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Facing and Overcoming Fears by Michi Ferreol
In October of 2016, I moved to Mauritius with two red suitcases and a commitment. Fred Swaniker, CEO of the African Leadership University, had a big, crazy, audacious vision of developing three million leaders for the African continent by 2035. In moving to that tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I made a commitment to this vision and to being part of the team that would see it through.
I shared my decision with my family over one of our regular Sunday brunches, seated around the circular Chinese dining table at my grandmother’s apartment in Manila. As soon as I dropped the news, the lazy susan stopped spinning and the room fell silent. Questions flew back and forth, all dripping with doubt and apprehension. Is it safe in Africa? Will you earn enough money? Can they teach you anything you don’t already know?
I took my family’s skepticism as a sign of their love. After all, their fears were not unfounded. I did not know a single soul in Mauritius, let alone where it exactly was. I did not know what life would be like there, whether I would connect with my coworkers, or whether I would be able to ever call it home. The move was a big risk and, to be frank, it frightened me. But staying in the Philippines, surrounded by comfort and familiarity, would limit my growth as a professional and as a person. Mauritius and ALU would force me to reckon with new cultures, experiences and problems that I had never encountered before. For that, I knew that the fear was fully worth conquering.
When I was hired, only two colleagues from India and I made up the entire Asian population out of 200 full-time ALU staff. At first, I felt off-kilter and isolated—an island within an island. I had grown up in a small town at the heart of Manila with a deeply Catholic family and a strong Filipino-Chinese culture. Very little of my experience felt similar to those of my colleagues who had grown up on the African continent. The South Africans used phrases I could not understand, the West Africans bonded over their love for Naija music, and everyone else understood references and situations I simply could not relate to. I was afraid I would never truly be part of the ALU community.
But soon, I began to discover more of the underlying threads that brought our community together—a deep commitment to youth development, an openness to learning about other cultures and lifestyles, and the struggle of finding a home away from home. I developed deep friendships over hikes on steep mountain trails or long drives along the Mauritius coast. In those moments, we would share our reasons for coming to ALU, our opinions on the direction of the organization, and the difficulties of being away from family. At some point, it stopped mattering that I didn’t know the Afrobeats songs being played at gatherings; My fears slowly dissipated by revelling in the unique perspectives, hopes, and worries that everyone brought to ALU.
Through this experience, I saw how a common purpose and vision can cultivate connection amongst people of vastly different histories and ways of living. I learned how to shape a culture where alignment and mutual understanding allows for constructive disagreement, and where relationships are founded on deep trust and honesty. Most importantly, I witnessed the power of conquering fear by meeting others at a human level. Despite the color of our skin, there are ways in which we all share the same fears and the same stories.
In South Africa, where ALU was first born, my friends taught me about a philosophy called Ubuntu — “I am because we are”. This captures my biggest learning from my move to Mauritius. Whenever I am faced with fear, I will focus on bringing this spirit of Ubuntu to the communities I am part of. I will use the experiences I have collected from living in the Philippines, the United States, Mauritius and now Kenya to both build and be part of a community that is rooted in a beautiful, collective humanity.