Saturday, April 28, 2018

Telling the Story of the U.S. in Kenya

One of the biggest parts of work as a Public Diplomacy (PD) Officer is telling the story of what the United States is doing. For me, that's specifically what the U.S. is doing here in Kenya - which is a lot.

The United States and Kenya have been close allies for over 50 years, and the U.S. government currently provides nearly $1 billion (100 billion Kenyan shillings) in annual assistance to Kenya. This includes providing military equipment to help our partner fight terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab, supporting early childhood education, and fighting female genital mutilation (FGM). Our public health investment is the largest of all. For example, we fund life-saving antiretrovirals for over 1 million HIV positive Kenyans.

So suffice it to say, the U.S. Mission to Kenya has a much bigger role than what most people imagine when they think of the Embassy: traditional Political work. We also engage on many levels other than the bilateral relationship between the U.S. government and the Kenyan national government. We connect with county and local governments, civil society organizations, schools, nonprofits, businesses, and many citizens and youth directly. So that brings me to our most recent outreach effort: the exhibition at Kenya's annual Devolution Conference (a symposium for anyone who's anyone in subnational government, development, or partnerships in Kenya). This year it was held in Kakamega, a town in the western part of Kenya I hadn't visited before.

As you can see from the photo above, we didn't have a lot to work with when we arrived at the conference. This was not the impactful "AMERICA!" display we wanted. Thankfully, many hours (and decor negotiations) later, we had more of the desired effect.

In the end, we mounted an impressive interagency effort. Through staff and/or materials distributed at our booth, we were able to represent Public Affairs (my section), the Economic section (ECON), the Foreign Commercial Service (FCS), the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in Kenya.

I spent three days talking myself hoarse (and at least in the above photo, pulling off a "Y U NO" stance) to hundreds of visitors about EducationUSA (our office to assist international students who want to study at U.S. universities), the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI, our leadership training for African youth), the Ambassador's Special Self-Help Fund (small grants for community groups to support projects with long-term impact), and other programs.

I was also grateful to be joined by one of our rockstar YALI alumni, Lydia Munikah. She went to the U.S. for the exchange program in 2014 and has been mentoring and empowering youth and women across Kenya since. She had so much energy and passion that she helped everyone - booth staff and visitors - get even more excited about our programs.

Most importantly, many visitors expressed surprise and delight at how much we actually do in Kenya. I even got to debunk two recurring pieces of fake news: that President Trump banned all U.S. visas for Kenyans and that the U.S. military was actively recruiting and providing scholarships to Kenyan youth with no U.S. ties. So after a long week of long days, we packed up for Nairobi.

Although we lack the hard statistics many prefer to measure success, we considered our mission accomplished. We not only talked directly to hundreds of conference attendees but also distributed materials to politicians, school administrators, businessmen, non-governmental organizations, and many others who promised to share them with their contacts, clients, students, associates, family, and friends. Besides getting information out, we made real human connections with many people. These encounters, though brief, often leave a lasting, meaningful impression of the United States. So despite the fact that this is some of PD's most exhausting work, I've found it also some of the most worthwhile.

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