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Bridging the divide, towards progress and prosperity

How does a young boy from the townships of South Africa end up speaking in front of an audience of this calibre?

My name is Chris Vuba and I am from Cape Town, South Africa. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, quite literally. As a young boy, I could see there was a different world just out of reach, one that had different people and different opportunities. Though not legally divided I was confronted with spatial segregation. I thought, if I could just build a bridge across those tracks, my life, and that of my family and community, would be better. It was a passion I could not shake, and I currently work as an urban planner for the Government of South Africa.

I began to realise that this spatial segregation that had been my focus for so long was not just about the space, it was the physical manifestation of broader injustices and inequalities facing our communities. I applied for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship program of Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, knowing I wanted to do more in terms of building bridges across countries and with people who were working to address these inequalities. Forever grateful for the platform and the support of the US Department of State and USAID, I was able to connect with other young leaders from across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Being part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship gave me the opportunity to build on my passion for making connections, for building these bridges across Southern Africa. Of the many incredible opportunities the program provided me, one really stayed with me as a turning point in my growth as a young African leader.

This was the ability to work with two other Fellows who were addressing the challenges of spatial segregation. One is an artist in the townships and the other is the director of housing policy for the government. We are now working together to reshape South Africa’s housing policy by institutionalizing the use of people’s homes in townships as art galleries to raise awareness of these communities and generate investment.

My other light bulb moment came in June. After almost a year of work representing my region to USAID, and after months of engaging Fellows from across Southern Africa, I stood on the stage – as I do before you today – to officially welcome my Mandela Washington Fellowship colleagues to the Southern Africa Regional Conference. Looking out from the stage I could see the bridges we had already built, and could only anticipate the ones to come from the broader YALI network to which we are all connected.

When young leaders are invested in, and are given the opportunity to network with each other – to build bridges across communities, sectors, and geographic borders – the impact of the development intervention is amplified.  I know that I am no longer an individual young leader.  I am part of a larger network. And as the African proverb goes, “If you want go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together”

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