Fellow Spotlight: Elhadj Tidiane Diamilatou Diallo

Author: Lynn Peisker

Elhadj Tidiane Diamilatou Diallo Guinea Sq

A typical weekday for Elhadj Tidiane Diamilatou Diallo starts at 7:30 in the morning in Coyah, Guinea, about 20 miles north of the nation’s capital of Conakry. He works as the chief financial officer (CFO) at an import-export trading company, Comptoir Commercial General, and has been with the company since 2014. His day at Comptoir finishes around 5:00 in the evening, but for Diallo that is hardly the end of his workday.

After work, he often heads down to the docks on the Sangareya Bay in Conakry to check on his traditional fishing company, Dassy Peche. The business was his idea and although he is not involved in the daily operations, he does keep a close eye on things. He has dreams of expanding the operation in the future: more boats, more captains, and more meaningful work at a living wage for his partners and employees.

He is also the founder of FINAMARK, a trading company that aims to provide financial assistance to small project holders and women with limited access to financial services, and works on the company when he’s not at Comptoir. 

“It’s like I’m fully booked,” Diallo says on a sunny, warm afternoon outside the Hesburgh Library on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, as he reflects on his life outside of the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, brought to campus by the Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development (NDIGD).

His personal life mirrors his professional life in activity. Back home, he checks daily on his mother, who lives nearby, and spends as much time as he can with his wife and baby daughter, just a few months old at the time of this interview. When he has a rare moment to himself, Diallo enjoys playing FIFA soccer video games with his friends–his favorite team is Real Madrid. He used to play soccer and run for fun, but between work and family there is hardly enough time in the day now. His hectic days haven’t changed much as a Mandela Washington Fellow, as the schedule for the institute is extremely intensive. However, like at home, Diallo wants to dedicate himself to peak performance throughout his time at Notre Dame. “There will be time to rest later,” he says.  

The program is an opportunity of a lifetime, one Diallo spent years trying to earn. He initially heard about the fellowship on the radio and applied twice–not making the cut either time. When he decided to apply again for the 2017 fellowship, with more experience under his belt, he made it his mission to be available and prepared. He talked to previous fellows who were helpful and encouraging during the application process.  

His years of persistence paid off and when his acceptance to the fellowship came through he was informed that he had been assigned to the home of the Fighting Irish in a small town called South Bend. He quickly realized what a strong reputation Notre Dame had within the United States, as well as abroad. “Oh, I’m so lucky,” he says. “This is my now my dream university. I want my daughter to go here!” He describes Notre Dame as “peaceful,” far from the metropolitan distractions of Coyah and Conakry, with nothing to disturb him from his studies.

“Oh, I'm so lucky. This is my now my dream university. I want my daughter to go here!”  

Despite the busyness of Coyah and Conakry, Diallo explains that the cities, and the rest of his country for that matter, are very welcoming. His countrymen and women are open to international visitors and are ready to share their culture through art, entertainment, and food, such as the ceremonial dish Latchiri Kössan, made of milk and couscous. This cultural openness would help ease the culture shock for Diallo during the earliest days of the program. 

Diallo says the cross-cultural, experiential simulation called Bafa’ Bafa’, which the fellows participated in on their second day at Notre Dame, also helped him understand how to transcend, as well as respect, the cultural boundaries that existed between him and the other fellows. 

During the exercise, the fellows split into two imaginary cultures, each with their own unique customs, and had to try and integrate themselves with the other group’s culture without being told the rules of the other group’s culture. Diallo says the exercise made him more tolerant of the other real cultures he encountered from the outset of the program and more forgiving of cultural gaffs that occurred as everyone began to get to know one another. 

“One person may like something that I dislike. Another might think it's normal to say something or act some way toward me, but it may hurt me, so we all have to know each other,” Diallo explains. “It’s important to know what’s normal within different cultures, to promote understanding and acceptance. You don’t have to prejudge somebody before knowing them.”

John Pinter, a well-known local and national consultant who has been a part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship staff at Notre Dame since 2015, has used the Bafa’ Bafa' exercise with both the Mandela Washington Fellows, as well as the participants in the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI), which was brought to Notre Dame for the first time last fall by NDIGD. Pinter describes the experience to those about to participate this way: “You will be learning and acting within a new culture along with your colleagues, and then interacting with another culture who are similarly new to that set of rules.  Do your best to learn how to make the experiences beneficial.”

Pinter has used the exercise in training overseas workers, new volunteers working with refugees, schoolteachers and social workers, higher education faculty and staff, and others. He believes the exercise does less in terms of training one about how another culture works, and instead encourages one to examine how their own experiences, upbringing, race, ethnicity, religion, and class affect their ways of interacting with other cultures.

Pinter has found the exercise to be especially useful for the Mandela Washington Fellows for a variety of reasons. “First, they have to live in close quarters with each other for six weeks, which isn’t easy to start with, especially at the beginning. This year’s fellows came from 20 countries, each of which has its own internal cultures,” explains Pinter. He adds that the exercise often leads to discussion about American culture and opens dialog for staff and fellows early on in the program. “We run the program at the very beginning so that it's a reference point throughout the entire duration of the fellowship,” he says. 

Pinter remarks that despite the activity being challenging at times, participants ultimately have a lot of fun. “The fellows have to adopt language and behavior that is new and odd to them, which forces them to do a little laughing at each other,” he says. “Whether intentionally or not, it can break down some walls of language and newness.” 

Elhadj Tidiane Diamilatou Diallo During Yali 2017From left: Diallo on the rooftop of Google's corporate campus in Chicago, volunteering at Unity Gardens in South Bend, and listening to speakers at Notre Dame's Innovation Park.

In addition to the new cultures he has encountered in the program, Diallo has also embraced what he has learned about human-centered design, a design and management framework that encourages empathy, interdisciplinary problem solving, and thinking entrepreneurially. He has learned the importance of getting to know the customer on a deeper level and designing products to respond to their unique needs and is confident he will be able to apply the framework back home. 

“We have so many issues in Guinea. We know there is a lot of poverty there, there is a lot of corruption, so how do we deal with these kinds of issues? Human-centered design thinking can be used to find the reasons behind these kinds of issues and design the solutions,” he explains. “If you take corruption, for example, I ask: ‘why are people corrupt? Why do people accept corruption?’” To answer these and other questions, he anticipates a process that includes surveying fellow citizens using human-centered design and then taking the best out of their recommendations and implementing those ideas.

“People will be more willing to accept a solution if they are a part of it than if you just go to them and tell them: ‘Hey, this is not a good business solution; I will fix it so it will be better,’” Diallo says. “While fixing it alone might seem better, if the solution also comes from the people, it will be easier to implement.”

Although this interview took place relatively early in the fellowship, Diallo says that even if it had stopped that day he would have learned a lot. Reflecting on a day trip the fellows took to Detroit, he observed how Detrotians value community service. This is something else he hopes to share when he returns to Guinea, where he says people are more likely to keep to themselves and their family unit, rather than get involved in the community. 

“What people need to understand is that when your neighbor is not happy, or if your neighbor is poor, it will affect you too,” Diallo explains. “Society grows together, so be willing to sacrifice for each other. I’m ready to go and teach others.”

“Society grows together, so be willing to sacrifice for each other. I’m ready to go and teach others.”  

Diallo is committed to work for the betterment of his country in more than one way after the conclusion of the fellowship. His philosophy, grown and refined in the fellowship environment, is clear. 

“I have one focus right now in the business where I am working. Outside of this I will work for the betterment of my community where I live, because right now we cannot make the country move in one step,” he says. Because of the fellowship, Diallo understands it’s a process beginning with the local community. “You will grow together, everyone, if just you start small; maybe just the district where you are. You dedicate yourself to this district. You make an impact and maybe other people will see the progress in this district. They will copy from you and you will implement next phase.  All communities will benefit from your experience and knowledge. That's what my aim is after I finish this program.”

He is also excited to facilitate networking between Africans and Americans. Africa, he points out, is a rising market. “Not only will increased networking benefit Africans, it will also benefit Americans because we have a growing market in Africa. Americans can start and grow their business over there,” he explains. 

For Diallo, the value of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program – and its precisely tailored and intensive curriculum, along with its transparent and merit-based selection process – is clear, and he believes it makes a good investment for donors, governments, and corporations.

“We don't have other programs like this in Africa, so I really want this program to continue because whoever will come here will go back with a lot of knowledge and will see that there is something that's changed in them,” Diallo explains, having already seen the change in himself. “Even if one fellow who goes back to their country can just can change one life, it's better than not doing anything. One fellow. One changed life. One changed Africa.” 

If his dream comes true and the program continues, perhaps his own daughter will one day follow in his footsteps on the campus of the Fighting Irish. 

Lynn Miles Peisker manages projects for the multimedia team as part of the Marketing Communications division in the University of Notre Dame's Office of Public Affairs and Communications. She has a background in national marketing agency work, along with education and non-profit sector communication strategy.

The Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development — an integral part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame — promotes human development and dignity among people worldwide through applied innovations, impact evaluation, education and training that help build just and equitable societies.