Though the University of Minnesota’s Mandela Washington fellows hail from 18 different African countries, their focus was on the well-being of the entire continent Thursday morning as they discussed widespread problems with former diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Thomas-Greenfield, a former ambassador to Liberia and former assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, encouraged young professionals — whose careers include teaching, acting, medicine and government, among others — to take the long view as they work to improve society.

“Don’t try to speed up your progress,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Just be good at what you do.”

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is run by the U.S. State Department through the Young African Leaders Initiative and includes 1,000 fellows who have six-week long residencies at universities across the country.

For the 25 fellows hosted by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs this year, leadership takes many forms.

Nangoh Maewo Nangoh, a 28-year-old from Cameroon who works as a project manager for Doctors Without Borders, said he hopes to design health care policies for refugees and displaced populations.

Until then, he said would take Thomas-Greenfield’s advice to be patient and make the most of his current position, because those roles almost always belong to older people in Africa.

Nangoh said most bureaucrats and policymakers in his country are in their 80s. “For a young person who has ambitions in Africa as a whole, it’s kind of difficult to get into the policymaking thing directly,” he said.

Thomas-Greenfield said the main problems facing Africa are population growth, poverty, famine, and conflict. She blamed the terrorist group Boko Haram for steering Africa’s large population of youths toward conflicts that hold down growth in the continent.

“You guys are the lucky ones,” she said. “There are many more thousands of them than there are of you.”

Roné McFarlane, an education researcher and activist with the South African nongovernmental organization Equal Education, said discussions about improving Africa often focus on what its nations should do differently. Seldom mentioned are what the rest of the world can do to help, such as ending “extractive business practices,” she said, referring to the oil industry and similar industries.

Thomas-Greenfield said the world needs to treat African nations as equal partners, and African governments need to stand up to companies to get better deals for their natural resources.

Thomas-Greenfield said she isn’t “starry-eyed” about the future of Africa, but she is optimistic. She told the fellows that they will be the solutions to the problems they cited.

“Maybe one of you will be president,” she said. “But you don’t have to be president to be a leader.”


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