Dar es Salaam. For a young Tanzanian who lived on a single meal a day while growing up, earning a scholarship at Stanford University in the United States is a farfetched dream.
But that dream is now a reality, as Benjamin Fernandes flew from Dar es Salaam to California on Tuesday for a two-year Africa MBA fellowship at Stanford, one of the world’s prestigious higher learning institutions.
Benjamin will be a third Tanzania to join the Stanford University, after Jonny (2003) and Mbwana Ally (2007).
The Stanford Africa MBA Fellowship Programme pays for tuition and associated fees at a cost of US $140,000 (Sh 280million) citizens of African countries with financial need who wish to obtain an MBA at Stanford.
Within two years of graduation, Stanford Africa MBA Fellows are required to return to Africa to work for at least two years in a professional role that contributes to the continent’s development.
Speaking to The Citizen shortly before departing to the US, Benjamin said he was equally excited and nervous for the opportunity, adding that the opportunity will impact the welfare of youth in the country.
“I’m just excited, it is everyone’s wish to join Stanford…this is an opportunity that I will not take for granted,” said the 22-year-old.
Describing how he applied for the opportunity, the Computer Science graduate from the University of Northwestern - Saint Paul in the United States of America, says it interested him to apply to a number one business school in the world.
“I took a big step in faith, I said, I’m going to apply to the number one Business School in the world... I looked it up and decided to apply.”
According to him, it was on December 8 last year that he received a call that he says will cherish for the rest of his life.
A son to Rev Vernon Fernandes, a renowned televangelist with Agape Television Network (ATN) and founder of World Agape Ministries (WAM), Benjamin says he sent his online application, not certain that he will succeed.
“It’s never easy for anyone to make it past Stanford gates, only 400 people succeed out of 9,000 applications.”
While he is set to join the prestigious higher learning institution, Benjamin still recalls his childhood where he shared a single bedroom house with his family, and also survived on a single meal a day.
“We used to sleep in the same room with my sister and our parents at Chang’ombe…my father didn’t have enough money to buy us food or take us to school,” says Benjamin.
Undeterred by such challenges, Benjamin says his father, who gave up a not so well paying job as an auditor for a local firm, always told him that he would one day enrol to a good school.
According to Benjamin, his father did what he described as a bold decision of allocating the only money he had that time for his school fees.
His father’s zeal of seeing Benjamin and his sister join good schools was noticed by a principal of an international school in Dar es Salaam.
“My sister and I were awarded sponsorships from preschool to 13th grade at Heaven of Peace Academy,” explains Benjamin.
He says that he feels indebted to the family that decided to sponsor him and his sister until they graduated from school, as his parents could not afford their school fees.
He describes such an opportunity as a turning point on his life. “I was provided with an opportunity that most kids from my background didn’t get. I know that the work that matters to me requires creative thinking, people skills, and high academic excellence. Consequently, I will always pursue education because it is something that I almost never received,” says Benjamin.
However, despite the fact that he was sponsored to study at a good school, Benjamin says he took such a privilege for granted.
While at high school, he was revered for being a regular visitor at the headmaster’s office due to poor academic performances.
“I had failed many classes and my school report cards would reflect messages of shame and disgrace. When I was accepted to my undergrade institution conditionally, I understood that if I didn’t do well, this would be it.”
But thanks to his hard work, by the time he graduated, Benjamin was among the top performers at the school.
An award winning speaker and entrepreneur in Tanzania, Benjamin has always been passionate about youth development and thrives in raising young people in leadership.
He has also enjoyed engaging in community development projects while also working at an orphanage at Bunju in Dar es Salaam.
Having an experience of being a TV personality at ATN, the soft spoken Benjamin says he is passionate about investing in education.
“We have a brain drain that has left a wound, which could only be healed if we go back and resuscitate the economy and education, before investing in anything, we need to invest in education. Ignorance is prevalent in African societies and the longer we ignore this, the deeper we find ourselves in poverty,” he explains.
Growing up in Tanzania, Benjamin says he has seen the worst possible living situations; from people dying of basic needs, such as water and food, to people being robbed and beaten up for as little as two dollars.
“These people matter to me, and this country, however backwards and corrupted is, it’s important to me. My heart is for the broken, for a place that has never known freedom from poverty and fear.”
Since a little boy, Benjamin says that it was his father that instilled in him the value of integrity.
“When all you see is theft, lying and cheating, the temptation is to fall into the same trap. I thank God that my parents were people of integrity. They taught me the importance of the honest pursuit of your goals. I thought that this was a black and white issue; I would always know the right thing to do,” he adds.
Asked of how he aspires to shape the country’s future, Benjamin says Africa is large enough to merit more careful treatment.
According to him, the starting point is to become aware of the continent’s complex nature.
“There is not one solution, as there is not one problem. I believe that first and foremost we need to invest in education. Ignorance is prevalent in African society and the longer we ignore this, the deeper we find ourselves in poverty. Africa needs to develop its human resource capacity”.
Inspired by his father whom he describes as a hard worker, Benjamin is determined to get into several business ventures once he returns from Stanford University, and later on use the same platform to wade in the murky waters of politics.
“In politics I would like to develop strategies and policies to help increase economic mobility within the country,” he says.
Describing himself as a true African, in spite of his colour, Benjamin was once denied to be registered for the just ended Biometric Voter Registration card process, allegedly for being a foreigner.
According to Benjamin, the clerks would not register him because of his Indian ethnicity.
“It took me four days to get my card; they claimed that I was a foreigner… I am a Tanzania, defined from the roots and culture instilled in me as a little boy.
“This place will always be my home. I would like to live here for the rest of my life and can assure you with my commitment for life to the development of Africa. I have a clear purpose to attain skills and gifts to lead my people to a new life that is self-reliant and rooted in the shared sense of community and optimism,” he insisted.
Speaking shortly before he left for the US, Benjamin said: “Tanzania, this is not my goodbye, this is my “See You Later” message, as I embark on an adventure of a lifetime.
“This one goes out to my family who have supported me along this journey, my friends who became family, my Professors who encouraged me along the way, the homes that hosted me as their own, my friends who will share this journey with me for the next two years and most importantly my Heavenly Father.
“I’ve learned, without education a society is stuck in the cycle of poverty, stuck only to repeat the struggles of the past. I care about my education because I know that it will impact more than simply me.
“I plan to move back home and apply the knowledge and skills I have learned in the US. There in the US there is everything one could want.
“However, I know that my purpose is to bring home a new hope to a people that desperately need it. Tanzania my love for you is never ending.”