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"We believe that if we come together, we can do great things," says Muluh Hilda Bih, a journalist and disability rights advocate from Cameroon who is positioning herself as a leader to motivate young Africans with and without disabilities to tackle some of the world's greatest challenges together.
At the University of California at Berkeley, a city famous for its prominent role in disability rights history, Hilda is spending six weeks building skills in civic leadership and public policy as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship program of Barack Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
Hilda is one of 500 young African leaders with and without disabilities to participate in the inaugural Mandela Washington Fellowship, which, like all programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, actively sought out diverse applicants to contribute their unique talents and perspectives. According to Evan Ryan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, the value placed on diversity is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy that can ultimately promote human rights around the world through international exchange.
"We are proud that 15 Fellows in the inaugural Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders are people with disabilities," said Ryan. "I have been humbled and inspired to meet them and to hear of their personal achievements, and I applaud their efforts to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities....It is my hope that the Fellowship will allow these outstanding young people to develop their leadership skills and to create international networks that will ultimately assist them in their professional capabilities, whether in disability rights advocacy or in other fields."
For Hilda, it is a hope that has already been realized. Upon her return home to Cameroon, Hilda - herself a woman with muscular dystrophy - immediately began to strategize how to use what she gained from the Washington Fellowship to mobilize other people with disabilities to be involved in all aspects of society. "In our country, 10% of the population is made up of persons with one form of disability or the other, so if we leave them behind in any endeavor, we're leaving behind 10% of the population."
Before returning home, Hilda and her cohort of Washington Fellows flew to Washington, D.C. for a week-long summit. The summit included an address from Barack Obama, whom Hilda cites as a positive example for young African leaders. "His example of overcoming a lot of odds and being a role model for so many people has been very powerful for most of us in Africa," she says. "It teaches us that it doesn't matter where you come from or how you look, you can be whatever you want to be, you just have to keep working at it. African young persons can broaden their mind instead of just staying in one place and accepting the status quo as it is."
The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. government and supported in its implementation by IREX.
[A woman wearing a ruffled pink dress is seated in an outdoor courtyard, facing the camera.]
Speaker: My name is Muluh Hilda Bih. I'm from Cameroon. And I'm here for the Young African Leaders Initiative Washington Fellowship.
[Cutaway to Hilda navigating a power wheelchair down a ramp from a building to the sidewalk.]
It is President Obama's flagship program to empower young Africans to be leaders. The good thing about the fellowship is that it's not focusing on one country and we all as young persons in Africa are facing similar challenges. We believe that if we come together, we can do great things.
[Title slide text reads "What do you hope to gain from the Washington Fellowship?"]
One of my goals of coming to YALI was just to learn to become a better leader, more strategic, and also to network with others. And that I'm learning by being in the Goldman School of Public Policy so I'm learning that we can influence policy for the greater good and for generations to come.
[Title slide text reads "What do you want to share with your fellow Young African Leaders?"]
You know not many people had been aware of the challenges of persons with disabilities in African countries and I hope that my presence amongst them will make them see disability as more cross-cutting. We have people from across the board, working on women's rights, working on the environment, working on human rights, people in the media, all that.
[Cutaway to Hilda, seated in a power wheelchair, in discussion with another woman who is non-disabled, while Hilda's sister/assistant stands behind Hilda.]
All of what they're doing, they should include persons with disabilities. They should include disability.
[Title slide text reads "What strategies did you use for accessibility during your Fellowship?"]
I'm really grateful to YALI. I should say I'm grateful. They made sure that I'm comfortable if it meant coming along with an assistant, if it meant renting a power chair so that I could go around.
[Cutaway to Hilda navigating inside a campus building in her power wheelchair, at times accompanied by her assistant]
I have never had this much freedom, ever since I've been in a wheelchair because always there should be someone pushing my wheelchair, someone moving along with me. Now I have someone, but I can race in front of that person and they run after me! [laughing]
[Cutaway to Hilda driving in her power wheelchair on a sidewalk away from the camera, slowly at first, then speeding away quickly.]
[Title slide text reads "How can we encourage more people with disabilities to join international exchange programs like this?"]
To get to the international level, there is some level of education that is needed. Certainly for myself, if I didn't have an education up to a certain level, I wouldn't have qualified for this. Now I know that it's possible, and I want people or young persons with disabilities who have never experienced this to know that it's possible, and to be willing to step out their - sometimes out of their comfort zones. I'm really grateful that YALI made this, and what it's doing to me is just opening my mind to a whole new world of possibility for persons with disabilities.
[Cutaway to Hilda and her assistant moving along a shaded sidewalk past the view of the camera.]