Saturday, December 29, 2018

So You Want to Try Arabic?

You may recall I did a previous post on recommended resources for intermediate and above Arabic learners, but I've been meaning to do one for true beginners as many have asked me where to start. I started Arabic class in college, but I realize many don't have access to university resources or diplomatic training. As a result, I've tried to focus on more public and accessible options here.

As always, I highly recommend the free app Anki, which I wrote a separate blog post for here. You can enter your own vocabulary or download decks others have already created.

With all that being said, here are my top recommendations for true beginners:

  • Learn the Arabic alphabet and sounds. Arabic is a phonetic language with a non-Latin alphabet. You need to learn the letters and sounds before pretty much anything else. How you do this will vary based on personal preference. If you want a textbook, I recommend Alif Baa (the first in the famous - or infamous - Al Kitaab series used in almost all university Arabic classes). There are also plenty of free guides online including webpages like this and videos like this.
  • Check out your local mosque. No, seriously. Arabic is the language of Islam and the Holy Qur'an, so many mosques offer reasonably priced or even free Arabic lessons. I've found many mosques extend this opportunity to non-Muslims as a means of sharing culture and religious knowledge, as well.
  • Subscribe to ArabicPod101. ArabicPod101 is a podcast that starts from a true beginner level with useful conversation phrases. You can sign up on their website for free or just subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Support refugees with NaTakallam. There's really no substitute for conversation practice and cultural exchange with a native speaker. For $13/hour (as of the writing of this post), you can sign up for Arabic classes online with native speaker refugees on NaTakallam.
  • Read the Transparent Language blog. This blog has great cultural and language information about Arabic, but the posts are written primarily in English for maximum accessibility.

There are a few additional options I'm aware of specifically for people in the Washington, DC area. These include:

  • Join the Global Language Network. You can take in-person beginner classes from the Global Language Network, which opens classes for registration each semester. Their first class is called "Foreigner" and they offer an Arabic Foreigner class every semester. You can see their schedule and registration information here. Each semester costs only $85 (as of the writing of this post) if you have good enough attendance to get most of your deposit refunded. You can see more details about the pricing model here.
  • Apply for a scholarship at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC). The SQCC in DC (supported by the Government of the Sultanate of Oman) offers a range of Arabic classes, including a summer intensive session and an after-work course schedule. I took one of these classes myself while I was home and loved it, and they offer a full range of skill levels. If you earn a scholarship, it's completely free! You can learn more here.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any favorite recommended resources for beginners I missed!

Monday, December 24, 2018

In Praise of Relaxation Vacations

Not every vacation has to be an "adventure vacation." Sure, backpackers or extreme sports enthusiasts might scoff at that, but there's nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned tranquil escape. Don't let anybody tell you that you have to do x, y, or z to have a "proper" vacation. Everyone has a different style and it's important to do what you enjoy because at the end of the day it's your time and money!

This was our attitude towards our very brief stay in Eswatini on our way back from Lesotho. If you're unfamiliar with Eswatini, it might be because the country only just changed its name from Swaziland this year - yes, 2018! Apparently the king is an absolute monarch and can just do that unilaterally. (You can learn more about that here.)

We stayed in a little slice of paradise called Summerfield Botanical Gardens. It was a luxurious resort that definitely lived up to its name with a beautiful collection of flora clustered around winding stone paths. The rooms were huge, and the place was full of delightful surprises like this peacock whose silhouette I snapped hanging out on top of our breakfast room.

So take it from someone who truly, deeply loves adventure vacations: sometimes a relaxation vacation is just what the doctor ordered... and there's no shame in that.

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.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

#LightTheWorld: One Small Act of Kindness at a Time

I love the Christmas season - don't you? Every year, I try to participate in the #LightTheWorld campaign with my church: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. You may have heard of this via the famous "giving machines" (i.e., charity vending machines) that I hope stay an annual tradition. We got off to a great start this year with an activity organized in our area to collect donations for long-term patients at our local public hospital. We gathered items including diapers, toiletries, toys, blankets, and books for babies, children, and mothers.

We arrived at our chapel early to pack bags with our missionaries (who hail from the United States, DRC, South Africa, Togo, and more). The gift bags and tissue paper were lovingly decorated by our local Senior Missionary Couple. (When most people think of missionaries, they tend to think of very young single adults, but we have a lot of retired, older missionaries who serve as couples, too.) We learned that they are actually finishing their 18-month mission and leaving Kenya in just two weeks.

The effort was part of the Mormon Helping Hands initiative (which is simply the name we use for church-organized volunteer service), so we snagged a few nifty vests to help identify us with the group of volunteers. I had seen these signature yellow shirts or vests on the news before, but this was our first time wearing them.

The moment we had finished packing the gift bags, it began pouring rain. We had all planned on walking over originally, but we decided to be safe and ran the presents with those who had enough foresight to bring umbrellas to cars so they could be driven to the hospital. We waited for the shower to lighten up and then split into driving and walking groups.

Kenyatta National Hospital was just a short walk or drive from the chapel. Once we arrived, we split into groups - some donated blood while others delivered the gifts. More volunteers met us there, and we had so many we couldn't all fit in the children's small cancer ward and had to take turns visiting. It was awesome to have so many friends old and new joyfully catching up in the corridor and waiting to shower love and presents on the kids in the next room.

It was wonderful to gather together with volunteers from all over Nairobi to perform this small act of kindness together. There are so many ways to serve our fellow human beings - whether it's participating in effective altruism or sparing some time for community service or even taking a moment to share a smile or a kind word with someone who needs it. Of course, we should do all we can to help make one another's burdens light year-round, but the spirit of the holidays is always a helpful reminder.

Friday, November 23, 2018

About Those Fancy Work Parties

"Pin-striped-suit-wearing cookie pushers." "Shmoozers extraordinaire." "Professional partiers." We've all heard the diplomat stereotypes. Well, now that I'm over halfway through my first tour in this career, I hate to break it to you: these parties aren't what they seem. (Plus, if you're thinking about joining the Foreign Service for its reputed party value, I highly recommend you reconsider options in the private sector instead.)

When I do attend a social function the U.S. Embassy hosts as part of my job, it turns out to be a lot of actual work. How? Well, imagine you're at a party, except you have to show up early and stay late. Then, replace all your friends with important work contacts. Even if your friends from work are there, your responsibility is not to get distracted talking to them at the expense of the other guests. Then, talk to dozens of people and try to remember all their names and what they look like and where they work and who their spouses are. (The next time you see them, they'll probably remember everything about you and you'll smile awkwardly as you struggle to recall if you've ever seen them, let alone had a conversation.) Be on guard for compromising or overtly political questions, and hold the official U.S. government line on every issue regardless of your personal views.

At least there's food and drink available, right? Well, you may not get a chance to eat between working the room and being nervous about staining your clothes or using the wrong utensil, so you might wolf down a granola bar in the bathroom before the event starts or heat up a canned soup in the microwave when you get home (late on a weeknight). At the end of the night, when you've collected a massive pile of business cards, try not to think about how you'll have to go into the office to painstakingly enter them one by one into your contact management system and then follow up with the most relevant ones.

In other words, what I'm trying to say is that there's a huge difference between a reception or a party where you have to work and one you attend just for fun. My sense (admittedly from an entry-level perspective) is that if you're doing your job right as a diplomat, you're not kicking back and enjoying most receptions. You don't let your guard down, throw back too many drinks, or risk doing or saying anything that would reflect badly on the United States. Instead, you listen, reinforce the talking points, build relationships with key contacts, and make sure the guests are having a good time. And, honestly? I wouldn't have it any other way. We wouldn't be very good stewards of taxpayer dollars if we blew them all on a good time. We've got a job to do, so we should work hard at work parties and play hard on our own time.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Power of USG Alumni

One of the most important components of public diplomacy work, in my view, is maintaining and managing relationships with USG (i.e., U.S. government) program alumni. When we talk about USG alumni, we are often referring to exchanges, or (usually all-expenses-paid) programs where we send people to the United States (or, less commonly, a regional hub of some sort) for specialized training, knowledge sharing, and cultural exposure. Fun fact: technically, I'm a USG exchange alumna myself (Critical Language Scholarship - Salalah, Oman 2012)!

I always look forward to the opportunity to meet up with USG alumni for work, hear feedback about their exchange experiences, and find out what they've been up to since. Recently, my colleagues and I caught up with some of these alumni in Eldoret and Kapenguria, way out in western Kenya, as well as on the eastern coast in Mombasa. (I've scattered a few Tweets on our outreach around this post.) A few examples of alumni we met on just my past week of travels:

  • A youth leader founded an incubation hub that has already facilitated the launch of about six innovative startups
  • Someone who leads a disability rights and training center was just appointed to local government to advocate for the equities of persons with disabilities
  • A group of women work in their community to fight terrorist radicalization and recruitment among their youth with strategic dialogues
  • Someone used her exchange connections to donate technology to a health organization that serves 1,000 youth in need of medical and psychosocial care every month*

The U.S. Department of State has so many types of exchanges - literally hundreds. You can see a list of exchanges, including ones you might be eligible for, here. We have exchanges for professionals, athletes, musicians, youth leaders, women in STEM, students, government representatives, and so many more. Some of the most prominent ones we offer to Kenyans are the many variations of Fulbright and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), with options to go to the United States via the Mandela-Washington Fellowship or to go to the Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi.

USG alumni often go on to serve as heads of state, CEOs, humanitarian leaders, top researchers, and other key global leaders. (You can see a few of their stories here.) We put a lot of time and energy into the selections process, considering a variety of factors including who would benefit most from the program and excel in an American context, who would have the biggest impact in their home countries when they get back, who is likely to honor the terms of their visa, and more in addition to the specific requirements of the particular exchange.

I'm consistently blown away by the quality of these individuals and the amazing work they're doing in Kenya. Thanks for letting me share why!

*The first photo of this post is spray paint art done by one of the talented beneficiaries of this youth health center, who has now made it to college.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Hosting and Halloween-ing

We were delighted to host my A-100 colleague E for the weekend - the same one who hosted us so memorably in Uganda. We first took her to the classic Nairobi National Park, where we saw water buffalo:

A crocodile who blew bubbles at us but thankfully didn't come any closer:

A family of three rare rhinos:

A pair of black-backed jackals, which we hadn't seen before:

And a few classics, like this tower of giraffes (TIL that a group of giraffes is called a "tower"):

Then, we took E to the Nairobi National Museum. It features a lot of natural history, including plenty of taxidermy.

There was also a fascinating exhibit on Kenyan history. It included a broad range of artifacts, such as this hymnbook with English on one side and Kiswahili on the other.

A museum admission ticket included a pass to the on-site snake park, which we visited with the assistance of a guide. We definitely got attached to a certain chameleon friend featured in the first photo of this post and tried not to think about how his destiny was to become dinner for the snakes. They had some seriously terrifying snakes there, including green mambas, black mambas, savanna vine snakes, a variety of spitting cobras, and more.

We wrapped up the whole day with a local Halloween party thrown by a Nairobian socialite (a friend of a friend). We had a great time dressing up as Star Lord and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy (which most people got). It may have been a crazy weekend, but one that proved well worth the effort.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Bidding Tips from an Incumbent

"Bidding" is the Foreign Service slang for the process by which U.S. diplomatic personnel search and compete for future jobs. I got to experience a unique perspective on this process recently when my job was reclassified from an entry-level position to a mid-level position. In other words, it became open for other people to bid on it so they can have it when I leave Nairobi next year.

This was my first time getting any kind of a look at this process, because when you're entry-level you pretty much go where they tell you to go (supposedly after they take into account your preferences, but your mileage may vary). As the incumbent, I was the first person interested bidders reached out to to get more information about the job and to ask more off-the-record questions like how life is in Nairobi.

It's an interesting position because I neither interview the candidates nor make the final decision, but I did pass along information on the ones who stood out to me (in both good and bad ways) to the decision-makers. Also, those who took the time to ask thoughtful questions from me got thoughtful answers that I hope helped them in their interview.

So here are a few tips I'd offer based on my very limited experience of one bidding cycle as an incumbent:

  • Do your research. There was a lot of confusion about my job because it became available for bidding very late in the game. As a result, I had told many people that my job would not be available. One persistent (in a positive way) candidate kept checking in with contacts in Washington and discovered before any of their competitors that the job would be available after all.
  • Keep emails short and sweet. Especially if it's a competitive job with a lot of interested bidders, the incumbent is probably getting a ton of emails. Keeping your emails concise is a relief to the incumbent and an advantage to you.
  • If you want the real story, get on the phone. Everyone has things they're not comfortable putting in writing, especially on work email. It's worth asking to speak on the phone: the incumbent might decline if the timing won't work, but if it works out you will get a much fuller picture of the job and quality of life at post. Plus, you will probably take up less time than a series of long emails would anyway!
  • Don't make your full pitch to the incumbent. The incumbent is not the final decision-maker. It's important to be professional, as the incumbent will likely talk to the decision-maker, but you don't need to detail all your qualifications for the incumbent.
  • It's okay to be out of the office while bidding. Quite a few candidates (including the one we offered the job) were out of the office while bidding for travel or other reasons. This didn't really matter. Just let all the relevant contacts know your personal email if they need to reach you that way (and preferably more along the lines of [email protected] than [email protected]). If you are going to do a call from home or from your hotel, though, make sure you find somewhere quiet with a good connection - not a busy street or a Starbucks or a family reunion.
  • Keep things professionally relevant. This is my personal opinion, but I found it off-putting to get a job inquiry full of personal details about the candidate's family and even pets. It's not relevant and it feels a little emotionally manipulative, almost as if you're hoping I'll develop an emotional connection to your family and subconsciously have a more positive impression. (The exception to this is if you're sharing that you're a tandem bidder and you and your spouse need jobs at the same post.)
  • You never know which part of the application is the most important. There seemed to be a lot of personal preferences and opinions regarding what should and shouldn't matter in an application. Awards, references, pre-Foreign Service background and all sorts of other factors varied widely in terms of weight in the eyes of different members of our team. There's no way for the applicant to know these preferences, so it's better to put your best foot forward on all fronts and not to assume there's a magic qualification that will get you on the short list.
  • Talk positively about previous tours. It was annoying to hear people say, "I've only been a ___" or even worse, "I'm just a ____". It implies they look down on those job roles and did not seek professional development in their previous tours. Two candidates could talk about their former jobs in extremely different ways, and the one who spins all of them as opportunities leveraged to gain valuable insight and hone skills they could use in my job was much more impressive.
  • Be honest about where we stand. Especially if that post is your top choice, let them know early and clearly - but don't lie if it really isn't. It can make all the difference.

All opinions here are my own based on my minuscule sample size of one, but I found the whole experience enlightening and wanted to share. I hope these tips were helpful, especially for my early-career peers. (I also hope someone enjoys the stock photo from the beginning of the post as much as I do!) Let me know in the comments below if you've had a different experience or another tip to share.

Monday, October 22, 2018

#MeToo: Sexual Harassment at Work

I've actually avoided weighing in on this topic for a while but ultimately decided it's a conversation worth starting (or, more accurately, jumping into in the age of #MeToo).

I have dealt with sexual harassment here and there, in many countries, at work or off-the-clock, from many different types of people. Unfortunately, the types of harassment experiences I have had seem all too common based on both public data and anecdotal evidence from those whom I know personally - especially among women. As a small sample, here are a few of the situations I've had at work since joining the Foreign Service in 2017:

  • A student used my dress (from the event in the first photo of this post) as an example when trying to talk about how different people might define fake news differently. He said, "I would consider what you're wearing a miniskirt, but to you that might be the longest thing you own." Nobody (including me) said anything, but the 60+ person audience enjoyed a laugh at my expense.
  • A man at an outreach event asked me to escort him to the United States. When I politely said no, he asked me if I had any younger sisters who would and demanded contact information for a female sister or friend to be his companion and entertainment in the United States.
  • After I concluded a speaker program (again on fighting fake news), an audience member came up to me, slid me a folded piece of paper, and whispered, "This is not fake news." I took it back to my office and opened it to find it said, "I Love You" and included his number. The same guy followed up a few days later on my work email with something along the lines of, "Remember me? I'm the guy with the Real News."
  • A contractor we had paid to arrange decorations an event for us cornered me mid-set-up and asked for my number. When I refused, he insisted he needed to get to know me better and that I had to give him my number. He became visibly angry and threw a tantrum when I continued to say no, so I walked away but then had to stand awkwardly around setting up my table while he finished the decorations and stopped every few minutes just to follow me around with his eyes. Eventually, the other women I was working with sent me away so he could finish the job we had already paid him to do.
  • A photographer I had never met or seen before but whom I needed to pay for work he had done for the Embassy surprised me by coming straight to my desk, cornering me, and starting our conversation with, "Wow, nobody told me you were so beautiful." He was not an Embassy employee, and I had asked him to call me for us to meet outside. I didn't realize he'd be able to find me on his own.
  • Multiple men have come up to me and snapped photos of my face or body and run off before I could object or ask them to delete the photo.

In a lot of ways, these things are just a natural part of being a professional woman in an imperfect world. I do think that they happen more often in public-facing jobs such as mine and that pretending they don't happen doesn't make them go away. So instead of staying silent, I thought I'd share some of the best advice I've received on this issue in hopes that it helps some other woman who has to face these same situations at work:

  • Prepare in advance. It really helps to practice what you want to say in situations that make you uncomfortable before they happen, especially if you (like me) often struggle to find words in the moment.
  • Sometimes it's okay to make someone else uncomfortable. Obviously, there is serious personal judgment involved in choosing your battles and knowing when to grin and bear it because of circumstances outside your control. At the same time, I've found I have sometimes been so afraid of making someone else uncomfortable and embarrassed that I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed instead.
  • Find support (especially in your chain of command). Thankfully, my bosses have always been supportive of me in these situations. Their encouragement, open door policy, and efforts towards creating a better work environment for everyone has gone a long way to helping me in these challenges.
  • Understand that people define sexual harassment differently. Some may not consider the situations I described above as sexual harassment. As far as I'm concerned, what matters is that I found the behavior inappropriate and the attention unwanted in those cases. I find it's not worth my time to try to defend and justify my feelings of discomfort to everyone around me.

I hope that addressing this difficult subject has been helpful to at least one reader out there. If you have experiences of sexual harassment at work, thoughts on how we can make things better, or tips to share, I hope you'll take a moment to comment below. Thank you for reading!

Monday, October 15, 2018

Camping with Wild Flamingos in Nakuru

After over a year of missing countless opportunities, we finally went camping in Kenya! We spent a weekend at Makalia campsite in Lake Nakuru National Park, and it was a wonderful time.

The landscape was stunning: it's been raining, so the grass was lush and the wildlife was abundant. Thankfully, the weather cooperated with our visit and we only had a light sprinkling of rain a few times. We had awesome game-viewing, and we drove ourselves through the park. The clear highlight for us, though, was the huge flock of beautiful flamingos mixed with pelicans and other birds in the lake (the first photo of this post). We also saw quite a few monkeys, including the rare, black-and-white Colobus monkey we hadn't seen before. There was also a near-constant stream of baboons. A baboon even jumped in our friends' car! We later learned that the baboons in the area are known for their cleverness and mischief.

As we were leaving the park, we casually saw two lionesses right next to the road. They were so close, we almost could have reached out and touched them (but of course, we didn't try).

It felt so good to be able to spend a weekend relaxing with friends, away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi. We highly recommend camping in Kenya as a way to relax and experience this one-of-a-kind country in a new way.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Working a White House Visit

We've had a crazy few weeks at U.S. Embassy Nairobi preparing to support what was my first White House visit. The First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) Melania Trump came to Kenya as part of her four-country Africa tour. You can read about her visit in more detail here.

So what did I have to do? I was the Embassy's press site officer for three events, meaning I worked closely with White House press staff to execute the media plan for each of my sites and manage our relationship with the journalists there on the big day. These journalists were a mix of traveling press, who actually accompany the First Lady on her plane and in her motorcade, international press based in Nairobi, and local Kenyan press. As you can see in the photo below, this added up to quite a few people to inform and assist and direct and keep happy (at least as best as we could).

Although I have worked quite a few visits during my first year as a Public Diplomacy Officer, this one was very different. The Embassy staff really took a backseat to our White House counterparts in the sense that, although we leveraged our on-the-ground expertise and contacts and provided our best advice, at the end of the day we deferred decision-making to the White House. In other words, we had more of a supporting role, especially once the advance team (i.e., the people who arrive before the visit to finalize plans and preparations) arrived.

By all accounts, Mrs. Trump was a wonderful guest. She truly seemed to enjoy spending time with Kenyan children and baby elephants. The Kenyans, as always, were splendid hosts - from Mrs. Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya, to the institutions at each site. Thankfully, the trip went off without a hitch and it was all over before we knew it. Mrs. Trump had the opportunity both to learn more about Kenya and to champion her BE BEST initiative focusing on children's issues around the world. Now that's a success for everyone!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Quiet Day in Brackenhurst and Tea Fields

Our good friend B suggested we spend a few hours at Brackenhurst. At first, a hotel and conference center seemed like an odd place to enjoy a Saturday morning, but we learned it's a great way to pass a quiet half day. We started it off with a tasty breakfast outside at the Muna Tree Cafe.

The best part was definitely the light hike we took after breakfast. The trails were lovely and virtually empty. It was an easy enough walk, given we were all wearing shoes with enough traction. (Last time we went hiking, I wore my indoor sneakers and wiped out going downhill on the trail. I've learned my lesson.)

That area is known for its tea fields, and tea is a major export of Kenya. The fields were a feast for the eyes in the morning sun. I felt so at peace there. We live fairly close to a beautiful forest, but the tea fields were a refreshing change of landscape.

Our biggest takeaway? You don't always need grand plans to have a great weekend. Sometimes, a departure from the hustle and bustle of daily life and a walk through nature is all you need.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Nairobi National Park Adventures

WARNING: This post contains graphic content. Scroll at your own risk!

We finally made it to Nairobi National Park! My wonderful Public Diplomacy (PD) mentor was in town, so we wanted to give her a memorable experience... and I think it's safe to say we succeeded. Nairobi National Park is a great option for those who are strapped for time or cash - even tourists only have to pay $42/person in park fees for the day, you can drive yourself, and we saw some amazing things.

Of course, I got the iconic Nairobi National Park picture as the first photo of this post: wildlife with skyscrapers in the background. We didn't recognize what this animal was at the time, but it kind of looks like a rare Bongo antelope - which we haven't seen before. (If any hobby zoologists out there are certain, please let me know in the comments below!)

Please don't get too attached to the zebra above, as the graphic photo I warned you about is coming up imminently... Because we were right next to a pride of lions devouring a freshly killed zebra. There were eight lions total - the most we had seen together on any safari! The stench and sight of the lions attacking the inside of the carcass was revolting and fascinating and so natural all at the same time. We felt like we had front row seats to National Geographic.

After we finished our safari, we drove to Boho Eatery, which is conveniently located right next to the park. They had an excellent selection of largely healthy breakfast, lunch, and drink options. The ambiance was perfect, too, combined with the sunny weather. Just check out our table:

A proud millennial, I ordered the most advanced avocado toast I have ever seen: avocado spread on seeded bread with crispy kale chips, red pepper hummus, and pomegranate seeds. The portion was massive, but I devoured the whole thing.

The whole day was an awesome finish to a lovely visit from my mentor. (Isn't woman-to-woman mentorship so powerful?) I also have to share the beautiful gift she brought me from her post of Lesotho: a traditional necklace of beads and fabric. I can't wait to wear it as a statement piece soon!