ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — The 2008 United States presidential election was an incredible time for me, here in West Africa. The election contributed to shaping my leadership skills and affected the course of my life. I used to take part in events at the US Embassy in Abidjan, our country’s commercial capital, as a member of a university student association, the African American Forum.
It was during one such event that I discovered the phenomenon named Barack Obama. I loved the man not only because he was a black American, but mostly because of his eloquent manner. As he gives his farewell message in Chicago on Jan. 10, I offer my own farewell to him.
As African students learning American history, we knew much about the civil rights movement. We had learned about great African-American figures of the 20th century: Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama represented the embodiment and fulfillment of a long-held dream for black Americans and the African continent.
Like many other students in the Department of English at the Université Félix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan, I tried to copy Obama as much as I could. While some students tried to speak like him, I chose his slogans when I ran as student leader in the Department of English — using his “Yes, We Can,” and my own, “The Dealer Has Turned Leader” — in my campaign. Although I was not elected, I ended up as the delegate of my tutorial class, with less than 50 students.
By then, I had started as a talk-show host on the radio station in my community, the heavily populous neighborhood called Abobo, in Abidjan. I later became the director of the station, Radio Arc-en-Ciel. During the 2008 US election, my favorite debate topic was Obama. I used to invite my fellow students, English teachers, journalists and other English speakers to discuss Obama. I read his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” on the air; I discussed what he meant to African youths and what Africa could expect of him.
On Nov. 4, 2008, the US Embassy here arranged for many students and other Ivoirian leaders to watch the election night live. Students from various schools, all centered on Obama, staged performances. Computers and Internet connection were provided for us to webchat with other young people around the world, enabling us to learn what was going on in the US. As the election results were being displayed for each American state, the emotion became so real, the feeling so deep and intense!
From a humble beginning, there he was, about to become the most powerful person on earth! More than an inspiration, Obama raised my expectations extremely high! I had a dream: to meet Obama before he left office.
And I did meet him, in 2015, when I was selected to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative, a US government program.
It was surreal, being in the same hall with him. As he entered the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., that Aug. 3, the 500 Young African Leaders started singing to wish him a happy birthday (which is on Aug. 4.) I thought about where I had come from, how the talkative village boy that I had been just a few years earlier was sitting less than 20 meters away from the president of the United States of America.
Coming from the poor neighborhood of Abobo to Washington took determination, work and audacity. In 2010, the presidential elections held in the Ivory Coast resulted in a war, when the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to leave power after he lost the election to Alassane Ouattara, our current president. Some months after the war ended, in July 2011, I focused on my work at the community radio station as distrust, fear and hopelessness permeated the 1.5 million people living in Abobo, one of the toughest battlegrounds during the conflict.
As I became manager of the station in 2012, it regained popularity. With the financial and technical support of some international organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development’s Organization for Transition Initiatives (USAID-OTI), the World Bank and Search for Common Ground, we organized events promoting forgiveness, reconciliation, social cohesion and peaceful elections. Our work helped to secure calm elections in Abobo in the 2015 presidential race, which had not happened for decades, and Ouattara won again.
My credentials as a young community leader and my fluency in English contributed to my selection in the US State Department program. After participating in the program and meeting Obama, I feel empowered to play a bigger role in my community, my country and Africa as a whole.
As an African, I did not have special expectations from Obama regarding his role in our continent. Although he is of Kenyan descent, he was the president of the US, not Africa. His program, the Young African Leadership initiative, named after Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, is the greatest gift he could have given to us.
Thanks to the program, I am part of an African-wide network of change-makers of 420,000 members, signifying the impact of Obama far beyond American borders.
On Jan. 20, he leaves office. I am sure he will continue to inspire and nurture millions of other young people around the world. Why, he could be even more available for youths in Africa now. I am sure I will be meeting him again.
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Essan Emile Ako has worked for the last four years as the managing director of Radio Arc-en-Ciel, a community-based radio station in the Abobo community in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Ako was selected as a participant in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative, a US government program, in 2015.
Ako holds a master’s degree in English linguistics from the Université Félix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan.