If you are still wondering what I am referring to, then am sorry that you are among the last batch to have learnt about the decision by the US State Department to select me as a fellow in a larger group of one thousand young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa for the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship. This fellowship is a flagship program of President Barack Obama’s support to young African leaders in the African continent.
The big news came in on a sunny Sunday afternoon via an email from IREX (the fellowship’s implementing partner) informing me that after rigorous scrutiny and procedures in the selection process of some forty thousand young African leaders under consideration, I stood out as an outstanding emerging young African leader. It was further announced that I have been assigned to a smaller group of twenty five other successful nominees (fellows) that will undertake a six-week academic course work in civic leadership at the Wagner College situated on Staten Island in New York, United States of America. This is to be followed by a three-day Presidential Summit to be hosted in August in Washington DC, of course with the ‘President of the World’ Barack Obama attending.
My reaction to the great news
Now, I could not wait to break the good news to mom (well, if you think am a mother’s boy, I have no apologies). June 17, 2016 was the ‘D-Day’ to leave the shores of Sierra Leone to expand my knowledge and network in journalism and child rights activism in memory of the great freedom fighter of our times, Nelson Mandela.
The excitement of going to America was not that much, considering the fact that it was not my first time. However, going to America as a ‘state visitor’ is a different ball game altogether…I felt blessed and honoured.
Days went by and I could not wait to fly to the Great America just a day after my thirty first birthday (Am getting old huh!).
The trip from Sierra Leone to Liberia
Unfortunately for me, I did not have enough time to prepare my luggage for the trip as I was overwhelmed with work. I ended up packing around 2am on the Friday I was to travel. This US adventure also recorded my first road trip from Freetown to Lungi via Port Loko.
At the Freetown International Airport in Lungi, I met with eleven other young Sierra Leoneans selected for the six weeks fellowship. Well, we were like a family already by that time since we have met at least twice at the American Embassy at the preparatory stages of the trip, and our departure-meet was full of pomp and pageantry. Even when the Brussels flight was delayed for one hour or so, we cared less. Actually, we were happy that it happened that way because we had enough time to exchange farewell pleasantries with families, friends, and loved ones.
In the flight, almost all of us were seated around the same spot (well, economy cabin though), and it felt like home throughout the fifty five minutes to Monrovia and later six hours forty five minutes to Brussels.
In Monrovia, the fellows from Liberia boarded the same flight, and at that time I was so anxious to meet with a fellow from Liberia who was assigned to the same college with me. Her name is Evelyn Kpadeh; a fellow journalist . Even though we had been chatting on whatsapp and exchanging pictures in the group of fellows assigned to Wagner College, I suddenly became too ‘old’ to recognise her face. So I quickly devised and put in full gear the option of ‘loudly whispering’ the name Evelyn as the female fellows entered the flight and passed me by. Evelyn had apparently passed my seat without hearing her name from my whisper, but realised she was hearing the Evelyn name call before she could locate her seat. I then heard a female voice from my back asking: “Is somebody asking for Evelyn?”. Then the Sierra Leonean fellow crew that had joined in the “Evelyn whisper spree” went like “YEAH!!!!” in a chorus. And I am sure we caused a little inconvenience on the other ‘innocent’ passengers with the brief ‘noise’ that ensured. Well, what would you expect?
Liberia to Brussels
Like an adventure in the forest, the almost seven hours flight from Liberia to Brussels got boring and tiresome at some point, especially with the unusual food that was served; but we were determined to arrive in Brussels and later in America. The flight touched down Brussels around 7:20am on Saturday, marking the start of some four hours layover, awaiting the next flight to Newark in New Jersey. It was however not destined to be a boring wait at the Belgium Airport as the Sierra Leonean crew was still together. And by then I had gotten additional company – Evelyn from Liberia and Matida Komma from The Gambia, who was also assigned to Wagner College. She arrived earlier and by the time we arrived, she was at an advanced stage taking ‘selfies’ and posting them in the college whatsapp group, informing the team of her arrival at Brussels. Need I inform you about the rigorous security check each and every passenger had to go through, especially when our arrival came just few days after the Brussels Airport bombing?
Four hours later, it was boarding time on the United Airlines. Surprisingly, my name was singled out among twelve other names to go through ‘special security check’. Who said I was scared when I had nothing to hide? However, I still doubt up to this point what could have prompted my name to be announced for a special security check. Well, a friend of mine sarcastically told me that I was among the group because my name is Abdul. My response to him was that ‘when did it become a crime to be called Abdul?’ To date, I had resisted the urge to make sense out of that.
Long story short, I availed myself at the security spot; removed my belt and shoes and socks as instructed and placed my carry-on luggage on the table. The security officers ensured they removed every single piece inside that bag and placed them on the table. Of course, there was nothing there of security concern, which explains why I am here in America writing this piece.
Welcome to America!
We arrived in America eight hours ten minutes later at 1:10pm inside a crowded airport in New Jersey. Had to however spend another thirty minutes or so in queue ahead of arriving at the customs and border control booth for a brief interview to be admitted into the United States of America. Within two minutes, the officer was done with me and I took back my stamped passport.
Patiently waiting at the Airport Lounge by that time was the MWF Project Coordinator at Wagner College Sheila Zegarra, who had already been joined by Matida. Of course I could not miss the Wagner College banner which was flashed by Matida and Sheila. You would not miss the fact that Sheila is simply a pleasant person from the first moment you spot her with those priceless smiles.
Together, we waited a few more minutes for Evelyn, who joined us at the time we were getting worried over her delayed arrival. We stepped out of the Airport and were escorted to a waiting shinny white van with Wagner College inscribed on it. Our luggage were packed inside the back of the van and the twenty to thirty minutes journey from Newark Airport in New Jersey to Wagner College in Staten Island, New York, begun.
I forgot to inform you that we were dubbed #team.latecomers as the three of us were the last set among the twenty five fellows to have arrived at Wagner. On our way to campus, we crowned Matida as the president of team latecomers – a position she is still refusing to accept but will rather give the honor to Evelyn or me. Need I tell you that it was a smooth drive to campus loaded with pleasantries and anxiousness to meet the rest of the team? And as Alicia Keys rightly puts it, ‘the streets of New York will make you feel brand new and the lights will inspire you’. Indeed, I felt brand new and inspired on arrival in ‘the city that never sleeps’.
What happens on arrival on campus? What is the rest of the story? As in the movies, I will say, WATCH OUT FOR PART 2.