U.S. Program Hopes To Inspire Young Africans To Be Tomorrow's Leaders

President Obama is organizing the first of its kind African summit in Washington. In the run-up to that high-level gathering, young African leaders are in the U.S. for a leadership training program.

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President Obama is organizing a first-of-its-kind African summit in Washington, D.C. It will take place in August, and in the run-up, the White House has brought hundreds of young Africans to the U.S. They are here on a fellowship program that's aimed at encouraging a new generation of leaders for the continent. NPR's Michele Kelemen met some of them in Charlottesville, Virginia.

HOKE PERKINS: You can sort to gather around here.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Twenty-five Africans are getting a quick civics lesson at the University of Virginia where Hoke Perkins, who's with the library, proudly shows off an early copy of the Declaration of Independence. He tells them that Thomas Jefferson, in an early draft, railed against the king of England for promoting the slave trade.

PERKINS: So there was almost a mention in the Declaration of Independence of how wrong slavery was. Jefferson knew it was wrong. He couldn't imagine living without it.

KELEMEN: The 20- and 30-something Africans are taking it all in on this - the start of a six-week program that will also include visits to William and Mary and three presidential homes in Virginia. In a courtyard just off the University of Virginia's historic lawn, designed by Jefferson, 24-year-old Martine Ekomo says she's impressed by the school's archives and the tour by a student, who spoke about the university and its place in American history.

MARTINE EKOMO: He’s really inspiring. He’s proud of his university, of the story of his country, and that’s why people take care of the place. It's creating a kind of citizen. And for me, it's not just about the story of the U.S. It’s the story of people

KELEMEN: Her country, Central African Republic, is going through a difficult moment in its own history after a coup last year ushered in a wave of violence between Muslims and Christians. Her mother is now part of the transitional government, and Martine is hoping to get training here in the U.S. to start a program to help young people move the country forward rather than getting caught up in acts of revenge.

EKOMO: It would take time because it's like in Rwanda. There's a lot of anger. It's not just political rebuilding, It's also re-creating a society.

KELEMEN: Across the U.S. this summer, there are 500 fellows with the young African leaders program. More than 50,000 applied. And it's clear they're learning a lot from each other.

JOSEPH: My name is Joseph. I am from Mozambique.

SOPHIA: My name is Sophia. I'm from Nigeria.

DUNCAN OGARO MIKAE: Hi, all. Habari. I'm Duncan Ogaro Mikae from Kenya.

KELEMEN: There's also a law professor from Burkina Faso, trying to encourage more women to enter politics in her West African nation. And there's the first female editor of a popular newspaper in Nigeria. Toyosi Ogunshoye says she wants to see the U.S. play a larger role in her country, even militarily, to rescue nearly 300 girls abducted by an Islamist militant group.

TOYOSI OGUNSHOYE: I know it's hard. I know when it comes to things like this, governments of countries try to be very careful not to be seen as encroaching on territories. But then I think that the West should prioritize the lives of these girls above diplomatic relations.

KELEMEN: Virginia Senator Tim Kaine told the fellows from Africa that this is a time for soul-searching in the U.S. The U.S. role in the world is changing, and Washington needs new partners.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: So whether it's for trade reasons or whether it's for security reasons or whether it's to, you know, just build alliances in new places, this initiative makes a lot of sense. One of the best things we do as nation is programs where we bring leaders here and expose them to our educational institutions, which are the best in the world. And I think Mr. Jefferson would be very happy that this is an initiative that's taking place at the University of Virginia.

KELEMEN: And so is Emmanuel Ndlovu of Zimbabwe.

EMMANUEL NDLOVU: I hope to take home the American experience of democratic governance and engaged citizenry.

KELEMEN: Something his country could surely use. Michele Kelemen, NPR News.

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