Lisa Leslie Henderson writer
Cars have been coming and going from Ed and Amy Brakeman’s home in Wellesley all day, transporting college students to Logan Airport, South Station, and the Amtrak stop at Route 128. Each departure initiates another round of hugs and good-byes, as friends and former classmates begin to scatter at the close of their Thanksgiving holiday. Many of these students are new to the American tradition of Thanksgiving, but the practice of gathering together is highly valued across their many cultures, so much so, that despite the busyness of their schedules, they have made the effort to meet for a Thanksgiving brunch before heading back to a myriad of campuses across the Northeast. Gathering together they share stories, perspectives, and laughter, reminding themselves of who they are and why they are here.
Born and raised in over 35 different African countries, today these young men and women are freshmen and sophomores at US colleges and universities throughout the Northeast. Despite their diverse origins, they are like family to each other, having spent their junior and senior years in high school together at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Members of ALA’s first two graduating classes, they are trailblazers, helping to realize ALA’s vision: to transform Africa into a peaceful and prosperous continent by developing and supporting its emerging leaders.
“These are remarkable young men and women,” explains Amy Brakeman who, as head of ALA’s Northeast Chapter, knows each of these students individually. “Many of them have already contributed to Africa’s social and economic development even at their young age.”
Before coming to ALA, William Kamkwamba, who is currently a sophomore at Dartmouth, built a windmill to bring electricity and running water to his village in Malawi. Using an old textbook, scrap metal, and discarded tractor and bicycle parts, he devised a structure that transformed his village, providing a crucial defense against drought, hunger, and disease. Tabitha Tongoi, a young Kenyan woman with a passion for education, started a book program that has provided over 10,000 books to 2,000 students in informal settlements in Nairobi. She also served as Youth Minister of Education in Kenya before attending Williams, where she is currently a freshman.
During their two years at ALA, in addition to completing a rigorous college-prep curriculum, William, Tabitha, and their classmates immersed themselves in a study of entrepreneurship and African history. They met with African leaders to discuss solutions to the continent’s most pressing challenges—hunger, health care provision, economic growth, and conflict resolution. Under the guidance of an impressive international faculty, they evaluated various government policies and practices and worked together to design and implement projects that are already having a lasting impact on various African communities. By the time they graduated their perspectives had grown; for many, their frame of reference expanded from their rural village to include their country, region, and continent.
Today these young men and women are gaining a global perspective as they continue their studies abroad, living as foreigners in a vastly different culture, thousands of miles from home. Summer internships complement their academic learning, further developing their career interests, challenging their perspectives, and creating global leaders with a vision of what is possible for their home continent.
While each of these students is impressive individually, when you consider what they may be able to accomplish together in the future, you understand the value of the ALA experience. “ALA is so much more than just a high school,” Amy explains. “It’s a growing and vital network of talented people who are passionate about contributing to Africa’s future.”
Over the course of the next 50 years, ALA plans to identify, nurture, and connect 6,000 young, indigenous leaders. Its most profound hope is that at the end of their studies, these bright minds will work together to guide Africa’s nations, educate its youth, build its economies, and reform its legal systems in ways that they, as young and educated African leaders, deem appropriate for their continent.
Deeply committed volunteers like the Brakemans are critical to ALA’s success. A formidable pair with extensive experience in developing communities, businesses, organizations, and people honed during their days at McKinsey and Bain Capital, Amy and Ed give ALA their time—they are essentially two full-time equivalent executives for the nonprofit —and they love it. As Amy explains, “working with ALA is so much fun. It’s very entrepreneurial and constantly changing as the organization evolves.”
At the moment, their efforts are primarily focused on creating networks of support and opportunity for ALA graduates as they continue on their leadership/development journey. Amy channels her energy into making sure their college experiences run smoothly and that they continue to have opportunities to connect, physically and virtually, with each other and with their heritage. In addition to organizing many formal and informal gatherings, Amy is building an extensive network of host families, many from Wellesley and Weston, to support ALA students while they are studying in the United States. During a time of many adjustments for these students—a new culture, phase in their lives, academic system, and, for most, significantly different weather—host families can make a real difference.
Mehdi Oulmakki, an ALA grad from Morocco now studying at Dartmouth, explains to soon-to-be ALA grads what it is like to come to the US and the role his host family—the Parizeaus from Wellesley— played:
The moment you land here it’s gonna be completely different. There are going to be things you love and things you hate—you just have to relax and reestablish your comfort zone. I started missing my family right after the security check in Casablanca and wondered what the next ten months would be like without them. The Parizeau family made this angst vanish. They provided me with the support I needed to confidently step into a brand-new experience and start recreating my comfort zone. I am extremely grateful.
The Parizeaus felt similarly:
Our family has really enjoyed hosting Mehdi, helping him get acclimated at Dartmouth, and having him join us for family events. He is a mature, thoughtful, and talented young man, who quickly became part of our family. I am a bit embarrassed to acknowledge that I didn’t know anything about Morocco before we met Mehdi, and he has taught all of us some fascinating things about his country and culture. We are honored to be his host family and are proud to be associated with the African Leadership Academy.
While Amy ensures that the school years run successfully, Ed works round-the-clock to identify and secure meaningful summer internships for ALA grads. “Internships can be really formative, and they often lead to later employment,” Ed explains. While it is challenging for freshmen to find relevant summer internships, it can be especially challenging to find those opportunities in Africa, or in some way related to Africa, especially while studying in the United States.
That’s where Ed comes in. Tapping into his own network of relationships from business school and his venture capital days along with ALA’s ever-expanding network of supporters, Ed is developing a community of passionate African entrepreneurs across multiple sectors and industries that are eager to hire ALA grads. Among them are global companies with operations in multiple African countries like IBM and smaller, home-grown indigenous companies like Sierra Leone’s SBTS Group, a software services provider that is creating an electronic payment system for the country. There are American investors like Denham Capital that have African companies within their portfolio including BioTherm Energy, one of South Africa’s leading renewable energy developers, and non-profits like Harvard’s Global Health Institute that undertake large-scale public health interventions in remote regions. What they all have in common is a need for talented Africans with the right skills and experience to grow their organizations.
“The opportunity to hire ALA grads rings so obvious, so immediately, with organizations involved in Africa,” Ed explains. “Their enthusiasm validates ALA’s commitment to identifying talented leaders early on and getting them the right foundation.”
What are the chances that these promising students will put their talents to work in Africa after graduation? ALA’s selection process tries to identify young persons who are solidly committed to using their talents toward their own continent’s progress; however, spending four years in the United States has been known to change many of the most well-intentioned foreign students’ long-range plans. Recognizing the value that ALA grads have to offer, ALA takes a number of steps to encourage its graduates to remain committed to their continent of origin.
In addition to providing students with plenty of opportunities to envision a role for themselves in Africa’s future while studying at ALA, the school holds regular gatherings to connect grads with each other and with like-minded adults and organizations. “Beyond the Beginning: Creating a Legacy Together,” the theme of this year’s official fall gathering, hosted by Princeton University, reflects a fundamental success factor for making a difference in Africa: the power of collaboration. Just as Amy and Ed draw upon their communities to open their doors for ALA alumni, each graduating class, internship, and gathering multiplies ALA alums’ resources for making change and creating vibrant companies and organizations back home.
ALA also has a loan forgiveness program that is activated if students return to Africa after the age of 25 and work at least 10 years on the continent. To put the economics of the program in perspective, consider that roughly 90 percent of ALA students are on financial aid and ALA’s annual tuition runs about $25,000. Of course, ALA’s bills could be readily paid off with a signing bonus at an investment bank, but the hope is that the vision that these young folks are birthing, combined with the skills that are developing and the vibrant Africa-oriented networks of which they are becoming a part, will instill students with a sense of Africa’s possibility and progress.
What do ALA graduates say about their chances of returning home after their studies in the United States? Cynthia Aangui Charchi, a Kenyan native who is currently studying at Brandeis, explains, “My priorities haven’t changed at all. I still want to become a health care economist—that’s why I am double majoring in Economics and Health. I want to impact the health care system in Kenya and Africa as a whole.” Jihad Hajjouhi, a student at Middlebury who is originally from Morocco, feels similarly: “I feel ownership of our problems, instead of just observing or blaming certain problems for them. It’s my role to make something happen.”
Ed and Amy are convinced that ALA’s strategy is on-target. “By 2050, half of the world’s youth will be in Africa,” Ed says. “Working with ALA today gives us the opportunity to be part of something that will significantly impact humankind in the future. This is not a relief program; ALA is building essential human capacity that will ultimately bring sustainable change in Africa.” With the energy and enthusiasm of inspiring people like Cynthia, Jihad, Mehdi, William, Tabitha, and Amy and Ed, that vision is already becoming reality.
© 2011 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher | Beth@ElmBankMedia.com