CUNY’s African Students Discuss Africa’s Future at Second Annual Symposium



Actor and film director Mohammed Dione talks about the role of film in changing the world’s perspective of Africa.


As Somali novelist Abdi Latif Ega approached a podium draped with African cloth, the room at John Jay College fell silent. Ega, the keynote speaker at the Council for Young African Leaders (CYAL)‘s CUNY African Leadership symposium, addressed a Saturday morning audience scattered throughout otherwise empty rows of chairs in the small lecture room. He stressed the need to learn from past mistakes of African leadership, and to find new ways to improve the continent.

“The young and the old have to look at what has worked in history and what has not worked in history,” said the middle-aged author of “Guban,” a post-colonial novel set in Somalia. “Even if you live outside [of Africa], it’s finding a solution that’s part of building a new way of thinking.”

Ega’s message was echoed in panels throughout the day’s program. Conversations centered on the theme, “The African Youth Rising,” and participants—about 100 student leaders, academics and professionals from local businesses—added to the burgeoning dialogue on Africa’s “brain drain” and efforts to encourage New York City’s diaspora community to return to the continent.

“We made a conscious choice to not fly anyone in from outside of the tri-state area, as we did last year,” said Divine Muragijimana, co-founder and president of CYAL. “ We wanted a more localized dialogue engaging the leaders in the different industries in our communities.”

Muragijimana, a graduate of CUNY Brooklyn College, founded the CYAL in 2011 alongside Okenfe Lebarty, the current executive director of CUNY’s University Student Senate. The African population is not the largest group recorded by the CUNY system; however, Muragijimana and Lebarty recognized the need for a network of young Africans in New York City. This year’s symposium continues an effort to rotate throughout CUNY’s 23 campuses and “give each an opportunity to host it.”

“We want to give every student the opportunity to come to the event,” added Muragijimana. “We take our responsibilities very seriously and want as many young people involved as possible.”

CYAL aimed to attract young people like Dziffa Ametam, a student at CUNY Lehman College. and president of the college’s African Students Association. She attended this year’s symposium accompanied by a small percentage of her club members.

“When I heard about this event,” said Ametam. “I signed them up. Some of them came so they can grow culturally.”

Ametam enjoyed the discussions on entrepreneurship and leadership.  An economics major and aspiring international lawyer, the Ghana native wants to return to the continent she left in 2004 and rebuild the broken economic infrastructure. “Right now, where we [Africa] are is worse than we’ve ever been,” she said. “Everyone is leaving. Who’s going to come back and fix things?”

“It’s always been Europe coming in to help,” she added. “Now China is coming in to help…when are Africans going to help themselves?”

The growing influence of foreign governments in Africa has been a widely discussed topic of concern in the diaspora community. China, which has sponsored development projects in countries like Kenya and Ghana, has a rapidly growing presence in Africa. Days before the event, CUNY Brooklyn College professor Kwasi Konadu spoke of the urgency for Africans to return to the continent. However, Konadu stressed the need for African governments to create environments enticing for Africans abroad.

“The conditions have to be right where by people feel welcome and they can feel content,” said Konadu, who immigrated to the United States in the 1990s.

At the symposium, Kwaku Awuah and Nana Poku, designers of the “54 Kingdoms” fashion brand, shared their experiences working in Ghana. Awuah and Poku are currently organizing an October summit for youth that will include conversations with four of the country’s presidential candidates. They are also working to change business laws for youth in Ghana.

“You have to be 21 to own a company,” said Awuah. “ And what we’re advocating for is for them to bring it down to 18 because some of these kids have wonderful ideas.

“The idea of grooming these geniuses early is very important,” he said.