The spires of Gothic churches and Baroque palaces pierce the early morning fog that hangs over Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. Trams trundle past, their clanging bells the only noise disturbing the age-old silence. Locals scarcer than the tourists who flock to this city renowned for its beauty, culture and value for money- a meal and pint of local Pilsner for under USD 15.
But while Prague’s sights captivate visitors, the Czech Republic’s role in Africa is less well known. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs have no colonial history in Africa. Yet they are now reaching out, hosting the Young African Leaders Initiative from July 26, 2023 to August 02, 2023.
The program brings African youth to Prague to build ties between the Czech Republic and African nations.
The initiative comes amid a renewed scramble for influence in Africa by global powers. The Czech Republic, a smaller European nation lacking the colonial baggage of former imperial powers, hopes to establish itself as a partner based on economic cooperation and cultural exchange rather than a fraught historical relationship.
The jeweled heart of Bohemia – Prague never ceases to astonish. Steeped in centuries of history yet feeling alive, this city is a maze of Gothic spires, Baroque facades and winding cobblestone lanes.
“It’s just beautiful,” says Souhail Khmira, one of the participants of the program from Tunisia, describing the beauty of the 10 million nation’s capital.
The melodious chimes of church bells fill the air as one wanders down Wenceslas Square, named for the Czech patron saint. Beer gardens spring to life in the narrow gaps between crooked houses. Visitors pass the John Lennon Wall, covered in graffiti quotes and doodles – a colorful symbol of youthful rebellion.
The stones of Prague seem impossibly old, yet the city retains an energy and joie de vivre. In the Old Town Square, tourists visit the Tyn Cathedral towering over the Gothic Astronomical Clock – an ornate timepiece that has marked the hours here since 1410.
They walk across the legendary Charles Bridge, lined with bustling cafes and the statues of saints. The river Vltava flows sluggishly below, connecting this storied place to the wider world.
In Wenceslas Square, visitors pause at the spot where Vaclav Havel spoke to crowds of protesters during the Velvet Revolution that toppled Communism. Though Havel has long since passed, his legacy of truth, liberty and love endures – etched into the city he once called home.
Karolína Stránská, Chief Operating Officer of the Václav Havel Library, spoke to participants of the 2023 Czech study trip about Havel’s achievements and the new generation of young leaders he continues to inspire. The 19 youths, from Africa, participated in the study trip. The Václav Havel Library, named in his honor, is located just steps from Prague’s bustling city center in a former monastery complex near Old Town Square. As Stránská reflected, Havel has written his name in liberty’s ledger with his lasting legacy.
Czernin Palace, which hosts the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters, also features a monument of Hercules, another hero in Czech history. Czernin stands proudly along the banks of the Vltava River, its elegant Baroque architecture glowing in the Prague sunlight. Marble columns line the exterior portico, supporting intricately carved archways that frame beautiful frescoes on the ceilings within.
The Czech Ministry’s antique building is also a marvel of architectural proportions and understated elegance that blends history with function. Natural light floods the halls from tall windows overlooking the meticulously landscaped courtyard gardens, surrounding visitors with history. The building stands as an aesthetically pleasing testament to Czech diplomatic relations, where its role as headquarters balances its position as a work of architectural art.
This week the Ministry hosted the opening event of the Czech Young African Leaders Programme. State Secretary Radek Rubeš described the event as a key step in bolstering ties between Czechia and Africa in light of supporting African political and development ambitions. His office prepared a strategy to develop relations with Africa in areas of security cooperation, counterterrorism, and countering disinformation.
Following the opening session, program participants had the opportunity to see Czechia’s efficient, diverse transportation system, including not only modern options but also well-preserved older systems dating back over half a century. That was followed by a visit to the country’s largest media outlet, Economia, whose offices resemble a factory in one of Ethiopia’s industrial parks. Its newsroom is a little less than the size of a football field in a stadium.
Despite still being a major source of information for over five million Czech citizens, with 400,000 print readers, Economia is facing the global challenge contemporary media outlets face. “With print costs rising and ad revenues declining, the traditional way of generating revenue is subject to change and we are adjusting to the dynamic accordingly,” said an editor of the paper to participants of the program.
Not only the media outlets but also Czech’s diplomacy is changing, as portrayed during the discussion during the trip of the Czech Young African Leaders Program, which participants welcomed.
Filled with anticipation, Adonias Adugna, Kevin Kwalimwa, Lucy Panduka, and Aliyu Sadiq embarked on their journey to Prague from Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and Nigeria, respectively, to participate in the Young African Leaders Program. They were excited to visit Czechia and connect with other young Africans.
“It created a platform to meet with other African fellows which could be a stepping stone for future networking,” said Adonias, an Ethiopian political scientist and scholar pursuing his doctorate in peace and conflict resolution relating to civil society organizations.
Adonias was amazed by Prague’s medieval architecture, especially iconic sites like the Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, and Prague Castle.
“Prague exceeded my expectations with its wealth of beauty, culture, and history,” he remarked.
Kevin, a data scientist and entrepreneur from Kenya, enjoyed exploring Prague’s efficient public transportation system. “The Czechs have an efficient public transport system,” he noted. “Africa could learn from that.”
The historical buildings and cultural heritage made a deep impression on him. “Czechia is the most beautiful country in Europe,” he said.
For Lucy, a Zambian lawyer, interacting with fellow Africans and learning about Czech culture were trip highlights. “Africa could learn so much from Europe about preserving infrastructure, transportation, and history,” she observed.
Aliyu, a Nigerian environmentalist and climate justice activist, was awestruck by Czechia’s green spaces and cool climate. “They deserve to be called ‘Cool Czechia!'” he exclaimed. Their preservation of history and culture amazed him. But what Africa needs most, he believed, is “to prioritize ourselves before any other interests.”
As the trip ended, the young leaders reflected on their experiences. The Czech tour provided “new perspectives, ideas and inspiration.” And their time in beautiful, historic Prague would stay with them forever.