President Obama Welcomes Young African Leaders

The Obama administration hosted a summit of more than 100 young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa this week. The delegates met with various dignitaries, including President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress. Undersecretary of State Judith McHale explains the intent behind the meeting. And two of the participants, Ely Ahmed Telba and Shamima Muslim, reflect on the experience.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear from you, our listeners, about the stories we've brought you throughout the week. Our Backtalk segment is just ahead.

But first, a look to the future of Africa future leadership, that is. The State Department hosted more than 100 young people from sub-Saharan Africa this week. One highlight: A town hall meeting with President Obama.

President BARACK OBAMA: Welcome to the United States of America. And that includes even our friends from Ghana, who beat us in the World Cup.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: In a few minutes, we'll meet two of the young people who attended the forum. But first, let's hear from Judith McHale. She is the undersecretary secretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Her office organized the forum. She's with us now. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Undersecretary JUDITH MCHALE (Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs): Thank you, Michel. I'm delighted to be here with you today.

MARTIN: What is this event designed to do?

Ms. McHALE: Well, we wanted to bring together young leaders from across Africa, to meet with them, to listen, to learn and really work with them together to sort of maximize what we see as the great potential of Africa.

MARTIN: How were people chosen to participate?

Ms. McHALE: Our embassies were each asked to submit a number of candidates from whom we would select three candidates from each of the country's 53 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. And they looked very broadly across their countries in a variety of sectors, academia, business, education, media. They submitted the names and then we, together with the White House, selected the three delegates from each country who were going to participate in the forum.

MARTIN: And fairly or unfairly, many people look at Africa and still believe see Africa as a continent, not a country, as you pointed out, 53 countries. But they look at a number of countries on the continent and say that civil society is still not strong enough. That the infrastructure for carrying civil society forward is just still too weak. Clearly, this is an intention to shore up those institutions, but how would that work?

Ms. McHALE: Well, I think, clearly, situations are constantly evolving in all those countries, in many cases, in the positive direction. But I think people who were here, who were able to sort of meet with the delegates who came to this conference would have been as impressed and as inspired as I was by their dedication, by their enthusiasm and, frankly, by their optimism for their countries going forward.

MARTIN: Is there any thought about extending this program or having a similar program for leaders, young leaders from other regions?

Ms. McHALE: Well, you know, I think we're going to look at that. In terms of extending this program, I think an important dimension of it was that this not be a one-time event. So, today, I announce that we would be having a series of events in their countries, in their regions. And that in the first quarter of next year, we're going to have another summit. But the idea being that this initiative was only the first step in what we hope will be a long journey and partnership together.

MARTIN: And for those Americans who wonder how this is in the interest of the United States to do this, this may be a great experience for these young people. What do you say to Americans who say, well, what's in it for us?

Ms. McHALE: Well, one of the things that we're doing during this forum is we're providing opportunities for American organizations from the private sector, civil society organizations, corporations and others to meet with these extraordinary young leaders so that they can see opportunities for American businesses and organizations throughout Africa.

MARTIN: Judith McHale is undersecretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. We caught up with her at the Newseum here in the Washington, D.C., where a large group of young African leaders concluding a three-day visit. And Secretary McHale, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. McHALE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And now we'll hear from two of the delegates that took part in the forum. Joining us now is Ely Cheikh. He is deputy editor-in-chief and co-founder of Peace Newspaper. That's the first and only English language newspaper in Mauritania. The publication addresses issues of particular importance to the country's youth.

Also with us is Shamima Muslim. She is a journalist and host of the program "Good Morning, Ghana." She of course is from Ghana. And she hosts both a radio and television program there. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SHAMIMA MUSLIM (Journalist, Host, "Good Morning, Ghana"): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. ELY CHEIKH (Deputy Editor in Chief and Co-Founder, Peace Newspaper): Thank you.

MARTIN: You're both making me feel like a slacker, that I'm not working hard enough. So, Shamima, let me start with you, how did this opportunity to participate come about and why did you want to participate?

Ms. MUSLIM: Amazing call that I had, I think three weeks ago. I was preparing for my evening program when my phone went off. And it was a call from the U.S. Embassy. And conversation went something like this: Oh, hello, Shamima, we've just nominated you to participate in a presidential program in Washington, would you like to go? I said, are you kidding me? I would love to go already. And so she explained further about, you know, the concept of the program. And I asked them how many days it was going to be because I couldn't go for an extended period of time. And she said just three days. I said, well, I'm in. And that's how I got to be nominated to attend the program.

MARTIN: But why did you want to come?

Ms. MUSLIM: Of course telling us that America and the President Obama was willing to meet young people from across the continent to hear them was a great opportunity that young person that gets it should pass up. And I wasn't about to pass that up. So I was excited that our voice would be heard at the highest level. Very strong nation that America is, and that was going to be the validation that many young people across the continent needed to begin the process of actually questioning our government about why they continuously pay lip service to the issues of young people.

MARTIN: I see your point. You're saying if President Obama has time to hear what young people have to say, surely your own governments do.

Ms. MUSLIM: They have no excuse.

MARTIN: Ely, what about you? Why did you wish to participate?

Mr. CHEIKH: Yeah, I wished to participate because I have the idea and I do strongly believe that young African leaders can get along. And I had so many ideas to share with my other African peers. So when I was nominated, when they called me and at that time I was busy finalizing and correcting exam sheets for my students at the university because I'm a university teacher as well. So I said, I'm happy to go there because I have been interested in empowering youth in Mauritania through implementing the new technologies, mainly Facebook, Twitter and the bloggers in English, Arabic and French.

So I did not even hesitate to accept the opportunity because for me it's a good opportunity as long as the President Obama and the United States, as well the State Department and Hillary Clinton. So at that time, I was really moved by the speech that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave here in the Newseum when she said that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. That really was a spark. And this is an opportunity to meet with other talents from all over Africa. This is an opportunity to share my ideas with my African young friends and to discuss everything and to meet.

And it was for me a pride to see myself that what I had been doing over the last year had been highly estimated by people. And the people are over there trying to let me feel that I'm doing something valuable for my country and encouraging me to go forward.

MARTIN: Shamima, what was the best part of the whole experience? Your schedule was action packed and we're lucky that we're even able to grab you for these few minutes. It was not easy to do to get you all to slowdown long enough to talk to us. But what was the best part of the whole experience?

Ms. MUSLIM: Michel, it definitely would be the town hall meeting with President Obama, particularly so that I happen to be very lucky as one of the few that got selected to ask a question of your president.

Pres. OBAMA: Okay, it's a woman's turn. Okay, this one right here.

Ms. MUSLIM: Thank you very much, Mr. President, and greetings from Ghana. Is America committed to ensuring a partnership that might not necessarily be beneficial to America, but truly beneficial to the sovereign interest of the countries that we represent?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, let me say this. All countries look out for their interests. So, and I'm the president of the United States. So my job is to look out for the people of the United States. That's my job. Right? And that's...

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: Now, I actually think, though, that the interests of the United States and the interests of the continent of Africa greatly overlap.

Ms. MUSLIM: The question that I asked him is still quite relevant and it's the debate that we'll be still having, you know, back home. But, you know, for what it's worth, let me just add that congratulations to America for this particular initiative. I'm sure that within America there will be conversations as to whether or not this is the best use of the American taxpayers' money to bring a group of young African leaders to come and talk about the vision of the continent and America.

And for what it's worth, let me say that these very things are the things that raise America over and above other nations. And I think that for many young people across the continent, if there are any lessons that we can learn from America, it would be the things that you can do that propels your country and indeed makes your country the first among equal.

So I would congratulate America for this initiative. We are very grateful for the opportunity. And the challenge now, is what lessons or inspiration do we draw from this momentous occasion and opportunity.

MARTIN: Shamima, I think we're still a little bit sore about World Cup, so you'll have to excuse us for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MUSLIM: I know. But I look forward to 2014 for a repeat. (Unintelligible) as well. We'll just repeat a little dose of that same thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Just to remind folks of although I'd hate to part my lips to say this that Ghana beat the U.S., of course, in World Cup. But we'll try to not let that color our relations.

Ely, final thought from you. What do you think you'll take back with you? Obviously you're still probably, you know, thinking it all through and processing all. But are there any particular experiences or ideas you think you'll take back with you?

Mr. CHEIKH: Well, of course the best part of the forum was the meeting with President Obama at the White House. But also was a special day for me because we went to see the volunteers in the Peace Corps. And then we just had a walking, talking to the community. And we went to a church where the elderly people can have their own stage and share their own experiences. That was, for me, really a touching experience, which I want to export to my country because in my community, elderly people, they are suffering from being isolated from the society while they are still having a young spirit and we need to take care of them in order to live longer.

It was a good experience to share my experiences, as well, and to be sorry that for the Peace Corps now is not in Mauritania. But I want it to be back. Because they are really helping and they are doing a lot of things. And volunteerism should be a culture, and I think I will take it back home and to implement in my society, because we need to be a volunteer. We need to work for the sake of improvement, for the sake of our people and for ourselves. Not to wait for money and not to expect to be paid for everything we do for ourselves and for our society.

MARTIN: Ely Cheikh is from Mauritania. He serves as deputy editor in chief of Peace Newspaper. He's also its co-founder. It's the first and only English language newspaper in Mauritania. And he highlights issues of particular importance to that country's youth. Also with us, Shamima Muslim. She's a journalist in Ghana. She hosts the program "Good Morning, Ghana," as well as an evening news program. Both joined us from the museum in Washington, D.C., where they're concluding a three-day forum for young African leaders. A program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, to help empower and showcase the work of these young leaders of tomorrow.

Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Ms. MUSLIM: Thank you, Michel, for having us.

Mr. CHEIKH: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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