Before the trip
I am sure I had read about the Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF) somewhere on social media, but it was not until I attended the YALI (Young African Leaders Initiative) course at the Regional Leadership Center, GIMPA (Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration) that I got to really know what the MWF was.
So basically, it was a similar leadership training for emerging leaders as we had at GIMPA but this time in the USA. It definitely interested me but as usual, I came up with all sorts of excuses why I shouldn’t even apply, now when I look back I am so grateful that I actually applied! When I finally decided to apply, I thought ‘let me just take it one step at a time and see’. All along, I had been singing to my husband ‘I doubt that I will go’ making all sorts of excuses.
Finally, when I was offered a placement, I told him about it and he was like ‘ah so you will go!’ and I said ‘yes’. As a wife and mother, my biggest worry was leaving my family for six whole weeks. But one day during a panel discussion, I was inspired by Dr. Ama Amuasi when she narrated how she survived studying abroad for two years. After my encounter with her, I decided to definitely go for it. I got to know about the MWF offer three months ahead of time but I couldn’t muster the courage to tell my kids until about a month to time, even with that I had to break the news slowly and gently haha.
I found out that 40 of us had been selected from Ghana and it was really nice to connect with them via WhatsApp through our able Group Administrator, KwabenaTontohKankam-Yeboah. During the introductions, I constantly marveled at the caliber of fellows and felt really grateful to be part of them. And then we finally met together at the US Embassy for our Pre-Departure Orientation which was well organized making me feel even more positive about this fellowship.
Before I left on 15th June, I made many arrangements to ensure that all my responsibilities would be taken care of while I was away. Once again, my family and friends were extremely supportive. Honestly, I wonder how my life would be if I didn’t have the help I have.
Hmm, I had been dreading the goodbye at the Kumasi Airport since I found out I was selected for the fellowship and to say I wept would just be putting it mildly! Why are goodbyes so hard anyway?! I was so sad that I forgot about my second dread for that particular day – flying on one of those small planes! Oh Lord, here we go again! Well, thank God I made it through as always haha.
Before I left on the Brussels Airline flight, I met up with some old friends and had such a great time catching up at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Accra that I momentarily forgot about my sadness. Flying to Chicago through Brussels was quite enjoyable, see I love big planes: you hardly feel anything. And thanks to free wifi at most airports and WhatsApp video calling, I was able to check in with my family.
My travel companion was Dr. Kemi Olawaiye-Dampson’s ‘Living With Myasthenia Gravis’. As I read this book, I wondered if I would have been that brave had I gone through her experience (I felt really grateful for my life and guilty for all the blessings I took for granted).
So we arrived at the Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, stopped over at the Hilton and made our way to a hostel downtown where we would stay for two nights. Carrying my bags was another story thanks to the weight of my books, Yarns Of Inspiration I (https://goo.gl/pv4Y7z). That day, I met angels from among the fellows and the Program of African Studies team from Northwestern who helped me convey my luggage.
See, I meant to pack light, oh but sometimes that is just impossible! Anyway, I met the rest of the fellows from 15 other African countries and we started breaking the ice. Our two days in downtown Chicago was packed with sight-seeing; we did a boat ride tour, visited the Millennium Park, saw some amazing architecture among others. This was when I learned that the city got burnt in 1871 and was rebuilt, wow.
On Sunday 18th June 2017 my eyes beheld the breath-taking Northwestern University at Evanston! I thought, ‘wow, how did I get here?’ The MWF staff were all nice and helpful and so I settled in quite well. It was even more exciting for me when I realized that the Kellogg School of Management would be handling our academic program. The professors generally exceeded my expectation, most used the exact teaching techniques that I loved, group discussions, games, etc. With every lecture, I thought I had had the best experience until the next lecturer came. In fact, by the last academic session, I was literally breathless! I asked as many questions and took down many notes, this was one experience I never wanted to forget (don’t worry, if you ever attend any of my sessions you’ll get your fair share of what I learned)
What we did
Usually, we had our academic sessions in the mornings and then site visits or networking sessions afterward. We visited 1871 (https://1871.com), the Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at his office, World Business Chicago, Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago (I met an amazing Ghanaian lady called Chatto here who gave me a magic potion that cleared my pimples! Her story will be published soon on The Fabulous Woman Network), Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (who granted me a quick interview later), Rotary Club Headquarters, Google, PriceWater House Coopers, Blue Lacuna (http://www.blue1647.com/blue-lacuna) and many more.
These site visits were carefully put together by the organizers because the fellows at my institute were mostly entrepreneurs. We had many opportunities to network with diverse businessmen and women; it was very exciting and intense indeed! Also, we had weekly visits to the Y.O.U (http://youthopportunity.org/index.php/latest-news/items/young-african-business-leaders-share-entrepreneurial-talents-with-evanston-youth.html) to mentor some of the youth – this was one very interesting experience.
The icing on the cake was when I had my own CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) experience learning how fingerprints were taken during a police ride tour! Oh and I learned one more fact: Chicago has two kinds of weather – winter and construction! Haha. There was construction everywhere I went!
Jollof gone wrong!
Every Monday, we had cultural nights where each week a group of fellows had to cook dishes from their home country. Hmmmm from the minute we found out about the cultural nights the whole conversation about the Ghanaian jollof versus Nigerian jollof got intense. In my mind, I imagined how perfectly my Ghanaian jollof will be with everyone giving it a standing ovation *laugh out loud* Unfortunately, I was having a laugh because the jollof I cooked on that fateful day turned out to be the worst jollof that ever existed! I can’t even describe it, it was such a traumatic experience for me and there was no way I was serving it! Ei, so that the Nigerians will say what?! Never! Our coordinator talked and talked about how I should just serve it and that people would not even know but as for me, I knew and never wanted to let my beloved country down like that. Hahahaa. In the end, I made some fried ripe plantain, chicken, tomato sauce, fruit salad and called it a day!
The amazing fellows
I believe one of the best parts of my MWF experience was the opportunity to meet and share a dorm with the other 24 fellows. I truly found myself among some superstars and yet they were so down to earth. I miss our bonding experiences over drinks, food and great African music. Chai! African music is so superb, you can’t help but dance to it even if you don’t understand what they are saying haha! On some days, we shared these experiences with fellows from nearby institutes or other Africans living on campus.
My favorite experiences
My all-time favorite part of the campus was the lakefront, ooooh my goodness! Such beauty! I used to take walks along the lakefront to think and pray even though on most nights I was terribly cold. I would watch the airplanes flying across the Michigan lake and imagine the passengers, probably going home to their loved ones. Gosh, I missed my family! Anyway, my second favorite place was the Sargent Dining Hall (yes I love food!).
It was particularly the yogurt that kept me going! Haha! You see, I usually pack some gari, Nido, etc on such trips. (I remember how my Aunt Helena in New Jersey used to sort me some Waakye, Ga Kenkey, and Shito when I used to work at a camp in Pennsylvania thirteen years ago!) But for this trip, I told myself to be matured and stop complaining about American food. I was determined to experience the culture and be opened-minded as much as possible so I only sent Lipton Tea and powdered milk (long story!). Well, the food actually exceeded my expectations once I just decided to relax and enjoy it.
Of course, I interviewed some really fabulous women. During my last two interviews, I was so breathless because I felt like these women were talking about me! It is so interesting how women around the world are connected through similar fears, doubts and challenges. I felt even more determined to celebrate women and share their stories to inspire others.
Meeting with some Ghanaians
By some twist of fate, I found an amazing Ghanaian community; Christ’s Oasis Church. They made me feel so much at home, gave me proper jollof to eat as well as opportunities to promote my book during their church services. I also bumped into a mate from University of Ghana on the streets of Chicago and through her, I got to witness Ghanafest (a yearly gathering that brings together thousands of Ghanaians).
During a site visit to the Rotary Headquarters, I made the necessary connections to get me a speaking gig at one of the Rotary Club meetings as well. Rotary is good! Further, through the Mayor’s office, I got connected with Nikki Nigl’s About Women and spoke at her event. I loved speaking at this event as the women were so warm and real, but on my way back to Evanston from Chicago, I got beaten by the rain and my very beautiful African print dress split at the back haha! Thank God I had a cardigan to save my assets! I also felt very welcome at the House of Worship - Randallstown MD and All Nations Church in New Jersey when I was given opportunities to promote my book.
The Holocaust Museum experience
My curiosity about Jews led me on a trip to Skokie where I visited the Public Library, met a very nice lady and donated one of my books. She then directed me to the Holocaust Museum; I had a surreal experience there. I couldn’t believe such atrocities were even possible! Well, my admiration for the Jewish people grew even more as they obviously did not allow their past to be a stumbling block to their future.
And yes I got to pitch my business idea – Startup 101 training for women entrepreneurs (coming soon in Kumasi). This competition was made possible by Bob and Charlene Shaw, a very wonderful couple who are both alumni of Northwestern University.
So here is the thing; in spite of the fact that I love to talk and in fact talk for a living, I don’t like competitions that much. I attempted the first mini-pitch in spite of all the voices that said ‘no’ in my head but did not win anything. Based on this experience, I psyched myself for the main pitch competition at our institute and through the help of the amazing Tiffany Smith, our coordinator and some of the fellows, I actually came out 2nd place! What?! Apparently that was just the beginning. So all fellows on the Business and Entrepreneurship track of the MWF were given a chance to compete in the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) grant competition.
Hmmm another competition. I applied anyway. Getting to the end of the fellowship, there were rumors that the finalists for the grant competition had been notified already and as I hadn’t heard from them, I sort of threw in the towel.
Then one day, I received an email from the office administering the grant and did not open it because for some reason I thought it would go something like ‘Dear Ama, Thank you for applying…unfortunately…’ Haha Oh, ye Ama of little faith! Well, on the last night before we left I finally opened that email and there was my good news! I could not believe it! Jesus did it again! My first attempt at a grant and I actually won, wow. To God be the glory!
We said goodbye to our new friends at Northwestern and left for the summit at the Marriott Marquis in Washington DC. It was really exciting to reunite with the other Ghanaian fellows. We went to see the White House, the Mall to say hi to Abraham Lincoln, DC’s Chinatown, past the African-American Museum, the Ghana Embassy, among others. Notable personalities such as Tony Elumelu came to address the one thousand fellows during the summit. I also had the opportunity to lead one of the panel discussions as well as get interviewed for the YALI podcast. On the last night, my friend Francisca Boateng and her family invited the Ghanaian fellows for some dinner at their home in Virginia. Awww mouth-watering chicken groundnut soup! This ended my MWF experience with a bang!
Frankly, I wasn’t sad on the last day because I felt this was not goodbye. The new friends I have made will be friends for life just as my YALI West Africa cohort-mates.
One of the best things about this fellowship was that we were given thirty days extra to explore the US after the fellowship. My first stop was Virginia to launch my book during the Night of Inspiration. And then Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York (where I got to model on the H&M Runway at Times Square! Haha http://runway.hm.com//#138d1b33-bab8-44b4-af31-5bd606da9edf) and New Jersey to promote my book and visit family.
After two whole months, an intensive experience, many new friends, two flights and a near-miss accident on a VIP bus, I finally arrived home late on 17th August. My joy knew no bounds! I felt so grateful to God that everything that happened worked together for my good. All the things I feared didn’t happen. My kids and husband bonded even more while I was away. Yes, I missed out on their speech and prize giving day, but I got to see a video of my daughter’s ballet recital and pictures as they picked their awards, thanks to their aunties. Of course, I made it up to my husband as well. When my daughter asked ‘Mummy, why are you and Daddy going to spend the night at a hotel?’, my answer was simple ‘because he is my husband!’ Hahahahaa…one day she will get it.
Major learning points
As I reflect on what I learned during the fellowship experience, I realized that I learned so much about running a startup and networked with many people. I appreciated the American culture better and found new family members among my fellows. I noted many ideas that I would love to implement back home and I cannot wait to run our Startup 101 training program for women entrepreneurs later this year. However, the most profound learning point for me was about what was more important to me – faith and family. Everywhere I turned, something happened to make me resolve to be a better child of God, wife and mother.
I would like to use this opportunity to speak to wives and mothers especially; often we say no to opportunities to grow because it might mean sacrificing our families. I totally understand this, once when I turned down an opportunity in Accra because I didn’t want to move away from my family, a friend asked me; are you actually thinking about your family’s future? Well, my suggestion is that the next time you believe a no is a right answer, think about why it is and see if you can find solutions to all the possible challenges. You do that and let God handle the rest because He certainly won’t bring you to it without bringing you through it.
From a grateful heart
I can’t help but feel so grateful. In fact, the past couple of years of my life has been so unpredictable yet awesome! May God bless every person I met along the way on this journey; each one of them has touched me in a unique way. I pray that this fellowship continues and many more Africans benefit from this experience. To the US Embassy Ghana, Program of African Studies and Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, USADF, Bob and Charlene Shaw, IREX and MWF Team, the amazing Northwestern Mandela Washington Fellows, all the Ghanaians and other nationals I met along the way, all the churches and groups that gave me an opportunity to speak, Francisca Boateng, her family, SenaTsikata and everyone who made Night of Inspiration beautiful, THANK YOU!
PS: The 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is now open https://yali.state.gov/washington-fellowship/. You may also apply to the YALI West Africa RLC, read my experience here (https://goo.gl/t5Ey7h).
Long Live YALI
Long Live the Mandela Washington Fellowship
Long Live Africa