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US YALI Program: Mixed Reviews

President Barack Obama addresses a Young African Leaders Initiative gathering in Washington, Aug. 3, 2016.

Some alumni of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) said their experience in the 2021 Mandela Washington Fellowship improved their technical skills, while others said South Sudan’s poor internet service made it almost impossible to attend the program virtually.

The online format frustrated a handful of South Sudanese candidates who withdrew from the program. Others, like Alexander Ramadan accepted it. Ramadan noted attending virtually was easier for him since he works for Samaritan Purse, an international Christian group that provides humanitarian aid to the needy.

“I was lucky because of my profession; I’ve been a ICT professional, I’m often in locations where there’s VSAT,” said Ramadan.

Ramadan commended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln staff who he said made it easy to navigate the Canvas App, where all resources are shared.

After his fellowship, Ramadan founded the Innovative Organization for Information and Technology, which provides affordable internet access for South Sudanese.

Ramadan would have preferred attending the fellowship in the U.S., but said he made the best of the situation.

“It would have been perfect for fellows to achieve much more, but because of COVID-19, it didn’t. However, I can still say I am grateful,” Ramadan told VOA.

Not everyone saw it that way. Poni Victoria, a communications officer with the South Sudan program ICAP Global Health Institute turned down the fellowship, arguing studying online doesn’t meet the Fellowship goal of bringing together young Africans to learn from each other.

“I believe that fostering cultural exchange, working together, and learning from one another is extremely difficult online. It’s almost impossible that Mandela Washington would be able to achieve this goal virtually,” Victoria told South Sudan in Focus, adding that such learning needs “a physical presence.”

She said she also dropped out of the Fellowship because of South Sudan’s poor internet access and noted it would be difficult for her work to grant her a leave without a travel invite from the program.

YALI fellow Minagano Kape, a poet and author who co-founded ‘Heroines Unspoken Tales’ - a digital platform featuring African women’s stories – said although she hoped to attend in person, the online discussions were educational.

“The virtual experience also in a good way introduced us to the new world order, the new normal, getting to embrace the use of technology, getting to embrace the fact that now people have to work and engage remotely, which was a good experience,” Kape told South Sudan in Focus.

Rombek Esaya Kolorinda, who heads the humanitarian non-profit Global Aim South Sudan, said the YALI Fellowship expanded his knowledge of virtual programming.

“I am actually not well conversant with technology but I was able to grasp and learn quickly because it was the only option I had to the extent that I was able to do programming online, meetings, and presentations on zoom,” Kolorinda told South Sudan in Focus.

Kolorinda, who served as Deputy Speaker of Central Equatoria state’s Ganji County Legislative Council before it was dissolved when South Sudan returned to 10 states, says South Sudan’s weak internet would sometimes hinder his access to online sessions.

Five out of ten South Sudanese fellows from the 2021 Fellowship were selected to travel to the U.S. in July for the Alumni Regiment Institute, a program that brings 200 young African leaders to study and network in the country.

According to the World Bank 2020 Access to Electricity Index, only 7.2 percent of South Sudan’s population has access to electricity which is mostly in the capital Juba, and only 7 percent of its roughly 11.6 million people have access to the internet.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is the flagship program of U.S. government’s Young African Leaders Initiative created in 2014 to bring together nearly 5,100 young leaders aged 25-35 from every African country for academic and leadership training. In 2022, the Fellowship resumed its in-person program and fellows are attending training at institutes across the country.