Ebrima Sonko: Reminiscing Mandela Washington Journey
To give Emperor Julius Caesar what rightfully belongs to him, let me begin by unreservedly commending the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama for his innovation and vision for initiating such a life-changing and timely program for young African leaders at a time when critical thoughts are emerging on governance and leadership.
This program could not have come at any better time than NOW when the continent of Africa is still grappling with widespread poverty, social injustice and endemic bad governance. Needless to attribute any statistic or authority to back this assertion, the realities of my everyday life as an African-- a Gambian born in an impoverished country to unlettered parents who forfeited their comfort to send me to school in a state where access to education was relegated to one of a privilege than as of a fundamental right. This experience offers me a firsthand narrative of a continental reality.
Nonetheless, it takes true leadership and the fortitude to visualize beyond the current realities to create avenues as means of bettering lives with the limited resources at our disposal. This prospect guarantees a lot of hope for the continent and the Mandela Washington Fellowship in my view is here to augment the creation of a new crop of young leaders that will take charge of governance of the continent.
This fellowship seeks to provide a platform for emerging African leaders to acquire the requisite skills, experience and relevant knowledge that will add value to their professional careers in business, public policy and civic engagement through interactions with experts in the United States and other fellows from the African continents from various diverse backgrounds with the objective of opening opportunities to expand their networks thus enhance positive transformation in their respective professions.
My Mandela Fellowship journey started couple of years ago after learning about the fellowship through a family friend, precisely in 2016. About a decade earlier, I have had the chance to work with this lady when I was very young and through folks like her and the nature of their work, I was exposed to my maiden community work through a community-based charitable organization called Youths for Future Advancement. As a young boy, I was lucky to travel with them to various parts of the country to sensitize local communities on preventable diseases using drama and advocacy. This lady who introduced me to YALI, would over the year garner admirable experience working with many youth and community based organizations and would in fact become a co-founder of a women-led organization called The Girl’s Generation. Until this day, we continue to share a strong personal and professional relationship and I take a lot of pride in working with women like her.
When I got light of her selection into the Mandela Washington Fellowship, my congratulatory message to her was that the fellowship could not have anyone more deserving of this accolade. During this time, it happened that she was also a member of a charitable foundation called Gambia Teaching Trust which was established to support and uplift the socio-economic conditions of teachers in the Gambia and I was the serving national coordinator of this organization overseeing all its programs and project implementation. I was a year or two below the required eligibility experience to apply that year yet she recommended that I should apply for it.
This was also during a time that I was Secretary General of the only state University. In hindsight we were proud of how much we were able to accomplish as an executive council within the span of a year with very meager resources as a student executive council. It was a profound honor to serve the students of the University of the Gambia.
Let me hasten to add that during this time, I spent a great deal of time working with youth- led organizations in various spheres such as global peace, women and children empowerment and student leadership. Having acquired some level of experience and in my own little way contributed in the successful implementation of projects or initiatives that are primarily community focused and human capacity development centered, I was inspired to apply for the fellowship among other things to improve my leadership and advocacy skills.
After several consultation with former fellows, I went on to apply for the fellowship in 2018 under civic leadership track record. I managed to convince myself that my application was meritorious of passing the primary test of essay writing and only had to prepare myself in advance for the interview. However, this was far from the case. My application was unsuccessful and looking back, it was largely because my essay was deficient of proper structural presentation of ideas, impact of my work and plans for professional development after the fellowship. Delving into that application process, my major mistake was as discussed earlier, I was involved in quite many interesting things within the community and even at national level hence in a rather overzealous fashion, I wanted to present all of that to reflect my seemingly over competence.
I encountered difficulty balancing which leadership track best suits my work and perhaps, I could have better figured that out and tailor my essay accordingly. The essence of mistakes in our lives is that when they occur, we cannot change its occurrence. But by all means, we can learn from it to avoid its re-occurrence. Thus, my failure in that application served as learning point and enthused me to do better when prospective challenges and opportunities comes to fore.
Emboldened in that spirit and coupled with valuable experience added to my professional career, I was fortunate to be among the seven promising young leaders from the Gambia selected to participate in the 2019 Mandela Washington Fellowship. In my view, that application passed the essay test simply because I was able to logically craft my essay and present it as a true reflection of my work, my passion and how critically the program could benefit me. The ability to distinguish yourself as a passionate, innovative, goal-driven, and motivated to learn and return home upon completion of the program are issues that are central to the selection process both during the essay writing stage and interview.
The society I emerge from, opportunities are for those who are either well connected to those who are capable of influencing the outcome of those opportunities or for people who are cognizant of these opportunities and are determined to leverage on it regardless of the challenges that abound. I fall in the latter category. Growing up, I have been fortunate to be under the tutelage of people who endured similar hardship, defied the odds and rose to the top as successful people. In them, I have learnt that we rise by lifting others and the impact of their guidance continue to guide my everyday dealing both in personal and professional life. I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who supported me discover my passion and journey to meaningful self-discovery in this world where even with our words, we can inspire and make a lot of differences.
Presidential Precinct, a Charlottesville based non-profit was the institution that gave meaning to the vision and foundation of what former President Obama initiated. At this institute, I was tooled and retooled on the precepts and foundations of modern democracy drawing inspiration from the founding fathers of the United States independence and Democracy whose legacy by design, for the most part is relatively embedded in the Precinct Program. The three historic sites namely James Madison Montpelier, James Monroe Highland and Movren farm all of which are somewhat affiliated to the prestigious College of William and Mary and University Virginia, leaves a lasting impression that underpins sacrosanct life values such as education, compromise and the value of history.
While the fellowship might have ended, I have resolved to commit my life to exude the values and principles of the Precinct- as one political commentator observed, there is no other way to democracy. Democracy is the only way! It will always triumph. However, the rise of populism and frequent use racist slurs from misguided politicians presents enduring challenges to the foundation of democracy. The good thing is that the world today is more committed to observe the values of democracy than ever. If we as a world could assemble against tyranny in defense of freedom, we can stand up against the very few people that want to test the credentials of democracy.
Madela Washington Fellow
Editor’s note: Ebrima Sonko is an LLB (Hons) graduate from the University of the Gambia. He is a Research Assistant at the TRRC, as well as Admin Secretary, Commission on Political Debates, Gambia.