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So You Like Bananas? Me Too! Our Speed Date With Global Activists

Reporters (left) interview the Aspen fellows during the session.
Akash Ghai
Reporters (left) interview the Aspen fellows during the session.

Earlier this week, we went on a speed date — yes, a real speed date — with some of the most talented change-makers from the developing world.

It's the quirky way the Aspen Institute, an international leadership organization, introduces the global development champions from their New Voices Fellowship to the U.S. media every year. Journalists get 7 or 8 minutes with each fellow, and when the buzzer goes off, they move on to the next one.

So in the spirit of speed dating, we posed a lighthearted question: Tell us something Americans don't know about your country.

We hope our date is the start of a long-lasting relationship. In the past year, Aspen fellows have written for Goats and Soda about everything from a Taylor Swift music video to the words "I love you" on Goats and Soda, and have been interviewed about interesting innovations.

Here's what some of the fellows shared on our speed date:

Guinean music is awesome.

Abraham Leno, Guinea. He grew up in extreme poverty, but now works with refugees and internally displaced people as the country representative for American Refugee Committee in Congo.

"Music. There's a lot of music culture just like you have in Mali and Senegal and those other [West African] places. Get there and you get some lovely music."

People in Uganda are "bananas."

Serufusa Sekidde, Uganda. He works on health policy, is the co-founder of a media production company and speaks fluent Mandarin.

"What will not be surprising is that a lot of people like me in Uganda are bananas. We go bananas in the sense that we are crazy, we are energetic and we love a lot of adventure. But we also do a lot of things with bananas. We make banana wine, banana crisps, banana cloth. So we use the entire banana as a form of industry. Each day we make the banana flour. We eat everything in a banana. We are a country of bananas and some of us have bananas."

Kenyans will make you feel right at home.

Jamila Abass, Kenya. She is the software developer and founder of M-Farm, which helps farmers move into commercial farming through mobile technology.

"What I really love about Kenya and Kenyans is anywhere you go in the country you feel at home. You can walk to a stranger's house and you will just be welcomed with food and you feel like you're part of that family already. So that's one beautiful thing that I love about my country and I miss it when I go."

Ghanaians are fun.

Karan Chopra, Indian but grew up in Ghana. He started GADCO, a rice cooperative that's now the largest producer of rice in Ghana.

"So Ghana doesn't have the wildlife of East Africa or the forest beauty of Rwanda. But what we do have is the most hospitable people in the world so we are, I would argue and I'm biased, the most peace-loving and fun-loving people that I've ever met."

ElsaMarie D'Silva, an Aspen fellow from India who focuses on gender-based violence and harassment, speaks with a reporter during the speed-dating session.
Akash Ghai / NPR
ElsaMarie D'Silva, an Aspen fellow from India who focuses on gender-based violence and harassment, speaks with a reporter during the speed-dating session.

India's pretty accessible.

ElsaMarie D'Silva, India. She is the co-founder of Safecity, an online platform that tracks reports of sexual abuse and harassment

"India is a very diverse country with a lot of history and culture. Many people speak English, so I think you would really love to explore our country and not feel intimidated by being in a country that is alien."

Some consider Nigerians the "Americans of Africa."

Misan Rewane, Nigeria. She is the CEO of West Africa Vocational Education, an organization that trains unemployed youth.

"We are sometimes referred to as the Americans of Africa. I think what would surprise most Americans about Nigeria is how similar the entrepreneurial spirit is (to America). How similar the optimism, the defiance of norms and authority is. And that can-do attitude is admired by other Africans when they think about Nigerians."

South Africa is running out of water.

Lebo Moletsane, South Africa. She is a professor of rural education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and writes about gender inequities and poverty alleviation in rural areas.

"We are running out of water. Is that surprising? Yes, we are running out of water. Even though we are surrounded by water, actually."

Rubayat Khan, a fellow from Bangladesh, uses technology to spur development.
Akash Ghai / NPR
Rubayat Khan, a fellow from Bangladesh, uses technology to spur development.

There's a lot of cool stuff going on in Bangladesh.

Rubayat Khan, Bangladesh. He's a social entrepreneur, data scientist and the co-founder of mPower, which explores tech solutions to development needs.

"I think it's the degree of innovation that is coming out of Bangladesh. Some of the biggest things that you know now about microfinance were actually born in Bangladesh. We have a Nobel Peace Prize winner [Muhammad Yunus] who kind of kickstarted that entire process and now it's global. We're doing stuff that could eventually really solve global problems. But people don't know the country, so we often find it difficult to get top quality people to come and work with us."

Do you live in a developing country and want to share a surprising fact? Tell us in a comment below.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.