It really has been a long week, with a cocktail of thought provoking conversations, field trips, mad fun and learning.
I also think the fellows seem to be bonding well now. People are striking great relationships while others try to tolerate the annoying ones; hopefully I’m not annoying anybody.
Just think about what happens when 25 super intelligent brains from Kenya, Malawi, Sudan, Ghana, Nigeria, Burundi, Mali, Liberia, Botswana, Swaziland, South Africa, Burkina Faso, DR Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe are all put together in one room. Maybe later I will pick each one of my new African friends and write about them, but that is for later. For now though, let me tell you about something fascinating… I’m learning sign language.
My new language
I came on this programme with an “empty head,” prepared to stuff it with as much as I can learn. But I definitely did not think, or in my wildest dreams anticipate living with a deaf person. I’m not sure what my feelings were when I figured it out. But the questions came pouring; how will we communicate? Will our stay in our suite be boring? What if he needs something? What if I need him to do something? With my own concocted gestures, I tried to tell my Kenyan roomie Richard Mativu Masau very early one the morning, that I’m going back to sleep for one more hour before breakfast so he should wake me up before then. It turns out I told him something completely different. I missed breakfast and was nearly late for class. This would be a really difficult 6 weeks with Richard, I thought to myself.
However our first class session on this programme really opened my eyes to something probably you, and I have taken for granted. Inclusiveness. I don’t think we have bothered much about people with disabilities within our communities. Mind you, disabilities are not just physical, some are hidden; like hearing impairment, brain disorders, among others. I think from what we learnt, America is a doing a great job at making sure persons with disabilities do not feel alienated. For each class session and all field trips, interpraters were provided. So I thought to myself, why don’t I attempt to learn the sign language? It actually might make my stay with Richard more enjoyable.
Well, I have and now I’m able to say good morning, welcome, how are you? Thank you and also spell in sign language. On Saturday night, I was proud of myself. As I struggled to communicate to him, I remember I could actually spell what I wanted to say. I did, he smiled and in all the excitement, gave me a fist bump that nearly broke my knuckles lol. Just to let you know though, Richard can speak but can’t hear. He’s an intelligent and a great guy! And oh, he can really cook! Wink wink…
Spread across dozens of respected US universities; some of Africa’s most promising leaders have been learning about all the nuances of civic leadership, public management and business and entrepreneurship. These academic courses have been carefully crafted to expose these young leaders to how Americans “did it”. But just to be clear, this Mandela Washington Fellowship did not bring us to see a perfect America, learn and magically transform the Africa continent in a twinkle of an eye.
I like the reality check from the Programme Director at the University of Illinois, Dr Jeff Friedman; “America is NOT perfect!”
And honestly that is the plain truth. At our opening reception at the plush Illini Union building, the Director of the Cline Centre for Democracy, Scott Althaus put it quite succinctly; that the country is seeing one of its worst election campaigns in decades, with some of the most appalling comments from Presidential candidates, just like we hear back home in Ghana.
As a matter of fact, through our ‘Civic Engagement in Modern American Society’ class, our professor Joe Hinchliffe displayed dozens of false statements some of the current Presidential candidates made during their campaigns, just like we hear back home in Ghana. I couldn’t believe that the state of Illinois had gone almost the entire fiscal year without passing the state budget because the leaders on the Democratic and Republican sides could not come to a consensus, effectively affecting certain social interventions.
— Nana Boakye-Yiadom (@boakyecitifm) June 21, 2016
Only 9% of Americans trust Congress (the legislator), only one third of the population trust the justice system and just fewer than 40% of Americans trust the presidency. So yeah, America is NOT perfect.
However, I think what makes the US the “All mighty America” is actually their attempt to fix their mistakes. To a very large extent, the country has made enviable strides through civic engagement, which constantly looks out for the interest of the people. And from what we are learning here, they are indeed fighting to make it better. And so should we.
We have also been studying and discussing the American judicial and education systems and the civic movements that have supported the development of America. The organizers of the programme at the University of Illinois have done a fantastic job, making sure we practicalize most of the things we learn in the classroom. So during the week, we were the jurors in a moot court at the law school. I never realized how difficult the work of a juror is until I was put in that position. But it was fun, intellectually engaging and an eye opener.
Then the Fun Weekend
How else can a great weekend start? My very good friend from Y FM, Nana Akosua Hanson’s birthday was on Friday 25th June. It was as if the city of Champaign planned another street festival to coincide with the birthday. So we made it the party grounds. Some blues, good old jazz music, drinks and well made ribs were just enough to ensure we turned the place on its head.
The usual suspects; Sim and J from South Africa, Phazha from Botswana, Prince from Liberia and yours truly, made sure Nana Akosua had a blast.
But Saturday was really good too, as we drove out of the main university campus to visit the Allerton Park. This facility was owned by perhaps the richest bachelor in US at the time. Because he didn’t have biological children, he later donated this sprawling and amazing park to the university of Illinois.