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President Obama / Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -President Obama told a group of young Africans on Monday that they can help their continent grow and prosper in the decades ahead.

"The great thing about being young is you are not bound by the past," Obama told a town-hall-style meeting honoring the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. "And you can shape the future."

Although Africa and the world face great challenges, the tools are available to forge better lives and societies, Obama said.

"For all the difficulties, the world has made progress and Africa is making progress," Obama said.

Obama announced that the fellowship program is being renamed for South Africa freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, and will soon double in size from 500 members to 1,000.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship reflects its namesake's "optimism, his idealism, his belief in what he called 'the endless heroism of youth,'" Obama said.

The program gives young people the chance to meet U.S. government officials, entrepreneurs and civil society representatives as well as leaders in international development.

The town hall began a series of African-themed events in the days ahead; next week, Obama will host the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

The White House noted that 60% of Africa's population is under the age of 35.

During a question-and-answer session, Obama said governments in Africa need to be more responsive to their citizens, promote the rule of law, and root out corruption.

Some Africans also need to do away with outmoded traditions, he said, and need to promote the equal rights of women and to end female genital mutilation.

That practice is "barbaric" and "should be eliminated," Obama said. "I don't consider that a tradition worth hanging on to."

Other questions dealt with matters like debt forgiveness, business development and antitrust laws.

Young people can help force their elected officials to confront challenges, or become elected officials themselves, he said.

"I can't wait to see what all of you do," Obama told the African fellows. "Good luck."



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