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YALI Voices: A Message to Mandela Washington Fellow Hopefuls, Never Give Up
September 21, 2016

(Courtesy photo)

Fellow African leader, is it true that you have decided not to apply for a Mandela Washington Fellowship? That would be a huge mistake! As U.S. senator and 1968 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy told South Africans in 1966, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.”

This year was my third time to apply for the fellowship, after being unsuccessful in 2014 and 2015.

Imagine, if I had given up. I would have not been able to experience six extraordinary weeks with 49 like-minded fellows from 30 countries across Africa, in the same university. I would not have been able to cross paths with an excellent management team from the College of Public Service & Community Solutions at Arizona State University. I would not have been able to experience the best moments of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program: a three-day presidential summit and the town hall meeting with President Obama. I had networking time with senators, development agencies, foundations, nonprofit organizations and the other 950 Fellows from Africa.

When I applied in 2014, I was not selected for the semifinal interview. I said to myself, “Maybe something was missing in my application; but I can make it.” By reading the selection criteria, I refined my skills. I realized that I needed to focus on my passion if I wanted to stand out among the other thousands of applicants. As a passionate community organizer, I traveled to my home village and shared my passion with young people. As the saying goes, “Charity begins at home.” In my village, my words convinced young people to build houses for the community school teachers. I continued my work in Bamako, the capital of Mali. There, I initiated the Let’s Speak English Forum, a free English-learning environment for youth and professionals to practice English. In 2015 I was selected among the Mandela Washington Fellowship semifinalists for an interview. I did not make it to the U.S. that year, but I was on the waiting list.

As Henry Ford said, “Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” I continued working on my ideas. After creating the Let’s Speak English Forum, I founded the Bamako English Toastmasters Club, the first Toastmasters International English Club in Mali. Toastmasters International is a world-known organization that helps its members refine their public speaking and leadership skills. That same year, I held many other leadership roles with Toastmasters. In October 2015 I participated in a YALI Network TechCamp in South Africa. In early 2016 I took part in the Sahel Leadership Program in Burkina Faso to learn about the problems facing the Sahel region. In 2016 I founded Live Your Dream, an organization focused on empowering youth in leadership, public speaking, and entrepreneurship.

In 2016 I applied for the third time for the Fellowship and the Professional Development Experience (PDE), the follow-on internship program for 100 Fellows. After the interview, I received the Fellowship but not the PDE. However, during the Fellowship, I received news that I would be able to remain in the U.S. for an additional six weeks to refine my skills as part of the PDE.

Fellow African leader, I tell you my 12 weeks in the U.S. has been a life-changing experience. I have been able to network with hundreds of people in Africa and in the U.S. I also have had the chance to shake the hand of President Barack Obama. Can you see now why you should not give up? We never know when chance and good preparation will meet.

Alfousseni Sidibé has over seven years’ experience in the agricultural community-development sector. He served as communications manager for President Obama’s global hunger and food-security project, Feed the Future, where he focused on communication activities to inform beneficiaries about improved technologies to increase income. In 2016, Alfousseni joined the USAID Mali Justice Project as communication and outreach coordinator. He is also founder and CEO of the personal development startup LYD (Live Your Dream). LYD empowers young students with public speaking, leadership, entrepreneurship and English skills and has a special mentoring program for young girls. With a master’s in English from the University of Bamako and a bachelor’s in business administration, Alfousseni is the founding president of the Bamako English Toastmasters Club, the first English club in Mali.