My American Experience

Bongi YALI InternBy Bongi Ndakisa

Bongi Ndakisa, a Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) intern from South Africa, offers reflections on her internship in the United States


I was born and raised in the rural area of Sidwadweni administrative area in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. Like any other young person growing up in a rural community, you dream of getting out of that situation and look for greener pastures in the big cities. I was privileged enough to do exactly that. I left my home and moved to Johannesburg where I worked for about eight years. Never had I thought it would take going back home to start Kwenzekile Community Development Centre that I would be given an opportunity to go to America.

When I heard about the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) or the Mandela Fellowship, a U.S. program that invests in young African leaders, I thought anyone living in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape would never be accepted; there are more qualified candidates in big cities who are making a difference. However, my friend insisted that I apply, and I did just that to shut her up. Lo and behold, I was invited for interviews. From there, it was a shock after another when I was told that I made it through for the six-week training, and then again when I was accepted for the internship.

A group of 25 of the 500 YALI interns from 16 African countries spent six hot weeks in Arizona State University (ASU) in Phoenix, Arizona. It was amazing to see how brilliant these young people were and I couldn’t help but ask myself: How in the world did I make it to be part of these future leaders of our continent? How will I bring the change that is so much needed?

The civic leadership track that we were on at ASU was packed with information designed to help make the work that we are doing back home more meaningful. We learned about:

  • Citizenship, Ethics and Leadership in public Organizations
  • Community Building and Grassroots Activism
  • Technology’s role in Engagement and Communities
  • Economic Development and Social enterprise
  • Program Evaluation
  • Outreach and advocacy
Kwenzekile Community Development Centre

Kwenzekile Community Development Centre

After the six weeks at ASU the whole group descended on Washington, DC for the Washington Fellowship Summit. Everyone was excited about being addressed by the President and First Lady of the United States and maybe one could even shake their hands. Secretary of State John Kerry was the first to address the group where he reminded us that we are the future of Africa and that change starts with us. President Barack Obama told us that Africa is depending on its young people to make a change. The most inspiring speaker was First Lady Michelle Obama. She spoke straight to the hearts of the 500 young people about respecting the women and girl children, and how it’s important for males to teach other men to respect women.

Then I was off to New York City for my internship with The Africa-America Institute. I was excited about coming to AAI because I spoke to Amini Kajunju before I left South Africa to learn more about the organization.

My time at AAI proved to be everything I expected and more. First of all, I learned that leaders create new leaders, not followers. And I gained skills that I will take back home to help improve the way we do things.

I will now do more research on all the issues that we’re dealing with as a community organization. Going to meetings and “selling” the organization are some of the great things I watched Amini and Brian McGinley, AAI’s Development Director, do so well. I was in awe of how easy they make it seem. I think I will try to do the same about my organization.

Kwenzekile Community Development Centre is going to benefit from all that I learned at AAI.

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