By Alphons Koruhama
I was born at Otjikondavirongo village at Opuwo. I grew up herding cattle with my grandpa. My grandparents never thought of sending me to school, until I reached the age of ten. One day, while I was herding goats Mr Mbahepa, a teacher, together with the Kunene regional education inspector, found me in the bush. They approached my grandpa to ask for permission for me to attend school. However, since I was my grandfather’s right-hand, he refused at the time.
My friends told me how good school was. I was surprised that they spoke English. That raised my curiosity about school. I went back to my grandpa and told him that I wanted to attend school.
When the school re-opened, I registered and the following day early in the morning, I attended my first class under a tree.
There were no books, papers and desks. We wrote in the sand and Mr Mbahepa would mark our work with a stick. We wrote our Grade 1 exams in the sand and we were promoted to Grade 2.
I seized that opportunity of education with my two hands, without wavering. Despite hardships, I graduated from the International University of Management with an Honours Degree in Information Technology.
Seizing the Mandela Washington Fellowship was the most precious thing I ever did in my life, which turned into an opportunity of a lifetime.
It all started in the year 2015, after completing university. I love reading, a habit I developed through my university lifestyle, and so I went to the American Cultural Centre Library frequently.
One day I went to the American Cultural Centre Library, as I sat in front of the computer, the first information that popped up was an application form for the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, which is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which was established by President Barack Obama to invest in the next generation of young African leaders.
After reading about the program and listening to previous fellows’ video clips, I got goose bumps, and I knew I was born to be an agent of change.
I then immediately asked the librarian how to apply for the fellowship. I went through the whole process of the online application, with the help of the program alumnae, and submitted my application.
In February 2016, I received an email that I had to come to an interview, which I attended.
The interview had two sessions: A group work interview and a one-on-one interview. Later in March, I received a call from the American ambassador to Namibia. I was really shocked that I had to double check the number. He then said, “Congratulations Mr Alphons [Koruhama] you are one of the finalists for the Mandela Washington Fellowship.”
He invited me for dinner.
I looked up and said, “God, I know this is you! Thank you!”
I attended the dinner and we received preparation on what we should expect in the whole program.
My experience as a Mandela Washington Fellow at Lincoln University was overwhelming, in the best possible way!
I, and the other 24 fellows from 19 other African countries, were hosted by the Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
It was an intense six-week program, full of classes, mentorship programs, networking opportunities and site visits. To my surprise, I went to America to meet African. Our motto was Ubuntu, which means “I am, because you are”.
This spirit of brotherhood was the foundation of our relationship.
During the six weeks at the program, it was like living in 19 African countries at the same time. The culture, conversations and business discussions were diverse and very enriching.
It was very crucial for me and other fellows to network and create lifelong connections between each other, as much as it was about creating other professional networks. All fellows have inspiring businesses and programs they run back in their home countries.
This was a great time to share what each of us do and learn from other fellows.
With my background being in technology, I got to learn about more business opportunities in other sectors.
YALI opened my eyes to the opportunities that lie in other African countries. During discussions, fellows provided first-hand information on business opportunities, policies on doing business and the processes involved in opening a business in their countries.
These discussions led to future business partnerships and collaborations. We attended lectures and engaged in debates with professors and other fellows, about contemporary business practices.
I learned methods for beginning a successful start-up, strengthening a thriving business and tackling the challenges that arise for all business people.
We learned how to draw up a business plan and all its key components. Training exercises showed us how to make effective decisions as leaders, how to work in teams and understand our strengths and weaknesses, as leaders. Being introduced to top leaders in American businesses, institutions and social enterprises was another dimension of the experience.
We also volunteered for community service projects. We went to farmlands to remove weeds; we played with kids and mentored teenagers.
We saw the socio-economic voids that volunteer organisations fill and the benefits of giving back to society. We experienced American culture and community life at sporting events, concerts, exhibitions and other activities.
We showed learners at a school for girls and boys in Jefferson City where Namibia is on the world map.
I volunteered at a community service project in Jefferson City, and visited the Gateway Arch, which is a 630-foot (192m) monument in St Louis in the State of Missouri. I made many worthwhile contacts, and I am working on building future relationships with these people.
The most significant contacts I made are new friends from all over Africa, including Uganda, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, the Comoros, the Central African Republic, the Seychelles and Mozambique, and of course our host, the United States of America.
We have a WhatsApp group that is still active, and is used to connect with the 24 fellows, the Lincoln University professor and some students.
We shared our stories, and in so doing so, we realised that we all have the same struggles and fears. We also share our pride and ambition to comprehend our goals.
After my weeks at Lincoln University, I went to the Washington Presidential Summit, where I rubbed shoulders with more executives from top non-governmental organisations and businesses. The three-day Presidential Summit in Washington DC was a chance for all fellows to meet and establish networks, and most importantly listen to the President Obama’s address to young African leaders.
The former president of the United States of America said, “This program reflects Madiba’s optimism, his idealism, his belief in what he called the endless heroism of youth.”
To the youth out there, opportunity has no tribes, neither does it have colour, and in fact it doesn’t have a cellphone number to call you. Opportunity doesn’t select who to go to, but it waits for whoever is seeking it, sees it and seizes it. As young people, we must initiate standing up for ourselves and creating an opportunity for ourselves.
We must start exercising what former US President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” as young Namibians we will add great contributions to Namibia, to become a better country, if we live these historic words, by doing the little we can, and that is within our capacity.
*Part two of this contribution will be
published in next week’s edition
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015