2014 Mandela Washington Fellows during the Summit with President Obama. (Courtesy Photo

Young African leaders gathered in the District to participate in a U.S. government-sponsored fellowship program summit. The presidential summit, supported by the Obama-founded Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), took place at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest from Aug. 2-5.

Five hundred African leaders, known as the Mandela Washington Fellows, took courses and workshops for six weeks prior to the summit at leading colleges and universities throughout the country to hone their professional skills and gain knowledge of the latest developments in their career fields.

“I am proud to be here with so many brilliant individuals,” Evan Ryan, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said to an Aug. 3 assembly of the Mandela Fellows. “I am looking at the next generation of African leaders. President Obama launched this initiative to help empower you and you should use this program to network to unlock your enormous potential.”

The fellows are 25-35 years-old and were selected by YALI leaders and staff under the guidance of the State Department from a competition of 20,000 applicants. All sub-Saharan African countries were represented in this year’s class, which is the second in YALI’s history.

YALI was founded as a long-term component of the historic African Summit (a U.S. hosted meeting of African leaders) that took place last year in the District. President Barack Obama re-named the fellowship program last year for the late Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of South Africa.

IREX, a non-profit organization that is committed to international education in academic research, professional training, and technical assistance, works with the fellows program, providing the resources and the legwork it needs in order to function.

The fellows are practitioners in fields such as politics, education, medicine and the arts in their countries.

Twenty colleges and universities including Howard University, Clark Atlanta University, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Texas at Austin, and Notre Dame participated in the Mandela Fellows program by offering classroom instruction and dormitory lodging.

Lois Ogunnaike, a reporter with {The New York Times} moderated the “Congressional Forum on Investing in Africa” panel that consisted of U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), and Hlanganani Gumbi, a 25-year-old Democratic Alliance Party member of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature in South Africa.

“We want you to see what has made America a great nation,” Johnson said. “Get all that America has to offer. With the knowledge that you are getting, you can make a big positive difference in your sphere of influence.”

Markey, who traveled with President Obama recently to Kenya and Ethiopia and is the top Democrat on the Africa subcommittee on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that America’s relationship with Africa is changing. “We want to help Africa by introducing and showing the American entrepreneurial spirit,” the senator said. “It is long past the time where the U.S. tells Africans what to do. We are partners.”

Gumbi, who took his courses at Howard University, said many Americans have the wrong impression of Africa. “The media tends to portray Africa as a place of disease and hunger and that is simply not true,” Gumbi said. “Many Africans are doing well. Plus, many people in this country think Africa is a single country and it is not.”

Obama spoke after the congressional forum and was received well by the fellows. He praised the program as “a long-investment in all of you, and in Africa, and the future that we can build together.”

“There are 144,000 people who are a part of YALI,” the president said. “We are setting up regional centers in Nairobi (Kenya), Accra (Ghana), Pretoria (South Africa), and Dakar (Senegal). We have also set up a program that will offer $1 billion to support the entrepreneurial efforts of women and young people.”

Obama said that the fellows program will be expanded in 2016, with 1,000 young African leaders coming to the U.S. and having 80 young Americans visit African countries to learn about the continent. “We are building a generation of global leaders,” Obama said. “Ten, 15, and 20 years from now, you will all be connecting with each other. This program is a priority of mine and my administration is working to institutionalize it in the State Department.”