Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Tertu Iileka is a 32-year-old adventurous explorer from Windhoek, Namibia, traveling often from the southwest coast of Africa to see the world. Her loudest cheerleader is her mother. 

“Oh yes, that’s how I know you,” Tertu’s mother, Maria Nghipandulwa, would say. “Keep it up my girl. Well done.”


But a bucket list trip to the United States of America had eluded Tertu. Four times she applied to become a Fellow in the Mandela Washington Fellowship program. Four times she was denied. Tertu remained persistent and in March she received better, but not great, news from the program: she was selected as an alternate.

“To an extent it was disappointing because I didn’t think there was a way anybody would pull out of such an opportunity,” Tertu said. “To be selected as an alternate was good and shows my application and interview were good, but it was more of who would actually say no to this?”

Tertu returned to her day-to-day reality as a project manager in the natural resource space, resigned to the notion that she would apply for a sixth time next year. But a phone call from the Namibian embassy on Thursday, May 23, was one of two calls within four days that changed Tertu’s life. Her status in the Mandela Washington Fellowship had been upgraded and she was selected to the prestigious program where more than 50,000 Africans apply annually and only 700 are selected.

“I was so excited and super happy, I had to sit down,” Tertu said. 

A lot was running through her mind with less than a month before she would be in the United States to sharpen her entrepreneurship skills. After years of relentless effort and four setbacks, Tertu finally had great news to share—a breakthrough in her career that could change everything. It was such big news that she refused to tell immediate family members until she informed her mother.  

Unfortunately, Tertu’s No.1 cheerleader was ill and admitted to a hospital in Windhoek. After knocking off from work one day, Tertu went to visit. It was time to spread the good news.

“The only thing I could think of was, I can’t wait to tell my mom,” Tertu said. “When I went to the hospital, she was not in a good mood, was not feeling well. I needed her to be very excited, so I waited to tell her the news when she was feeling much better.”

That day never arrived. On May 27, Maria Nghipandulwa died.

“I never got to tell her,” Tertu said. “It was the most devasting news ever. For a moment I thought about pulling out (of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program) because I wasn’t in the right space of mind to continue. A voice in the back of my head kept telling me not to cancel.”

Tertu found strength in those often repeated, encouraging words from her mother. The memory of that familiar, calming voice, always cheering her on with "Keep it up my girl. Well done" became a beacon of hope, propelling her forward on her journey to the United States.

But the timeline to travel was not in Tertu’s favor. In Namibian culture, a parent is buried in their home village with two weeks of traditional ritual. That village was nearly an eight-hour drive from Windhoek. Because of the funeral, Tertu’s interview for a visa was pushed back and there was also plenty of paperwork to do to catch up with others in her Mandela Washington Fellowship cohort.

Tertu finally returned to Windhoek on June 9, nine days before her highly anticipated flight. She was understandably stressed and behind on just about everything in life, including getting caught up on her demanding fulltime job. Tertu didn’t panic.

In a twist of irony, Tertu thought she was leaving a chaotic personal situation in Namibia to study entrepreneurship in a crazy, chaotic environment known as the United States. Instead, she wakes up to a daily dose of Iowa Nice in Iowa City, Iowa. 

“The faces are always so welcoming,” she said. “The people we have interacted with — so friendly, super helpful, People go out of their way for you.”

Tertu grew up with a ringside seat to compassion, having lived with a friendly, welcoming, helpful mother. A mother who certainly would have a final message for her brave daughter:

“Keep it up, my girl. Well done.”

To read more about the 2024 Mandela Washington Fellowship cohort in Iowa City, click HERE. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. The University of Iowa is a sub-grantee of IREX and is implementing a Leadership Institute as a part of the Fellowship. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit the Fellowship’s website at www.mandelawashingtonfellowship.org .