Friday, February 14, 2014

President Phelan, I Presume?

For the last two days I blogged about the time I spent working for the U.S. Embassy back in December on a youth exchange.  During that week I learned something very important: I will NEVER be a politician.  Feel free to quote this statement back to me if in 50 years I have a change of heart.  But I don’t think I will.

During the exchange we had three diplomats in tow: the U.S. Ambassador to Botswana, the U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe and the Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of State to Africa.  My undergrad degree is in International Relations.  At one point I seriously considered going to work for the foreign service or another government agency, but fortunately I decided to forego those options.  Looking back on it, I couldn’t be happier with my choice.
Early on in the trip I realized I didn’t particularly fancy the DAS or the Bots Ambassador (BA).  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I definitely liked the Zim Ambassador (ZA) because he could hold a conversation.  But trying to talk to DAS and BA was like pulling teeth.  It was a lot of one word answers and unwillingness to give any details or go further in the conversation than absolutely necessary.  ZA was significantly better at holding a conversation, and the kids really liked him for that fact.  It took me a few days to realize it, but DAS and BA were political appointees, i.e. politicians.  ZA was a career foreign service officer, so he had started at the bottom stamping visa applications and worked his way up through the ranks to become an Ambassador.  This stark contrast definitely solidified the view that politicians only talk to you when they want something and then don’t want to be bothered once they have met their objective. 

One of the things I disliked about these three officials being at the exchange was that they treated everything as if it was a photo op.  They never talked to the kids.  They were always reading speeches, which drove me nuts.  The press wasn’t there.  So what was the point of reading all these prepared statements?  The kids had no idea what they were saying because they failed to use high school English.  The perfect example was when BA decided to lead a session on gender-based violence.  At no point in time did she explain the concept of gender-based violence.  After her ten minute monologue about how it was bad we were broken up into groups with the kids to lead them in discussion about gender-based violence using questions we had been given.  I quickly realized my group of six was lost.  I asked them if they knew what gender-based violence was.  They all shook their heads no.
Sadly, by the last day, even my admiration for ZA, the only semi-human of the three, had dissipated.  During a session he made a statement about how GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were the future of Africa.  No matter how hard he might try to convince me, he and I can NEVER be friends now.

Despite my disappointment with the three diplomats, there was one thing I loved.  During a “formal” dinner- is there such a thing in Africa?- they were heavily involved in making their speeches.  The venue had windows without glass; it was nighttime and the bugs were entering the building en mass.  This would have been the perfect time to have gone off script and perhaps not used the speeches, but they were all determined to get their time in front of the 30 high schoolers who were paying absolutely no attention and were busy catching the bugs and lighting them on fire using the candles on their tables.  (Insert laughter here.)  Sadly, the only picture I have of the bug fiasco is horribly out of focus, but I think this lets you imagine the scene for yourself:


  1. Kelly, do you remember their names and/or who appointed them? Was it Obama, Bush, Clinton...? I keep on thinking of how horrible some of the recent nominations from Obama are. For instance, his choice for Norway Ambassador. Here is a website to describe it if you are unaware.


  3. Hey Matt, I couldn't watch the Jon Stewart video because it isn't available internationally due to copyright laws. But I did see the McCain video.

    DAS and BA were both Obama appointments. I was told that when the president vacates office all the ambassadors he appointed must step down. Apparently that is the norm. And I think they said that 40% of ambassadors are political appointees, so I guess that means about 80 will turnover in 2016 (or 2017 really).