Sombo Muzata Chunda came to the United States from Zambia through the Mandela Washington Fellowship this summer and now works for VCU’s Division of Community Engagement.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship is the flagship program of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). One thousand Fellows from countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa were sent to universities across the U.S. for six weeks.to participate in academic coursework and leadership training. Chunda was one of 40 accepted from Zambia.
In Zambia, Chunda worked as Country Manager for faith-based Swedish development organization Diakonia. Diakonia works with activist organizations in a number of Sub-Saharan African countries to promote human rights, democracy, gender equality, social and economic justice.
Chunda said her work in Zambia revolved primarily around the realization of human rights in rural communities, and monitoring to ensure elections were free and fair.
“And the reason is simple,” Chunda said. “It is because we do not vote using advanced technology. We vote on paper in Africa. So if I am a fraudster, I would just come [to the polling station] with a bag full of pre-marked ballots. And the time that we are about to count, I just put them there, and they’re already marked with the candidate whom I love, or who I want to win.”
Chunda and 49 others were sent to Richmond, where they were divided evenly between programs offered by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and the VCU School of Business. Chunda resided in the VCU Globe living-learning community at West Grace Street Student Housing – North residence hall.
Chunda said through YALI she’s learned about the American political and financial system, a system she said is far more developed than in her native Zambia.
Chunda said the features that defined the American public service hundreds of years ago are the same features she sees in Africa now.
“So are we going to go through a hundred more years to come,” Chunda said. “Will we do a leap-frog to get to the kind of development we would like to have?”
Chunda said she asked herself if she should look at life more broadly, and start thinking of operating at an international level.
“There gets to be a point in life where you have to unlearn what you have learned,” said Chunda. “Maybe I should start fresh.”
Chunda decided to resign from her job at Diakonia and apply for a graduate research position at the VCU Division of Community Engagement. She also enrolled part-time in courses at the Wilder School and is pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree.
“Everything falling into place in three weeks was unbelievable,” said Jean Gasen, Director of Leadership and Executive Coaching at the Business School. “The fact that she was able to leave her job with a transition period, with the support of her former employer. The fact she was able to get a visa.”
Chunda is temporarily living with Gasen while she searches for a more permanent place in the city. Chunda refers to Gasen and Gasen’s husband as her “other parents.”
Chunda’s job at the Division of Community Engagement revolves around measuring the impact of the university on surrounding communities.
“VCU is going to be in existence for so many more years to come,” Chunda said. “It’s important to look at the impact of what we are doing now, and to continually see if our actions are relevant, and if the community is also seeing that our actions are relevant.”
Chunda said she is grateful the five-year visa she was issued will allow her to pursue a doctorate in Public Administration from the Wilder School. Ultimately, she said she hopes to teach.
James Thomma, Contributing Writer
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