It has been a little over 3 weeks of the Mandela Washington Fellowship -MWF at Northwestern University. The three weeks have opened my eyes to some parallels that exist between MWF and a custom deeply embedded within African Cultural Traditions. I found this parallels interesting because MWF is set up to create an opportunity for young African leaders to experience American culture and the American way of doing things in the business, civic and public management space. The more I interact with my cohort fellows the more I realize that it works because we’re going through what is innately African.
Initiation rites in Africa go way back; from all corners of Africa, different tribes had practices that symbolized a coming of age for young people with the most common being circumcision. MWF takes young Africans who are creating social impact in their communities and giving them the skills and network to scale their work. The training we are receiving is preparing us to take stronger leadership roles and move our continent to greater heights. It’s a coming of age of young leaders and helps to understand how exactly we can be the change that we want to see.
A key component of these African initiation rites is the creation of age groups and age sets. While the age set and exact age varied from tribe to tribe it generally ranged from 5-20 people who would go through the initiation process at a certain season. This exercise created camaraderie; boys who were circumcised together became lifelong brothers because of the shared experience and shared an understanding of the pain and fulfillment associated with the process. Some communities would send off their young men into the wild to fend for themselves as they healed from the cut. This lasted anything from one month to six months.
At Northwestern University, the Mandela Washington Fellows are being hosted at Goodrich hall which is a student residential hall. We eat here many times, we sleep here, we rest here when we are not out and about. Many have referred to our arrangement as a low key, no camera season of Big Brother. It is in this space that we exchange thoughts and ideas learned at the Kellogg School of management and through the different interactions we are having with the cities of Evanston and Chicago. Friendships and alliances are being formed in this space and we are creating business and leadership plans together.
We are experiencing different African cultures here and learning about other African countries we thought we knew about but actually did not. We are creating bonds and networks that we hope will serve us well into our old age. Traditionally, the boys or girls that went through initiation together (age-sets) became an integral part of ones’ interaction with the extended community and with the world in general. As older men died and the boys grew into men, the leadership of the communities would change hands seamlessly. While we know we are leaders in our various capacities even today, we also understand that the crop of leaders that have been directing Africa since independence years is slowly falling away and we are prepared to take on the responsibility in the same manner.