Views expressed are my own and do not represent the Mandela Washington Fellowship program


The Young African Leaders Initiative was founded in 2014 and a couple of people that I knew and admired had been a part of it. I was inspired. So when the applications opened, I sat down to apply. I’m a writer naturally but I am not a fan of essay questions in these kind of applications. I had limited access to the internet, so I copied and pasted the questions to a Word document so that I could work on them at home and not feel so pressured. I’d just come in next time to copy and paste them onto the online application later. No problem.

I poured out everything into that application and after endless revisions, I submitted it.

And I waited.

The email came, they had received my application.


Months later the response came and it wasn’t a congratulations.

I was crushed. The inadequacy began to set in and I started questioning the work that I do. Like I wasn’t working hard enough or that the initiatives that I was involved weren’t worthy. It hit hard. Everything I was doing felt stupid and not game-changing enough. It took all of me to come back from this hit. But I did.

Kept receiving emails about the Young African Leaders Initiative and I resented it to be honest. It became a reminder of a dark time that I wasn’t very proud of. I unsubscribed from them and continued with my life. Year after year, I’d see the apply for YALI adverts and people sharing the links and I decided I’d never put myself through that mess again. I was happy.

Then I got a WhatsApp message from my mentor, “Hi, YALI applications are open, here’s the link. Please apply.” I respect my mentor. I love her. Her opinion of me is important. I usually do what she says without question but the moment had come for me to disagree with her, two years into our mentorship partnership. She asked, I refused. She kept asking and I refused more times than Peter denied Jesus.

I calmly explained to her why I’d rather not apply. She understood and insisted that I re-apply. I really didn’t want to.

Two days before applications closed, I caved and started the application process. I sent her drafts of my responses and man did she have all the comments. If you know me, you know I hate to be edited. Turns out I hate comments even more because that means I have to make the edits myself. I sat down and reworked the responses to the essay questions. I suffered and sent.

She didn’t like the whole response, I had to rework it.

I don’t have time for this, I have a day job and things I actually wanna do. Not this gruesome application process that’s more trouble than it’s worth. I sent the amended version.

She still didn’t like it and today was the closing date for applications.

I was tired. I reworked the essay responses and there was no time to have her review them. It was now or never. I chose now. I copied and pasted the responses and submitted the application.

Sent. At least now she’ll get off my back about it and she’ll see what I meant.

I had forgotten about the application when the response came months later. “Congratulations! You have been selected for the Mandela Washington Fellowship interview stage in the Leadership in Civic Engagement Track.”

For more information on the Mandela Washington Fellowship:


  • Valerie Cullers
    Posted 22nd June 2019 5:47 pm 0Likes

    Congratulations!!!!!!! I am so proud of you because you kept trying. All of us get rejected a lot…especially if you are a writer. It makes the successes all the sweeter. 💖💖💖💖

  • Valentina
    Posted 22nd June 2019 6:13 pm 0Likes

    Loved it!

  • Mugo
    Posted 22nd June 2019 7:17 pm 0Likes

    Totally relatable stuff lol, I was rejected twice and unsubscribed to all their portals, never submitting again. But I encourage friends to apply as I know the opportunities YALI brings. Can’t wait to see what doors open for you in the process.

    • Thembi Terry Zulu
      Posted 17th July 2019 2:52 pm 0Likes

      I beg to differ but to each his own. I believe in your vision, passion and the impact you can make in the community.

  • Linda Latt
    Posted 23rd June 2019 12:05 am 0Likes

    That is wonderful, congratulations! I know what it is liked to be rejected. Not fun, always depressing and I always get angry. Each time I vow I am not going to submit another article. I just was rejected again and this time I am just not sure what to do. So happy for you. It is quite an accomplishment. Well deserved.

  • vwani
    Posted 23rd June 2019 4:04 am 0Likes

    I should thank you for this post. It is my first to hear about YALI and I am even surprised the regional centre is in Nairobi. I have checked the website and application is now open, So I am applying for YALI East Africa. I don’t know how many times I will get rejected but at least I have the information. I am grateful that now I know. Thank you.

    • Thembi Terry Zulu
      Posted 17th July 2019 2:46 pm 0Likes

      It’s my pleasure. Applications for this one will open around September.

      • vwani
        Posted 19th July 2019 1:40 am 0Likes

        I have applied already am waiting for their response.

  • Leah K
    Posted 24th June 2019 7:50 pm 0Likes

    Congratulations Thembi! Sometimes we just have to push through the rejection and keep hoping for the best. All the best in the program

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