Monday, December 17, 2018

10 Things I Learned from a Week in the Mountain Kingdom

I just got back to Nairobi from a jam-packed week of training and learning and working in Maseru, Lesotho (also known poetically as the Mountain Kingdom) under the tutelage of my stellar mentor M. From an official U.S. military visit to a celebration of over 50 years of Peace Corps in Lesotho to a World AIDS Day event, there were plenty of activities to keep us busy. Here are a few things I learned (or had reinforced to me) this week:

  1. No two embassies are alike. They adapt to everything from local circumstances to the leadership style of the Ambassador.
  2. Diplomacy is different when you're a bigger fish in a smaller pond. For example, the King or Prime Minister attends Embassy events in Lesotho much more frequently than the President does in Kenya.
  3. People can make or break a post, but this is especially true at a small post. Thankfully, the current cast of Embassy Maseru seems wonderful.
  4. It's possible to know everyone who works at an Embassy. The biggest perk of this is avoiding the coordination issues you find at a very large, interagency Mission - most people know what everyone else is doing at work!
  5. At a smaller post, every person wears more metaphorical hats. My mentor, a Public Diplomacy Officer, had to take detours throughout the day to do Consular work and other things she would likely not do at a larger post.
  6. I will never take Nairobi restaurants or entertainment for granted again. There's no movie theatre in the whole country of Lesotho, and the food scene in Maseru was... very limited. Americans and local staff drive to South Africa for a weekend for entertainment, salons, or even some groceries!
  7. Every country has hidden gems. Even without going to Semonkong Lodge or a major tourist attraction, I was blown away by the beauty of the mountains in Lesotho. (Fun fact: one of Lesotho's claims to fame is having the highest point of lowest elevation of any country in the world!)
  8. Life is different without a DPO (diplomatic post office). My mentor and her colleagues receive mail once a week instead of daily as we do in Kenya.
  9. Any name will be difficult somewhere. I have a pretty common Western first name, but in Lesotho people really struggled with it! It honestly made me feel so much better butchering all of the local names.
  10. Mentorship is crucial in work and life. I'm so lucky to have awesome mentors like M who empower me, support me, and tell it like it is! Everyone benefits from great mentoring.

Thanks to all who made this trip possible, and thanks for reading!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

(Only One) Day in Durban

We stopped through Durban, South Africa en route to Lesotho for a work trip for two nights, so we really only had one day to experience this lovely city. Thankfully, it was a gloomy and rainy day, which made me feel better about choosing not to go with a surfing lesson or lounge on the beach. We did enjoy a scenic walk along the beautiful section of beach known as the Golden Mile.

We spent most of the day doing something uber-touristy: the aquatic theme park called uShaka Marine World. We started the day with a fun zip lining and ropes course at Chimp and Zee, which was pretty short but not too expensive.

After working up an appetite, we went a little nuts with a three-course lunch at the Cargo Hold. It was definitely worth booking way in advance and reserving a tank-side table where we could see sharks and fish right next to us as we dined. The food was scrumptious, especially the homemade gelato trio: lime, mango, and wild berry. My mouth is watering just remembering how delicious everything was.

We wrapped up the day with some chill (literally and figuratively) time with the park's water slides, lazy river, and animal viewing. There was a SeaWorld-style dolphin show, which we had never seen before, but those types of performances are fraught with ethical concerns and raise many moral questions for me. (You can learn more about the philosophical debate surrounding performing captive animals like dolphins here.)

The time flew way too fast, but we're glad we decided to make this stop and see another part of South Africa from Johannesburg, where we stayed last time. Who knows, maybe someday we'll even make it to Cape Town!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

(Inter)National Day of Mourning

President Trump designated December 5, 2018 as a National Day of Mourning for the loss of President George H. W. Bush. He also directed us to fly our flags at half-staff for 30 days. What does this mean at an Embassy? Well, it's technically being treated as a holiday for all federal employees (including all of us overseas) except those who "cannot be excused for reasons of national security, defense, or other essential public business."

There are some other things I learned about how such a high-level, official mourning period is observed, too, that I never knew before. For example, we (and other embassies) put out formal condolence books for foreign dignitaries to sign. We've received a number of heartfelt sympathies from around the world, including the many who knew President Bush personally or benefitted from what many characterize as his steady hand in international affairs.

I'm not here to discuss or evaluate his policies, performance, or legacy, which are extremely controversial and politically loaded topics. I think it's worth noting that even his harshest critics respected him as a statesman, public servant, and legitimate leader. I find that a level of civil discourse and mutual respect worth emulating broadly, regardless of who's in office.

Politics aside, in a world and especially in a government where it always seems so easy (and so fashionable) to be a cynic, I admire how President Bush let his exceptional optimism shine. Here are a few quotes from him I found that embody his hope and idealism (sources here and here):

  • "We are a nation of communities...a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."
  • "And I do not mistrust the future. I do not fear what is ahead. For our problems are large, but our heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. And if our flaws are endless, God's love is truly boundless."
  • "No definition of a successful life can do anything but include serving others."
  • "I'm conservative, but I'm not a nut about it."
  • "American is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle."

Rest in peace, Mr. President.