Wednesday the 26th of September was an evening to remember at the Grand Hyatt by Grand Central Station: it is not often one gets to be in the presence of two presidents and two amazing women like President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Republic of Liberia and President Joyce Banda of Malawi at the Africa-America Institute’s 28th Annual Awards Dinner Gala. Never have I been as inspired by two speakers as I was by the two of them. Not only have they fought themselves to a position where they want the best of changes for their people but they are the first two women to become presidents on the continent of Africa.

Even with the presence of two presidents the evening felt very relaxing and everyone was there to enjoy themselves and to listen two the award winners of the evening. The AAI is an organization that promotes engagement between America and Africa through education, training and dialog, which means that they assist students from Africa coming to America with any issues, getting scholarships, housing and so forth. What is remarkable about this organization is that 90-100% of their alumni return to Africa, which is unheard of and something Africa is in great need of. They have esteemed members of the alumni such as the president of Malawi and the award winner Dr. Thelma Awori, Founding chair and Co-President of Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund.

The evening started with an hour of reception where we had the chance to meet with the award winners: Maurice Templeman, best known for this business as a diamond Merchant and his relationship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis until her death in 1994; Nik Amarteifio, CEO and chairman of Equatorial Cross Acquisitions Ltd.; Dr. Thelma Awori and the two Presidents, Jouce Banda and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. After the reception we were invited to the ballroom where the dinner would take place.

Sitting at the press table I had a great view of the stage and I was pleased that I would not miss out because after meeting the President of Malawi at the reception I knew it was going to be an extraordinary event with speeches that could not be anything but inspiring.

First up was the national anthems of the Republic of Liberia and Malawi sung by the beautiful Azania and introduced by the hostess of the evening Femi Oke, Journalist for CNN International. Azania is originally from Sierre Leone but raised in the US, very appropriate for the organization and the evening. Thereafter, a welcoming note from the chairman of AAI Kofi Appenteng (also a Board trustee at the organization Ford Foundation). Before the awards would be handed out the Reverend Calvin O Butts III was leading the Invocation, which did throw me off a bit as I thought it was strange and possibly a bit inappropriate as I do believe religion should be left out in matters of these – but that is only a personal note.

Finally to the award winners. Maurice Templeman was given the award AAI Distinguished Alumnus Award, Nik Amariteifio was given the AAI 2012 Distinguished Alumnus Award along with Dr. Thelma Awori. And finally, President Joyce Banda was awarded the AAI Award for Championing Women’s rights and business leadership and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the AAI African National Achievement Award for Literacy to Support Life Skills Award.

All award winners had inspiring speeches about how they got to their positions and how they see their future and Africa’s future and the road thereto. But the most interesting was their individual experiences with AAI and their little stories from when they were students in the states in the ‘60s.

After an amazing three course meal the speeches were closed by the remarks of the new former president and CEO of the Africa-America Institute Mora McLean who enjoyed her last Dinner Gala as President and CEO of AAI so much so that she was politely stopped by the chairman Kofi Appenteng so people could start dancing and make bids for the silent auction which had been going on since the beginning of the reception.

I was amazed by the many colors the women were wearing, there were beautiful dresses and traditional outfits that were just magnificent. The most fun part was the waiter who was passing around hors d’oeuvres during the reception. He made sure that every woman no matter how many times she said no took at least one taste of the hors d’oeuvres, he would not take a no for an answer but in a charming and funny way that gave the party a bit of an uplift in the humor department.

All in all, it was a magical evening and I am glad that I got the opportunity to go and to once again be inspired by the stories from Africa.

– Line B.

Photos by Christine Butler and by Line Bjerrisgaard