Over the course of a week, Louise Mandumbwa and Felistus Ndlovu spent many hours together, from tracking warthog tracks to small group discussions on gender-based violence to University lectures on water scarcity. Although the two teenagers hailed from different sides of the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, their communities faced a common set of challenges, including water shortages, declines in wildlife populations, and two of the highest incidences of gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS in the world. Despite these obstacles, the two future leaders exhibited the intellectual vitality and drive essential to guiding their communities to a brighter future.
Alongside 28 other Batswana and Zimbabwean youth, the two secondary-school students shared a tent -- and with that, many conversations -- at the Tachila Nature Reserve, 15 kilometers south of Francistown in Botswana. Jointly organized by the U.S. Embassies in Gaborone and Harare, their program included two days at the Tachila Nature Reserve followed by two days near Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe. Amongst the native flora and fauna of the region, the students would learn about human-wildlife conflict and the potential for wildlife-based tourism to bolster their respective countries’ economies. They would discuss healthy lifestyle choices, prevention of HIV/AIDS, and how to address gender-based violence. They would also learn about the role of water in the region, visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Khami Ruins), participate in community service projects, and share their perspectives on the preservation of minority languages and cultural traditions. It would be an exciting, action-packed week for the group of dynamic 16-18 year olds that were hand-picked by their respective U.S. Embassies for their leadership skills and extracurricular involvement.
The program got even better the next day, when two U.S. Ambassadors and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (DAS) for Southern African Affairs arrived at the nature reserve, ready to engage the students on a range of issues, including career development. Louise was ready with her burning question: “How do I get to be where you are?” Over the course of the program, Louise and the other students had the opportunity to discuss with U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Bruce Wharton, U.S. Ambassador to Botswana Michelle Gavin, and DAS Shannon Smith how they too might one day lead their countries. It was the first opportunity for these youth to engage with high-level U.S. officials, but given the talent, ambition, and leadership ability represented in the group, it is unlikely to be the last.
Young leaders like Louise and Felistus are the key to fostering a prosperous, healthy, and democratic future for Africa. Exchange programs of this kind expose rising stars to broad discussions on the multi-faceted challenges facing the continent, promote mutual understanding between their respective countries and the United States, and empower them with the necessary tools to one day lead their countries. During the program, EducationUSA representatives provided information on study opportunities in the United States and introduced a recent Zimbabwean graduate of Stanford University who discussed the value of an American education. Subsequent efforts will introduce these and other youth in both countries to additional resources, including exchange opportunities like the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Washington Fellowship. The message is clear: the United States is committed to the success of tomorrow’s African leaders.
As the sun set on the students’ last day with the Ambassadors and DAS, palpable excitement filled the air. The group crowded around a makeshift stage as much-needed rain soaked into the earth, and one-by-one, small groups of students sang, danced, and performed spoken word for their new friends. The dress was new and old, the songs traditional and modern, and the energy high. While Louise and Felistus cemented their friendship, cheers and clapping faded into the night, leaving all with a sense of anticipation and promise for the future.