Virginians may not know it, but for the month of July, the state is hosting a select group of future world leaders.
The Mandela fellowship, started by President Obama, is a prestigious program that brings some of Africa’s best and brightest young leaders to the U.S. This year, Virginia Commonwealth University is one of just four colleges hosting 50 Mandela fellows for six weeks.
Among the families, grocery shoppers and produce stands at Richmond’s South of the James Farmer’s Market are some people you might not expect.
“Some of them are going to be Presidents, I’m going to be running for Prime Minister in 2025,” says Stephen Monyamane. “Some of them are going to be business champions, some of them are going to be like, head of diplomats.”
Monyamane is an entrepreneur and a Mandela fellow, from the tiny country of Lesotho -- in the middle of South Africa. He is one of 1,000, selected from a pool of 40,000, that have earned their spots at universities throughout the U.S. this summer.
They’ll be taking classes in business and leadership, connecting with local nonprofits, and -- perhaps most importantly Monyamane says -- meeting each other.
“So to have the privilege of, even if we never learn a single thing here, those relationships that we’re building with other Africans -- it’s going to increase intercontinental trade, it’s going to increase our leverage,” says Monyamane.
Today, the relationship building is with Virginians. Monyamane and Allegria Ntumba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are spending the day with a local family.
They’ve started the day by visiting the farmer’s market, enjoying music and donuts, and discussing college life with two Richmonders.
“The University of Kinshasa, it doesn’t have a library,” says Ntumba. “You know students don’t pay that much to go to university, because people cannot afford. Like in the U.S. it’s expensive, in my country the fees you pay less than $300.”
This kind of cultural exchange, says Elizabeth Hiett with VCU, is one of the true values of hosting the African fellows.
“We hope, and we trust, that the Richmond community is open to them,” Hiett says. “And we hope that somebody’s perspective is broadened. Somebody is reflecting, somebody is learning something. One person having global perspective broadening is a success in my mind.”
Hiett is doing everything in her power to make sure as many Virginians as possible get the benefit of that exchange. The fellows have visited local nonprofits, gone salsa dancing, and met with government officials.
“There is an exchange of information, it’s a two-way conversation,” Hiett says. “They’re learning about how things work here, but we’re also learning about how things work there. And we don’t have everything right, there’s a lot of room for improvement, a lot of room for growth.”
Hyatt says there’s a lot for Virginians to learn from these Africans, who are shaping their communities back home.
The fellows will be in Richmond through the end of July.