WASHINGTON -- At a meeting of young African leaders Monday, U.S. Sen. John Boozman said the United States and Arkansas need to build a stronger relationship with countries in Africa.
Boozman and President Barack Obama were among the speakers at the Young African Leaders Initiative.
Of the participants, 25 Africans from 18 countries spent the past six weeks experiencing life in Arkansas before journeying to Washington.
The initiative was created in 2010 to train and mentor young African leaders about business, government and public administration.
"I think this program is so important," said Boozman, a Republican from Rogers. "I think the way that you change the world is through personal relationships."
Boozman said the exchange will open new doors to a continent that has vast natural resources and where many countries have a growing middle class.
"By having a greater understanding of America and developing the friendships, the relationships in America, then you are more likely to interact with people that you know about, that are friendly, that have become your friend," he said.
Boozman said the United States needs to invest in Africa, not just provide aid.
"The reality is that we don't pay enough attention," he said, adding that countries such as China and Russia are actively engaged in African countries. "It really does represent a tremendous opportunity for the United States and we need to take advantage."
According to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, none of the top 35 countries receiving Arkansas exports in 2013 were in Africa. Exports to South Africa, the 36th country on the list, were worth $26.4 million. Exports to Canada, the first on the list, were worth $1.56 billion that year.
Speaking after Boozman, Obama said that 50,000 people applied for the 500 fellowships.
He also announced the program is now the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, after former South African President Nelson Mandela.
The program brought those leaders, ages 25-35, from across the continent to the United States for six weeks of training and mentoring at 20 U.S. universities and colleges.
They focused on business and entrepreneurship, civic engagement or public administration.
The 25 fellows at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville studied public management, according to a news release from the university. The fellows attended lectures, panel sessions and performed community service.
They also met with elected officials and visited Little Rock.
Many of those fellows were seated near the stage Monday, said Leyah Bergman-Lanier, director of UA's Spring International Language Center.
Gwamaka Kifukwe, a civil servant from Tanzania, said he liked the chance to exchange ideas, not only with the other fellows, but also with Arkansans.
"A lot of people came with apprehensions about being based particularly in the South and what that meant with the Little Rock Nine and everything," he said.
"But people were very open and very warm. It was a very nice experience and a very nice impression that I've been left with."
Mfon Ekpo, a lawyer from Nigeria, said she enjoyed meeting Arkansans.
"I call Arkansas the kind of place you want to grow up in and raise a family," Ekpo said. "It's really close knit. It's a great place to live."
Eric Ntumba, an investment banker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said the experience taught him to balance his views and ideas with those of others.
He said he plans to run for parliament in 2016. Ntumba said the Northwest Arkansas scenery blew him away.
"It has been a life-changing experience," he said. "Arkansas is great."
Lanier said Ntumba and Kifukwe also met Secretary of State John Kerry.
During a question-and-answer period, Obama called on another fellow who studied in Arkansas, El Hadji Abou Gueye of Senegal, who asked what the president would tell new African leaders.
"What I will say is this, that regardless of the resources a country possesses, regardless of how talented the people are, if you do not have a basic system of rule of law, of respect for civil rights and human rights, if you do not give people a credible, legitimate way to work through the political process to express their aspirations, if you don't respect basic freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, if there are not laws in place in which everybody is equal under the law so that there's not one set of rules for the well-connected and another set of rules for ordinary people, if you do not have an economic system that is transparent and accountable so that people trust that if they work hard they will be rewarded for their work and corruption is rooted out, if you don't have those basic mechanisms, it is very rare for a country to succeed," the president said.
Boozman said after the forum that the African fellows who had visited Arkansas called him over to talk.
"The first thing they said was 'Razorback, woo, Pig! Sooey!'" he said. "So they are experiencing our culture, and I think that makes a big difference."
Metro on 07/29/2014