Washington — Giving young Africans educational opportunities, especially in science or medicine, will increase the chances that Africans themselves will find solutions to HIV/AIDS and other challenges facing the continent, says a young Beninese doctor and activist for youth empowerment.
"We don't have to wait for every solution to come from Europe or the USA," said Joannie Bewa, social activities director for the Young Beninese Leaders Association. "They have to be our solutions."
Bewa spoke during a May 2 panel discussion at the U.S. Department of State, where she and other young African professionals met with policymakers. The Africans, all from French- or Portuguese-speaking countries, were participating in the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which annually brings more than 5,300 young and emerging leaders from around the world to the United States.
It is important to be optimistic about Africa's future and to give young Africans the tools to help solve Africa's problems, Bewa said. "The U.S. gives money to programs to fight HIV/AIDS, and that's great," she said. "But what about getting young African girls and boys to be more involved in science in order to find the vaccine or tablet against HIV/AIDS?"
She also stressed the need to change Africa's image in the world, saying that "there is hope in our continent. There is hope in my country, Benin."
Responding to Bewa's remarks, Ronan Farrow, director of the State Department's Office of Global Youth Issues, said a spirit of optimism can guide a new generation of leaders in Africa to be independent "and build their own solutions."
"Your illustrations that the cure for the next pandemic may be in a young African's mind is absolutely the case," Farrow said. "That is why we work so directly with partnering and empowering young Africans."
He and the other officials encouraged the IVLP participants to offer suggestions for ways the United States can support entrepreneurship, health and democracy initiatives in Africa.
KEEPING THE DIALOGUE GOING
The IVLP participants said they were determined to keep the dialogue going after the program ended and to turn information and ideas into concrete projects. "After this meeting, I think we have to become a strong Young African Leaders network that can impact other young leaders in our communities," Bewa said.
"This program keeps me inspired," she said. "I'm already thinking about many activities I can apply in my community."
Bewa, 23, said the Young Beninese Leaders Association (YBLA) was started in 2010 as a follow-up to President Obama's conference in Washington with more than 100 young African leaders from across the continent. The group works with young people to increase their leadership and civic engagement.
YBLA started a "women's empowerment campaign" that received funding through the small grants program of the Young African Women Leaders Forum, a 2011 conference in South Africa at which U.S. first lady Michelle Obama spoke. Bewa and other YBLA members organized a workshop for women entrepreneurs and then took the campaign to girls' secondary schools, where they focus on leadership skills. They encourage the girls to believe in themselves, set high standards and be persistent in the face of obstacles.
Bewa has attended two Model United Nations conferences in Berlin. In 2011, she came in first in the French Category of the "Dream or Prophecy" speech contest sponsored by the American Center in Cotonou, Benin's capital. This contest was part of the Martin Luther King Day commemoration and Black History Month.
Asked what she likes best about the exchange program, Bewa in an email said "making connections with other young African leaders who all have a development vision for Africa by Africans," and the opportunity "to be inspired by America's policies and model of democracy."
"And last but not least," she said, "the meeting with the authorities at the State Department headquarters to Hear our Voice -- because OUR VOICE is what we have the most."
The IVLP participants are traveling to other U.S. cities to learn about the U.S. political process, volunteerism, youth and women's programs, and other aspects of American civic life. The three-week program ends May 18.
See the International Visitor Leadership Program website and Young African Leaders Embrace Hope, Optimism.