Summer 2019 Young African Leaders Initiative, an Interview with Two Fellows

Photo of thee people standing next to each other in front of the digital screen in Bird Library. African male, caucasian male, and African female.

Left to right: Benedict Richard Bekui, Clinical Coordinator and Senior Medical Officer at New Abirem Government Hospital, Ghana; Michael Pasqualoni, librarian Communications and Public Affairs; Annie Chipeta, Regional Courts Administrator, Malawi.
Photo credit: Caitlin Brandle (Syracuse University Libraries)

by Michael Pasqualoni, librarian for Communications and Public Affairs at Syracuse University Libraries

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). This past summer 2019, the fellowship provided nearly 700 young leaders from Sub-Saharan African with the opportunity to hone their skills at higher education institutions across the United States, including a smaller subset at Syracuse University. Michael Pasqualoni, librarian for Communications and Public Affairs, participated in the program and had an opportunity to interview two fellows, Annie Chipeta from Malawi and Benedict Richard Bekui from Ghana on July 24, 2019. Here is a slightly edited version of the interview.

What led you to the YALI program?

Annie [Chipeta]:  I come from Malawi, a country in the southern part of Africa and in my country I work as a courts administrator as well as program manager for the judiciary of Malawi, which is a branch of government.  In my role there, I am responsible for all the administrative purchase of resources for the courts, insuring the courts are in working order and the staff is adequately deployed where it’s supposed to be. I am also responsible for managing a European Justice and Accountability Project.  This program is a five year program in which the European Union provides the judiciary with funding to carry out various activities.  My role is actually planning activities that insure that there’s access to justice for vulnerable groups.

How did you learn about this Young African Leaders Initiative and what attracted you to it?

Annie:  The Young African Leaders Initiative has been alive for quite awhile, and a friend of mine got in in 2014, and I think that was either the very first cohort or one of the first.  I saw the exposure that she got from the program.  I felt professionally it really helped her focus and gave her career a boost.  So I was attracted to that.  I also wanted to gain a certain skill set from the program to grow professionally, expand my networks.

Benedict [Richard Bekui]:  I am from Ghana.  I am a medical doctor.  I currently work as the clinical coordinator for New Abirem Government Hospital, which is a district hospital.  I also work as a medical officer there.  I have been fluent about this [YALI] program for about five years now.  Initially I saw senior colleagues who were involved, the kind of work they have done and I thought, “Now these are people who are doing a lot to help my country.”

If you reflect on the program from when you arrived, do you have one or two things that stand out as memorable?

Annie:  I’ll say one of the most memorable things has been actually sitting in a lecture room in this [Syracuse] university.  It’s very different in terms of the way the course is instructed and delivered, because I have spent my entire life studying in my country.  The approach the lecturers take is very engaging.  In my home country if somebody is delivering a course program, they will have either their PowerPoint or they have a blackboard and chalk and write.  There’s very little participation with the students.  And, as such, it becomes a matter of obligation for the students to go to class, but not necessarily looking forward to learn and staying interested.

Richard:  From the beginning I received the message that set the tone for everything that was going to happen, and what I took away from that talk was given by Professor McPeak.  He said that one of the things the Maxwell School seeks to achieve and teaches is that you should leave the place better than you found it. That is something that always struck me.  I decided I’m going to learn things here that will make me better by the time I get back to my home country. The other thing I realized is everything I have been learning is targeted toward solutions.  Back home you learn new things and you have to ask yourself, what am I going to use this information for? But here, by the time the lecture is over, the way it is taught, I am able to connect it to a solution.  So it’s not just knowledge, but it is applied knowledge.

Can you share your home experiences with libraries or librarians?

Annie:  My experience has been good.  My first major experience of a library was in high school.  It was very small, because this is secondary education just before university.  There wasn’t much to do except study, read some story books, maybe a few textbooks. And then in the university, the library was much bigger. That’s the University of Malawi.  You could borrow some books. This library is still not very developed.  Not many books online, if at all. It remains that way, except that we are moving into a more technological era.  These institutions are beginning to adapt, but Malawi is still very much a developing country, it’s adapting to those changes at a very slow pace.  My interactions with librarians, it’s been very easy, very nice.  You walk in.  You cannot trace a particular book that you’d like to do your research on, or you’d like guidance on which books you should look into for particular research that you’d like to do, and they’ll provide the guidance.

Richard: Whatever information I’m going to give is probably backdated for 5 years, so things may have changed a lot. Growing up in basic [elementary] school, my idea of a library was a room full of books and you are supposed to be quiet when you are there.  Most people didn’t read books or borrow books in the library when I was in basic school.  However, when I was in secondary school, the library provided a quiet area where you can study and a few books that were curriculum study material and others that would just give you leisure reading.  But in the university, the libraries were mainly set up for reading.  Most people do not read the books in the library.  They bring their own books in.  I bring my own books from my house, and then I can read in the library. But in medicine now, whenever I need information, I have found that the Internet is the best place to go.  So, for most medical textbooks that I have, they were written several years back.  I acknowledge the information there.  When I want the latest stuff, I have to go to the Internet, look for journals that have it, which we don’t have access to some of them because they’re very expensive.

What is the situation when you want to access books to buy?  Where would you go? 

Richard:  So, for medical textbooks, we have agencies, because the medical school is at one place.  You place your order.  If you are looking for a book that agency doesn’t have, then usually a professor may have it and they will not give it out to you.  So they will show you where you can get it and you have to order it.  The most current hardcopy books are difficult to come by.  Sometimes people have to photocopy the books, which is against copyright laws.  I think in a small section that they need, if a professor has the book, then he sneaks off and does a copy of that small section.

When you borrowed a book, how long you were allowed to keep it?

Annie:  If I remember correctly it was about a day.  There were certain books described as those on high demand, they were in a special section of the library called the reserve.  So if you got a book from the reserve you could only have it for a day, because other students needed to get it.  But if you got it from other parts of the library, you could have it three days to a week.

Are there any experiences that struck you as different about the learning environment here in the U.S. and at Syracuse? 

Richard:  The first thing is it is a very relaxed environment.  You’ll be able to meet your professor in the hallway and have a chat with him about academics as well as non-academic stuff.  Every morning he comes around and asks, “How are you doing? Do you have any issues I can help you with?”  It struck me if there’s something that’s preventing me from being able to do the work I’m supposed to do, he is concerned about that.  Back home, it is difficult to approach a professor because he feels like we’re on different levels.  So if you are coming to me, you have a problem and I’m the solution, and he’ll say, “I don’t have time now, come see me in my office in a week’s time.” They are not so open to engage because they feel that the more that they engage they lose some level of reverence.

Annie: It’s the same, because a student is here [gesture indicates a level], and the lecturer is here on another level, higher than the student.  So there is no interaction.  There is this clear cut line between the lecturer or professor and the student.  Here at Syracuse University perhaps we haven’t met every different type of personality, character, but they are more accommodating.  They are friendlier.  And you call them by their first name.  In my country, you cannot dare call someone with their PhD by their first name.

When you thought about coming to the United States for the YALI program, was there any one thing that surprised you the most?

Richard:   I knew that there was a lot of income inequality and poverty in the U.S., but I did not know the extent of it, the statistical extent of it.  And that has been overwhelming information for me.  I’m still trying to get my head around how that could make sense, and how for a nation that has come up with so much solutions how is that still there?  Aside from the data, the other thing that I saw, and I know it is a biased lens, we had to do some community engagement at the Samaritan Center [a nonprofit organization in Syracuse that provides food for the hungry], and we were helping to provide free meals for the people who obviously needed it.  I could see them as they walk in, and I could see families that looked like they were running to get there so that they don’t miss it.  They walk in and you can see that the mom is panting.  The dad that’s pushing the cart is full of sweat and is panting.  So it’s a struggle for them to get there.  And then I get the information that there are people who would work one or two jobs and still not be able to break out of that poverty line.

Annie: I think for me it’s an issue of perception.  The perception that we, as Africans, have of the United States of America.  You know, when I was coming here, everybody else in my country said, “You are going to one of the biggest economies in the world, this giant United States.” Everybody is looking at you like, “wow, this is such an achievement, being recognized by the Department of State of the United States.” And it’s great and all that, but when you are here those perceptions begin to change.  The country is great. There’s so many opportunities.  There are so many resources available, especially when you come here.  At the same time, there’s the issue of inequality.  Even before going to the Samaritan Center that we visited, just looking around.  I found myself in one of the neighborhoods.  I got on a bus.  I was looking for this restaurant and I saw it on Google Maps, and I dropped off a couple of blocks earlier than I should have.  So, I’m walking in this neighborhood, and I could feel a difference from where we are right now.  I felt uneasy.  I saw these big guys with tattoos, and they were wearing head things, and I knew immediately I was not in a very safe part of Syracuse.  And the houses looked dilapidated.  And I said, “What, am I in the same America?  Did I just walk into a portal and I am somewhere else?”  People from my country will leave Africa to say they’re in search of greener pastures, because it is expected that there are greener pastures here, opportunities.  But I don’t think it’s that simple to tap into that milk and honey.  I was in a naïve kind of thinking, but now my eyes are open.

Richard:  Back home, there’s a lot of income inequality also, but I think that for most people who are able to hold down a job, they will be able to at least take care of their basic needs to some extent.

Annie: Cost of living here is higher, because something that at home I would get for half the price.  And yet, the perception back home is that things are cheaper here.

Richard:  I think that every society, people have the top 1% that the rest of the 99 work for. I think that forever human beings over time, a group emerges who seem to be the elite and become the pacesetters.  They seem to live very good compared to others.  And the rich naturally are getting richer, because the rich know how to make money.  So, if I am making 100 million dollars for my company, if I was paying everybody very good, I wouldn’t be making 100 million dollars, I’d probably be making 20.  Luckily the law doesn’t force me to pay them very well, so I’m going to pay them just enough, so I can go home with my 100 million dollars.

Annie:  In Malawi, in particular, there is no such thing as philanthropy. Even the richest by international standards are not very wealthy.  Most of those who are rich are not very rich from straightforward means.  Because it’s either through taxpayer’s money, corruption yes, or some sort of deals.  We really haven’t had philanthropy from within.  It’s mostly international aid coming in.

Richard:  I find that the infrastructure for philanthropy that is homegrown is not existent [in Ghana].  In the U.S. I know if I want to give away money, there is a foundation here and I can say take the money, do something.  In Ghana, that does not exist.  So, I have to form a foundation and do something with it.  And very few wealthy people have helped to innovate hospitals, have helped to build a wing for a hospital, have bought equipment for a hospital, very few.  And most of us think what they are doing is very small compared to what they are capable of doing.

What would you like to say about access to information across international borders?  What would you like to see? 

Richard:  Before I came for YALI, I went for a seminar on research in Ghana.  Mainly health workers talking about doing research and one of the presenters, an accomplished clinician, said that Africa contributes to about 1% of the knowledge that is generated from research in the world.  Most of the research that’s available is done elsewhere and applied in Africa. Or people come to Africa to do their research.  That is one of the reasons it’s difficult for us to access, it costs money to do this research.  There’s an economic model, paying for information so they are not just going to say come for the results and apply it, because that’s somebody’s work.  I am also happy that at least there are certain open access resources like PubMed that you can go to and still get good information. Unfortunately, as you dive deeper and look for more technical things, you come across the “you have to pay $300.”  And I have been in that situation before where I was helping, I was assisting a man who I believe had gotten an occupational disease, and I had to prepare a document to prove that.  I needed a lot of information to make sure what I am saying is going to be internationally recognized.  And I came across a lot of bottlenecks with having to pay for articles.  The ones I needed the most are the ones I had to pay for.

Annie:  I think most of the research has been “by the books” because that has been what has been accessible — offline.  I have used [the online database] Emerald, which is general. It was through a university in Malawi that has an affiliation with another university in England.  So that is how I was able to access Emerald.  However, my time here we went to Cornell University, and they gave us some resources on how we can access certain information online.  This is free information.

If you were going to talk to young people about themes of leadership that you think are really important, has something resonated from this experience?  What should they think about to be an effective leader? 

Annie: The entire program is there to hone the skills of leadership amongst us.  There was “Clifton’s Strengths Finder” that we had to take.  It is like a psychoanalysis and it finds your strengths. After I took this, I realized I really am this person as a leader.  My first one was “futuristic,” it means that I think about the future, what could be, and I want to inspire that in others, to also think about doing better for the future. There were others I would count to be amongst my top five and that was “ideation,” this is the ability to come up with ideas.  I told you about my role where I come up with various activities to enhance access to justice for vulnerable groups.  So, if I am able to really capitalize on this skill and become more innovative, then I think about what sort of impact we can have in the justice sector, granting access to justice and resolving all these problems that are being faced in the courts.  There is also “activation,” where you have an idea and you have to act fast. It’s one thing to have ideas, it’s another to implement them. People are comfortable with the status quo.  But eventually, somehow, we all go towards wanting change.

Richard:  I was thinking to recall fully the discussion we had with Sean O’Keefe.  He took some basic principles you can do, some steps to lead an organization to positive change.  One of the things he mentioned that really stuck with me and I’d really like to share with young people, is the idea of integrity, that you say what you’re going to do and do what you say, and people know that they can trust you.  We came to the conclusion that if you lose that quality, it is very difficult to get back.  So, as a leader you can make mistakes and you correct them. But if people think you don’t have integrity, then you are no longer a leader because you can no longer influence them.  Like I was saying, you should strive to leave whatever situation better than how it was when you found it.  And talking about change, I have come to realize that change is based on your perception, and you can’t function beyond your exposure, so there is only a limited number of ways I can change what’s in this room, but when I realize there are things outside that I can bring here, things in here that I can send outside, that’s a different dimension of change.  So, if we’re talking about access to information, every day when I read an article I know somebody who is doing something and has succeeded, that’s an environment that fosters change.  So, you have seen somebody do it and succeed and you are going to do the same.  But if you don’t have access to that information, then your perception of change is limited.  You don’t know what’s possible.  Therefore, you can’t imagine beyond that.

AUTHOR NOTE:

Thank you to the Maxwell School of Public Citizenship faculty and staff, including John McPeak, Stuart Bretschneider and Ronda Garlow, for involving Syracuse University Libraries in this U.S. State Department funded experience. Michael Pasqualoni from Syracuse University Libraries provided YALI Fellows with research orientation and visits to Bird Library. YALI Fellows were also introduced to the Library’s Blackstone Launchpad.