Within the 5,000-plus community of UIS scholars are two young leaders, Yamundow Camara and Metta Kongira, who overcame tremendous odds to be selected by President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
Through YALI, these students learn skills and form connections enabling them to help their homeland develop its information technology and public health sectors and grow on a sustainable path to prosperity.
“President Obama first launched YALI in 2010 to support young African leaders as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa,” states the initiative’s website, yali.state.gov.
Further, as part of YALI, President Obama created the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, which “[connects] young African leaders to leadership training opportunities at some of America’s top universities to expand their leadership skills and knowledge,” according to whitehouse.gov.
Camara and Kongira are Mandela Washington Fellows, two of Africa’s emerging young leaders, and graduate students at UIS, studying management information systems and public health, respectively.
Camara’s and Kongira’s road to becoming Mandela Washington Fellows and UIS scholars was difficult, to say the least. Born and raised in the Islamic Republic of The Gambia, the smallest country on mainland Africa, Camara and Kongira overcame numerous economic and cultural constraints that impede many women in The Gambia from pursuing a higher education or assuming leadership roles. After all, less than 50 percent of women age 15 and older are literate in The Gambia, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics.
“When you say ‘education’ in my country, especially in certain communities, education is for boys. Woman are just raised to get married. You stay home, as a girl, and wash bowls, and clean and cook, and do all the basic things, and the boys go to school,” said Camara.
Kongira corroborated the sentiment. “Traditionally, in The Gambia, the culture is women are not really empowered…Things are changing now. More people are sending their girl child to school. And this is achieved through a longtime advocacy. There are many women leaders who contributed to this, so they change the policies and encourage women to be equally educated like their male counterparts,” said Kongira.
Despite the odds, both Camara and Kongira advanced through higher education, with Camara earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2012, and Kongira earning a bachelor’s in biology in 2013.
After graduation, Camara landed a job as a software engineer and emerged as a leader in her community, where she coordinates two non-profit organizations that focus on education, technology, and agriculture.
Kongira worked briefly at a laboratory as a public health officer before coming to the United States in 2014 as one of the original YALI Fellows. Returning home, Kongira left the confines of the lab to work as the project manager at a public health non-profit.
In their capacity as community leaders, Camara and Kongira regularly made appearances on television and gave motivational speeches in schools.
The application process for the YALI is extremely competitive, as approximately 50,000 people between the ages of 25 and 35 apply. After a series of interviews, applicants are formally selected in March of each year. In mid-June, applicants arrive at host universities, where they are put through six weeks of leadership training in one of three tracks, according to whitehouse.gov.
Kongira received six weeks of leadership training in civic leadership at the University of California, Berkeley, in June of 2014; Camara received her leadership training in business and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University beginning in June of 2016.
Kongira visited the headquarters of Google and Oracle in California, and eventually traveled to Columbus, Ohio for an eight-week internship at the Franklin County Public Health Department.
While at Northwestern, Camara met with dignitaries, such as the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky. Camara also visited technology centers, like Google and 1871.
On Aug. 3, 2016, just before the beginning of classes at UIS, Camara visited Washington D.C., where she attended a three-day Presidential Summit, including a town hall meeting with President Obama.
Camara and Kongira intend to use their learning experience at UIS to help their compatriots now and in the future. Upon completing their education at UIS, both of these young leaders will return to The Gambia to take on leadership roles and further the country’s development.
Remember the names Yamundow Camara and Metta Kongira, as these young African leaders are sure to make a big impact on Africa’s future.
Written By Sean Blackwell, Staff Writer