Inspired by America
Young African Leaders hope to use U.S. ideas in their home countries
June 27, 2014
Esther Tola is very
impressed with what she's learned so far about the United States.
At University of
Wisconsin-Stout, in Menomonie and in other parts of west-central Wisconsin, she
sees a high standard of living and people routinely obeying the laws and
regulations, creating an orderly, progressive society.
"Everyday I see
inspiring things. Everything is so clean. It's amazing. I'm learning a lot,"
said Tola, 33.
Life is not nearly
as good in her home country, Benin, in western Africa bordering Nigeria.
Unemployment is about 20 percent — just among the limited number of people who
have job skills — and more than a third of the 10 million residents live in
poverty. Sanitation is poor and the infectious disease rate is high. Only about
four in 10 people over age 15 can read and write.
"We are an
underdeveloped country. We want to see how people live here, to understand why
the U.S. people are where they are," Tola said.
Benin's economy also
is stuck in neutral, another reason why Tola is excited to be at UW-Stout as
part of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative. The program has
brought 500 Africans to 20 U.S. universities this summer, including 25 to
Fellows at UW-Stout, 15 males and 10 females from 15 countries, are attending a
Business and Entrepreneurship Institute from June 15 to July 26 led by
Associate Professor Mark Fenton from the College of Management.
universities are in the business and entrepreneurship track, including
Dartmouth, Yale, Northwestern and Notre Dame. The other 14 universities are
offering civic and public management institutes.
The 500 leaders will
gather in Washington, D.C., at the end of July for a program summit with Obama.
Fenton will accompany the UW-Stout group.
The Africans at UW-Stout
are taking classes, hearing from guest lecturers and going on industry tours,
such as Fairmont Minerals sand mine and Cardinal Glass manufacturing facility
in Menomonie.In addition, they are
doing community service work, including working at Menomonie Freedom Fest on the
Fourth of July.
"They are incredibly
inquisitive," Fenton said. "They've come here to learn and immediately apply
what they learn."
UW-Stout received a
$100,000 federal grant to host the program.
The Africans also
are learning about daily life in the U.S. They saw an Eau Claire Express
baseball game at Carson Park and will visit northern Wisconsin, the state
Capitol, the Mall of America and more.
The Express game was
Tola's first baseball game of her life — she'd only seen games on TV previously.
She said she thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including the entertaining fan
contests and seeing children at the game with their parents.
Although she loves the
way of life in the U.S., Tola is more excited to return home. Her goal — consistent
with the goals of Obama's program — is to become a leader and help change her
country. "Running away won't solve our country's problems," she said.
She has many ideas
already from what she's seen in Wisconsin, including better waste management systems
and helping young people find jobs.
"One thing I noticed
is that people start working here at a very young age. Even the university
employs students. That is not the case in Benin," she said, adding that it's
unusual for a teenager to have a job there.
A journalist in Benin
Tola has a two-year
college degree in business management, thus her interest in jobs and the economy
however, is in journalism. She began working in radio in 2001 and worked as a
TV news anchor, hosting a show in English. Then she began working in Benin for British
Broadcasting, after receiving training in London. She worked as a stringer,
then full time and then as a freelancer.
She also has worked
as a freelance science journalist; one of her first stories was covering an
outbreak of the deadly virus ebola in Benin.
Tola continues to
freelance and also works for a Benin news website, www.acotonou.com, updating the site daily
even while at UW-Stout.
Although she is a
rarity in Benin, a western-educated female with excellent English-speaking
skills, the top salary of her life in Benin has been less than $200 a year.
"And I was well-paid compared to others," she said.
Before she left for
the U.S., Tola met with the U.S. ambassador to Benin. She hopes to have him on
her side when she returns with ideas on how to effect change in Benin.
"I love the way
people (in the U.S.) are in tune with regulations. If we could stick to that a
little bit, we could do wonders. There are so many issues in our country,
sometimes I don't know where to start," she said.
Top: Esther Tola
Middle: Members of the UW-Stout YALI group tour the Fairmont Minerals sand mine in Menomonie.
Bottom: Ruka Yaro De-Liman
of Ghana has fun with the mascot Trax
at an Eau Claire Express game.