Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ramadan in the United States as a Mandela Washington Fellow

Almost nothing could quell my excitement as I emerged one of the 44 young Nigerians selected to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship of President Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) in the United States. The program was to last six weeks at various academic institutions and the seventh week at the Presidential Summit in Washington, D.C. It was an honor then. It is a great honor now to call myself a Mandela Washington Fellow. There were so many things to look forward to; there were so many things that only experiencing would explain, but one thing stood out. It was the fact that the holy month of Ramadan would begin in the second or third week of our stay and end while I was in the States.

The holy month of Ramadan is that month in which practicing Muslims around the world fast (by abstaining from food, drink, sex) from sunrise to sunset. It is that month of spiritual cleansing, of giving in charity and increasing in acts of worship. Since I was going to be in a foreign land studying at a university, I asked myself many times if I could optimize my worship within the time. I wondered if I’d get the kind of food I wanted for iftar (breaking fasts), if there was special provision for sahur (prescribed eating at dawn before the fast began) at my institution which was Morgan State University (MSU) in Baltimore, Maryland. I couldn’t get the answers in Nigeria although I asked at every opportunity. At the pre-departure orientation at the U.S. Embassy, we were told even before we asked to remind our various institutions about Ramadan.

The hours. Fasting from sunrise to sunset in Nigeria has always been within a range of between twelve to thirteen hours. Not too difficult especially when the sun isn’t too hot and sahur (eating at dawn) is observed. The difference with the hours in the United States with emphasis on summer… sigh! I fasted for seventeen hours!!! It was not just fasting for seventeen hours that was challenging; it was the fact that I had only nine hours daily within which to eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If I ever said it was easy, I lied. But then, there were Muslims in America and some of them did fast, I had no excuses and I didn’t complain (much).

I smile at memories of the first day of Ramadan at Morgan State. There were six of us “fasters” as Adelle, our writing teacher, fondly called us. Well, five actually as one “faster” abstained. We decided to meet at Andrew’s flat to break our fast. I remember the flat filled to capacity and there was so much food. From omelets to rice, Farouk’s macaroons, bread, tea, fruits… Sadikie (Liberia) loved rice, he wouldn’t eat anything but rice and there was enough cooked rice, but he was nowhere to be found at the time the sun had set. Halima (Niger) ate sparingly for someone who had fasted for nineteen hours. Andrew (South Africa), our host, ate “fruits.” He can survive on fruits and sweets alone. Farouk hoarded all the macaroons, including mine. The “fasters” and “non-fasters” all met for iftar on the first day of Ramadan. It was a meal to remember, a time to bond, and a memory I will always treasure.

Qimmah and Tiolu, both staff of MSU, were always there to provide information on anything and everything that concerned Ramadan. Tiolu actually volunteered to cook for us on occasion. Provisions were made for the fellows to cook their meals if they preferred, and it was preferred. Imam Derrick and others made us feel so welcome. When I look back, I feel a little sad that I wasn’t able to engage more with the Muslim community there, the time just wasn’t enough but I’m glad I met them anyway.

Towards the end of our stay in Baltimore, Qimmah introduced us to a Malian family that hosted us for iftar. They were so gracious and so kind. It had a feeling of home and not for the first time, it reminded me of how much I missed being there. The food was excellent, the company was amazing, and that spirit of Ramadan was exemplified. Aisha, our hostess, regretted that we were leaving so soon, she’d have wanted to feed us for the entire month. She gave Halima and I parting gifts, some pearl studded slippers. Such kindness is immeasurable.

Because of the nature of the program and how busy it became towards the end, it was a bit of a challenge to find the time for long recitations of the Holy Qur’an. There were just nine hours at night and the days were filled with activities I didn’t want to miss. I learned to utilize my times on the bus when traveling, going for excursions or paying courtesy calls. Bus rides were mostly fun and noisy. I’d sit at the farthest seat at the back of the bus and do the needful.

Eid was special. It marked the end of Ramadan and we celebrated it while in DC for the Presidential Summit. All 500 of the Fellows were under one roof at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. It was the day we met President Barrack Obama.

Some things are not easy, adapting to change can be challenging, but I only have fond memories of my first Ramadan in the United States, especially since I was surrounded by the most brilliant collection of Africans and Baltimoreans.

Maryam Shehu Mohammed (Mandela Washington Fellow; Associate Fellow, National Leadership Institute NLI)



Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Preparing young Nigerians for leadership

US Ambassador James Entwistle poses with Norther Nigeria contingent to the 2015 YALI - Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy/Idika Onyukwu
A year ago, 45 young Nigerians from various parts of the country were selected to participate in President Obama’s first ever Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).  The White House developed this program in recognition of the critical and increasing role that young Africans are playing in strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, and enhancing peace and security on the continent.  Those selected participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship, a six-week academic and leadership program focused on business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership, and public management at select U.S. universities.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Women as Peace Advocates

March is Women’s History Month in the United States.  It is set aside to focus on the contributions of women to the development of the country.  March 8 is also celebrated as International Women’s Day.
In his proclamation, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “Throughout history, extraordinary women have fought tirelessly to broaden our democracy’s reach and help perfect our Union.  Through protest and activism, generations of women have appealed to the values at the heart of our Nation and fought to give meaning to the idea that we are all created equal.”

Friday, March 13, 2015

Gathering for Peaceful and Credible Elections

“Nigeria is making progress in its democratic journey despite security challenges,” said Professor Chidi Odinkalu, Chairman of the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission.  Professor Odinkalu made this assertion at an event organized by the Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni Association in support of peaceful and credible elections in Nigeria.

Citing the success of Nigeria’s democratic process, Professor Odinkalu said, “First, Nigeria will be witnessing the most competitive election in her history with an opposition that is stronger than ever before and which has footprints across the country.  Second, control of the National Assembly is now split between two political parties, one controlling the Senate and the other, the House of Representatives.  Thirdly, the number of election litigations has decreased by 35 percent, from 86.1 percent in 2007 to 51 percent in 2011.”   He said young leaders are important, urging them to be optimistic and use creative ways to connect with their peers.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

AMANA Initiative: University of Abuja Law Clinic promotes trust and peace building through dialogue

“There can be no development without peace,” Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association Gwagwalada said as he addressed Abuja Law School clinicians and a group of more than 200 participants at the stakeholders interactive town hall, organized by the University of Abuja Law Clinic under the *AMANA Initiative.

The University of Abuja Law Clinic is a general practice clinic that serves as a laboratory for law students. Throughout the year, student clinicians take turns staffing the clinic—meeting members of the community, registering their cases, and, in some cases, providing pro bono legal services to indigent residents.