Ramadhani Ndiga is confident and charismatic, yet behind that strength is a young man who has struggled his whole life. By age 13, he was the sole supporter of his mother and siblings, working as a waiter to earn five dollars a month. His stepmother lied and claimed he had died, which resulted in the loss of his identity papers and crippled the school progress of this bright student.
It was only when he took a new name and earned the highest score on a national high school math exam that his fortunes changed. Ndiga received scholarships to attend university, and continued to support his family as a board subsidized county prefect. And then came the summer that he returned home and realized that all of the classmates he left behind, teens too poor to attend further schooling, had gone on to three fates: drug abuse, sex trafficking or teenage motherhood.
“I found my three best friends unconscious in a drug hideout with the needles still stuck in their arms. One of the brightest girls in our high school, the class prefect, was taking drugs. I stayed out of school the whole next semester to care for my best friend, Raphael, who was addicted to heroin,” says Ndiga.
Ndiga went on to find “Where Talent Lives,” an organization promoting social change for addicted youth and those involved in prostitution. He has recruited more than 500 addicts, teenage mothers, commercial sex workers and idle youth to work on a project that improves the environment by turning waste into bio-fertilizers and handcrafts -- taking innovative approaches, including taekwondo, to educate the most at risk populations on HIV prevalence, trends and prevention measures. All this, and Ndiga, a nationally ranked taekwondo expert, is only 26.
Ndiga is one of 25 scholars who has spent the last six weeks living on campus at Rutgers as part of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, and one of 500 students nationally on 20 college campuses, all here through an initiative launched by President Obama.
The Rutgers program – developed by the the university's Centers for Global Advancement and International Affairs, the School of Social Work and the Center for African Studies – fosters international dialogues, collaboration and partnerships and focuses on building civic leadership among these young leaders who represent 25 African countries. It recognizes the increasing role they play in strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth and enhancing peace and security in Africa.
“My life will not be the same after attending this fellowship. I now have partners from across Africa, and all of us can join together to make more change, to make more noise, This has been an excellent springboard to learn about fundraising, social media, marketing, strategic planning and working together with other young people who have the same interests,” says attendee Charmaine Picardo.Picardo, 22, has worked in HIV and AIDS activism, sexual and reproductive health and rights advocacy. She is the SRHR Ambassador for young people in Zimbabwe and is responsible for implementing projects for young women living on the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe and has produced a documentary highlighting their experiences.
One of the projects closest to her heart is an initiative to distribute free sanitary wear. Such products are far too expensive for many women in African countries to afford, and as a result girls miss an average of two months of school a year during their menstrual cycles.
When Zimbabwe experienced crippling inflation and her father’s business took a downturn, Picardo had to drop out of the university so her brother could attend. She used that time to volunteer and grow her leadership skills and finally returned to school. “I had the opportunity to come back from that experience and continue in school, but many young women I know got off track permanently. My dream is to empower young women to go as far as they want to go. When you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” says Picardo.
For blind scholar Aarthi Burtony, 27, Rutgers has been the first university to make her feel welcomed despite her disability. She was initially turned down by the university in her home country specifically because she is blind, a condition stemming from glaucoma that resulted in surgery to remove her eyes. At Rutgers she received a digital note taker that translates the words into Braille for her.
“Everything is so disability-friendly here. It is a dream come true to come to find all these accommodations that are available to me,” says Burtony, who is a blind disability activist and an intern at the Supreme Court of Mauritius. She is also the president of CEDEM, a non-profit organization working for the welfare of needy children; including children with disabilities.
Another scholar, 28-year-old Abibatou Banda of Senegal, created the Association for Research-Action Development and Environment in the Sahel to implement initiatives on girls’ education, food processing, domestic energy, reuse of plastic bags, and needle crafts. One project focuses on creating thermal baskets that enable households to use less cooking fuel, produce less waste, and keep food hot or cold for 12 to over 24 hours. Abibatou has a master's degree in geography from Gaston Berger University of Saint-Louis, and is studying for a Ph.D. in biomass energy and strategies of eco-development in the Sahel.
“We have had so many opportunities for personal development through the program. I hope to take what I have learned and share it with my community. I like to assist vulnerable people and this program will help me to help others,” says Bandu.
For media inquiries, contact Beth Salamon, Communications, School of Social Work, firstname.lastname@example.org