawyers, journalists, media professionals, advocates, human rights professionals and educators.
I have had the privilege to connect with incredible people, like Tunu Yongolo, who runs a foundation in Tanzania that brings awareness to infertility in her country.I have discussed with and learned from visionaries who advocate for the disabled, like Mduduzi Dube, the Director of Autism Western Cape in South Africa. I am confident that the connections I have made here will last a lifetime.
Some other highlights from the program include taking part in the 4th of July parade, being hosted by American families for dinner, sharing a taste of Africa through food from our respective countries, celebrating Juneteenth and learning from the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Indiana University and Bloomington as a whole have welcomed me with open arms. From eating at the IU staple Mother Bear’s Pizza to singing karaoke at Kalao Restaurant and Nightclub, I will cherish the memories created here forever.
To the lovely staff at the Office of International Development, ke a leboga (thank you in Setswana). It has been an absolute privilege meeting and getting to learn from you.
Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier!
Larona Lekgabe is a communications specialist from Botswana and is part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program Civic Engagement track at Indiana University.