Austin Lighthouse Hosts International Interns Through Mandela Washington Fellowship Program

This August, the Austin Lighthouse had the privilege of hosting two members of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, Refiloehape (Fifi) Sesinyi from Lesotho and Mwelekeo “Michael” Rukamakama from the Democratic Republic of The Congo., as part of the program’s Professional Development Experience. For four weeks, Fifi and Michael participated in the Mission Services internship program, which gives interns opportunities to learn orientation and mobility, adaptive technology, and the much talked about accessible technologies the Lighthouse uses in its warehouses to assist and empower blind workers.

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Established in 2014, the U.S. Department of State’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the United States Young African Leaders Initiative that brings young leaders between the ages of 25 to 35 from African countries to the United States for academic and leadership training.

While the Mission Services internship program, started in the Fall 2021-2022 school year, is typically offered to students from Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired to allow them to explore career opportunities available to them both inside and outside the Lighthouse setting m after graduation, the experience was more unique to Fifi and Michael. Not only were they learning skills that would help them both professionally and personally, but they also both had plans to share these skills in the communities where they reside.

Their journeys are truly inspiring. Read on to learn how they were selected as fellows, their experience in Austin and at the Austin Lighthouse, and their plans.

Refiloehape “”Fifi” Sesinyi

Fifi has been making waves in Lesotho and across the continent of Africa for years as an advocate and volunteer social worker for women and girls with disabilities. Often criticized as a crazy feminist, even amongst her visually impaired peers, Fifi pushed her doubts, fears and depression aside and enrolled in university to study gender studies to gain better insights and education on the issues she was fighting for and passionate about.

She did it all with very limited blind skills. While there is a center that teaches skills to the blind and visually impaired in Lesotho, it doesn’t go quite as in depth as the Austin Lighthouse program, according to Fifi.

“85% of the things I learned here was new to me,” said Fifi. “Like the screenreaders for PC, no one ever taught me that.” Fifi says at the center in Lesotho, you only get one opportunity to attend. When she attended in 2011, she still had partial sight and there was only one trainer for those with some sight like her. They weren’t taught what they would need to know in the event they went totally blind like she is now.

During this time, an alumna of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, who happened to also be visually impaired, began mentoring her and encouraging her to apply for the fellowship. Unsurprisingly, Fifi was accepted into the prestigious program after her first try and was off to the United States for an experience of a lifetime.

Fifi spent a few weeks at Michigan State University for leadership training. When it was time for her to choose her organization for the PD E, the Austin Lighthouse jumped out to her. She believed it was the place that would help her find herself. When she connected with Vince Boyd, the VP of Mission Services at the Austin Lighthouse, she knew she found the right place. “At the Austin Lighthouse, I saw Heaven.”

Fifi soaked up every bit of the adaptive technology courses. She learned to use a PC and her phone non-visually. She embraced orientation and mobility training, which taught her to navigate her surroundings. She also enjoyed learning tactile sign language, which will be a big help in being an advocate for all people with disabilities and not just those with a vision impairment.

Speaking on what’s she learned through this experience, Fifi says, “It is not enough to talk about disability just on paperwork, you know to say disability is not an ability. It is not enough to have all these policies. What is most important is to extend a helping hand to empower and support peasants with no biases or judgments, stigmas or stereotypes, because every individual has their own way of doing things. All they need is to be understood from their own context and supported.”

Since returning to Lesotho, Fifi has received her BA Honors degree at the University of the Free State in South Africa and will pursue her master’s degree in gender studies the next academic year, aligning with her dreams to ensure gender equality and inclusion of those with disabilities. She is working as the coordinator at the Vodacom Insight Centre, where she teaches and advises on assistive technology for those with disabilities.

“Currently, 90 percent of the clientele is partially blind and male. I am hoping and working towards changing the situation and ensure that the blind and women and girls use and benefit from the centre too. “

Mwelekeo “Michael” Rukamakama

Michael, a social engineer frpm The Congo, first about the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young Leaders in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. His mentor, an alumnus of the program, encouraged him to apply, but he was very hesitant.

“Can a leader be young?” Michael found it hard to believe there was a program for young leaders between the ages of 25 to 35. He thought wisdom came age.  After struggling with this concept for a bit, he applied for the very selective program and was accepted for the 2022 class.

When it was time for him to select the organization for his Professional Development Experience, he scrolled the list of hundreds of institutions until he came to the Austin Lighthouse. There was a video. He clicked on it and was amazed. “Are these people really blind? Blind people really do all this in America?” Michael says in his community, there’s about nine blind people that spend their days going door to door asking for help. There are no other opportunities available to them. So, when he saw the Lighthouse, he knew he wanted to check it out and see what he can learn for his community.

The fellowship reached out to the Lighthouse to see if the agency was interested in accepting fellows, Michael did an interview, and the internship was set.

Michael was amazed by all the technology in the warehouse and the adaptive technology courses offered. He tried out the Bluetooth headsets and tried out various jobs in the warehouse. He observed as the trainers taught computer courses to blind and visually impaired students.

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One of the biggest lessons he’s taking back to The Congo is to put himself in other people’s shoes. He learned he couldn’t be an effective teacher in his community if he didn’t experience the things that the blind were experiencing. Michael says, “When I’m teaching how to use screenreaders, I can’t just say – click here – because where is here? I have to explain it.”

Experiencing Austin

Michael and Fifi had a great time in Austin. When they first arrived, they were only going back and forth from their apartments to the Lighthouse. The program administrator connected with a friend in town and fun times in the Live Music Capital began. They were introduced to foods they’ve never eaten before at restaurants across Austin, visited an amusement park and explored museums. They are both are excited to return to Austin and collaborate with the Austin Lighthouse in the future.