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Young leaders from across Africa experienced a taste of life in a small Wisconsin town when they visited Columbus June 29.

A group of 25, part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, toured downtown Columbus and participated in an informational session at city hall. The session featured representatives from Columbus Police Department, Columbia County Emergency Management, Columbus Public Library and the Columbus Area Historical Society. The Mandela Washington fellowship works in correlation with the African Studies Program at UW-Madison.

Visitors to Columbus June 29 included 13 women and 12 men, representing 16 countries and diverse professional fields including healthcare, law, journalism, social services, human rights and public administration. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and brings 700 leaders, age 25-35, from Africa to complete a six-week academic and experiential learning course throughout institutions in the U.S.

Last week’s visit was the third year the group has come to Columbus. The leaders learned about rural city management, healthcare, the dairy industry and agriculture. Along with the session at city hall, the tour included stops at Columbus Community Hospital and the Sassy Cow Farm and Creamery.

Rose Mary Nakame, from Uganda, said she enjoyed Columbus’ small-town charm. Nakame works as a healthcare advocate in her home country where more than 67 percent of the population lives in poverty.

The leaders were very curious about rural Wisconsin life and asked many questions about Columbus’ government, social services and crime. Peter Kaland, representing the historical society, said Columbus is known as a very safe community. Kaland is also a former city mayor and council member.

“In the more than 50 years I’ve been here, I can recall two murders,” Kaland said.

Acting Police Chief Dennis Weiner said while violent crime is low in Columbus, the city is grappling with a growing opioid drug problem, similar to other small Midwest communities.

Library Director Cindy Fesemyer said the city follows a comprehensive plan which outlines growth initiatives for the next 10 years and beyond. She said Columbus is currently working on updating the plan.

In the emergency management portion, some of the young leaders were fascinated by tornadoes, which don’t occur often in most parts of Africa.

The June 29 listening session was an ideal opportunity to find connections between Columbus and Africa, especially its rural areas.

Zambian fellow Liswaniso Chisela Kabwela is a chief community development officer who manages a wide-range of programs, some in rural areas, including sports for development programs, vocational skills training, library administration and adult literacy classes. Similarly, Edosa Shawn Idada of Nigeria is a special assistant in the House of Representatives and works with lawmakers to create and implement policies that improve the lives of people, especially in rural areas.

Idada chose rural representation because he grew up in a rural area and “has experienced firsthand the poor living conditions of people living in the rural areas” of Nigeria.

Overall, last week’s session and tour of the Columbus area was an enlightening experience for the young African fellows. Meagan Doll, Operations Director for UW-Madison’s African Studies Program, said Columbus could serve as a visiting spot for the African leaders for years to come.

Magessa Deogratias George, who serves as a teacher in Tanzania, thanked Columbus for its hospitality and city leaders for holding the listening session.

“On behalf of my fellow Mandela Washington leaders, I thank you very much,” George said. “Thank you for the wonderful session. You covered everything I wanted to hear about. Thank you for doing an amazing job.”

For more information on the African Studies Program and to read bios of all of this year’s Mandela Washington fellows, go to http://africa.wisc.edu/2018-mandela-fellows-at-uw-madison/.

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