Friday, July 19, 2019

EER Tips, Round Two

Last year when I did my first Employee Evaluation Report (EER), I wrote a blog post explaining what that is and how to write your first one. I just completed my second EER, and this year I had two additional benefits: the opportunity to serve on an EER panel and a reviewer who had just returned from a promotion panel in time for my EER. So in addition to what I wrote last time, I though I'd add a few more tips:

  • Have a positive attitude towards constructive criticism. Nobody likes trying to give feedback to someone who bristles at any criticism or is so attached to their writing that they refuse to make changes. After all, there's always room for improvement.
  • Volunteer for an EER Review Panel. All EERs are reviewed by a panel, which confirms the EER does not include inadmissible comments (i.e., things you're not allowed to reference in a performance document per the Foreign Affairs Manual here), checks for errors, and makes suggestions. This is a great way to read a large number of EERs and learn what makes a strong and weak one.
  • Take the time to correct typos - even in your rater's and reviewer's statements. It's worth it to make sure that simple mistakes like different numbers of spaces between sentences don't distract the reader. Some might even take errors as a sign of a lack of attention to detail.
  • Your statement really sets the tone. A fantastic rater and reviewer statement is not enough to carry the water for a weak rated employee statement - especially because yours is the first one the reader sees.
  • You can use the "Special Circumstances" box if there were actual special circumstances. This time, I wrote about the unique challenges of the security environment in the wake of the January 2019 Nairobi terror attack in the Special Circumstances section at the encouragement of my reviewer. It saved me a lot of precious space in my statement but still gave necessary context.
  • You don't have to overcome a monumental crisis to have a fabulous EER. I loved these words from my supervisor. Your EER is what you make of it, and you should be able to illustrate your accomplishments with interesting examples no matter what job you did or where you served.

I know it's not the main EER season right now, but I hope this helps some other off-cycle Entry-Level Officer with their evaluation. For now, I'm mostly relieved mine is done!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

6 Types of Fliers

I've learned through many travels that there are (at least) six consistent archetypes one might encounter on a plane. The chances of finding all of these on a major international flight are very high.

The Professional Flier (First Class Edition)

This person probably just stepped directly from the VIP lounge into their seat on the plane. They have platinum elite status on most airlines and don't even use the few where they don't. They are perfectly coiffed, fashionably dressed, and presentable when they step off the plane, no matter how long and harrowing the flight was for everyone else. It's been so long since they've flown coach that they've forgotten what it's like.

The Professional Flier (Economy Class Edition)

Everything this person needs fits in a rugged old backpack they've used for at least 100 couchsurfing trips already which happens to perfectly fit under the seat each time so they don't need to put anything in the overhead luggage bins. They always get an aisle seat and are the first to unbuckle and stand while the plane is still taxiing. Some of their travel gear probably came from Kickstarter.

The Scared One

Every flight is the flight of fear. No matter how many times someone has flown, something about the turbulence and the helplessness at altitude forces this person to have intrusive thoughts of every missing plane and horrifying crash they've ever heard of pretty much every time they travel. If your flight were a horror film, this person would be the last one left standing, just to keep the suspense alive.

The Guardians of Littles

They either have small children or pets with them, and by golly they are going to get them from Point A to Point B whether it's in one piece or not, come what may. They may feel apologetic or embarrassed when one of the littles has a meltdown, but really 99.9% of everyone around them either understands exactly what they're going through or is very, very grateful they don't.

The Cinephile

The Cinephile will intentionally seek out longer flights in total hours that are multiples of two or three to maximize movie watching time. They tend to favor quantity over quality, and so will begin before even takeoff frantically browsing through the movies trying to decide how many they can cram into one trip. They always have backup headphones in their carry-on bag. This is M.

The Hibernator

The Hibernator person takes the ever-increasing discomfort of airline seats as a minor challenge to be overcome in the quest for slumber. They can sleep through anything, including the meltdown of The Guardians' Littles. They also sometimes exhibit snoring, drooling, or other unattractive sleep-adjacent phenomena. This is me.

Did these resonate with your experience? I hope it at least gave you a good laugh. Are there any stereotypes I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Hiking Kilimanjaro via Rongai with Zara Tours

My dad and I climbed Kilimanjaro! There are many tour companies, possible routes, and hike durations to get to the top of Africa's highest mountain. We did a lot of research before we settled on Zara Tours, and the 6-day Rongai route. Although Zara was the most affordable option we considered, they ended up providing such an awesome experience we're glad we chose them. As for our trip, I've broken it down day-by-day below.



Day One

After a short flight (1 hour from Nairobi) and a night at a hotel in town, we were ready to start our journey. The Rongai route we chose starts from the north side of the mountain, so we drove there and began our hike through the rainforest. One of the coolest parts about hiking Kilimanjaro are the multiple climate zones, as you'll see throughout this post. At the camp, there was a hut for rangers working in the park, but we slept in tents.



Day Two

On day two, we passed from the rainforest into moorland. What really makes hiking Kilimanjaro accessible is the impressive team of porters and guides. Here you can see the porters carrying up to 20kg each, mostly on their heads. Every day, the porters would wait until we left camp, pack everything up, pass us on the trail, and have everything set up at the next site by the time we arrived.



Day Three

On the third day, we crossed into the alpine desert and camped at the base of the second-highest peak, Mawenzi. We also caught great views of the summit where we were headed. In the afternoon, we took a short acclimatization hike to help our bodies adjust to the altitude. As an aside, I took altitude medication the whole trip and my dad didn't, but neither of us got altitude sickness.



Day Four

By the fourth day, we were really feeling the loss of comforts like seated toilets and running water. The first photo in this set shows the "toilets" we could use in the camps. I will say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of the food cooked by the chef who accompanied us. This was the shortest hiking day, as we made it to base camp and went to bed early in preparation for the summit hike the following day.



Day Five

The longest day started just before midnight with a quick meal before we began our hike that would take us all the way to the summit of Kibo, the highest peak. As it was pitch black, headlamps were required but we still couldn't see anything around us. While the whole trip was a slow climb, this day by far was the slowest. The zig-zag hike to reach the crater rim seemed like it would never end, but we got there before sunrise and turned around to see a string of lit headlamps trailing down the mountain behind us. The temperature was below freezing.

We passed through Gilman's Point (5,685m) and Stella Point (5,756m) on our way to Uhuru Peak (5,895m), the highest point of Kilimanjaro. By that time the sun was up and we had a nice vantage point above the clouds of the rest of the mountain, including its glaciers and the crater. In broad daylight we could finally see the rough terrain we had hiked up that morning, but thankfully much of our hike back was a matter of gliding straight down through the scree. It was honestly the most fun part of the trip. It took us 7 hours to get from base camp to the summit, but only 2.25 hours to cover the same distance coming back down. After a short rest at base camp and a quick bite to eat, we continued our descent for several more hours before pitching camp for the night.



Day Six

The last day was brutal. To our surprise, going down the mountain was much harder on our bodies than going up in the first place. My knees were aching from the impact of marching down such uneven ground for so many hours. When we finally saw the park exit gate, we were exhausted and ready to be done with our hike. We gratefully hopped into the tour company's trucks to head back to the hotel and get a proper night's sleep.

Now that it's over, both of us agree that this trip was absolutely worth it - especially since we both made it to the summit. We had heard some horror stories about altitude sickness and bad weather, but we were extremely lucky and suffered neither the whole trip. We also had an amazing guide, William, who was very experienced with and knowledgeable about Kilimanjaro. With the entire Zara team, we were well taken care of and couldn't have imagined a better Kilimanjaro trek.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

My Top Nairobi Service Recommendations

EDIT: I realized after posting that I had left off my favorite hair stylist and travel agent recommendations! I have now added them to the list.

As our departure date looms closer and closer, I want to make sure I share some of my favorite services so that others can enjoy! One of the fun parts about living in Kenya is that there's a "guy" or a "lady" for pretty much everything. For example: when my keyless fob for our car broke, I took it to the "car key guy" instead of the dealership on the other side of town. Here are a few of my top service recommendations:

  • Custom furniture: I love our furniture guy! Peter is so professional, comes to your house with photos and swatches so you can tell him exactly what you want, and charges a reasonable price. Our full outdoor furniture set of a couch, two armchairs, a coffee table, and cushions (pictures above) was 45,000 KES (~$450) total and looks much nicer than other furniture guys' work that we've seen. His number is 0716 178 335.
  • Baked goods: I actually have three recommendations in the "baked goods" category. (Can you tell I have a sweet tooth?) First, there's Sonia who makes deliciously soft and chewy cookies. My favorite are the classic chocolate chip, but she also has red velvet with white chocolate and double chocolate cookies. Her number is 0739 605 652. Then, there's Felina, who makes great value cakes and cupcakes - perfect if you're having a party. She delivers, too! Her number is 0721 952 111. Finally, there's Gladys, a baker whose products are a little pricier and a bit out of the way in Lavington. She's known for her elaborately decorated and moist cakes - great for a themed event or work function. Her number is 0721 173 021.
  • Massage at the spa: A lot of expats here seem to prefer massages at home, but I like getting a full-body massage once a week (amazingly, the Foreign Service Benefit Plan health insurance covers this) at a spa, where I can immerse myself in the spa vibe and enjoy fruits and tea on the patio afterwards. Most of the time, I prefer Mwanzi at Serenity Spa Kitisuru because she tackles my knots in a way that isn't painful. Caveat: I usually prefer a gentler massage and find most of the come-to-your-house massage therapists too intense. Nevertheless, if I'm extra sore and need some tough love on my tense muscles, I'll book Beatrice at Serenity Spa Gigiri. Her massage is painful, but I always wake up the next day feeling better. Serenity's website is here.
  • Nails at your house: I did not even know professional manicures and pedicures could be done at home until I moved to Kenya. Since it's so much cheaper in Nairobi than the United States, I got my nails done all the time. I tried a variety of popular spas and salons, but nothing I found beats Philomena. She used to work at one of Nairobi's top spas as a nail technician but decided to go solo. For 900 KES (~$9), you can get a manicure or pedicure that is simply divine and includes a luxurious massage of your arms or legs. She comes with the nail tools - all you need is a basin to put your hands or feet in, a towel, and soap. She's punctual and also just a delightful person who can chat while she does your nails or let you read a book/study/take a nap. She just did my nails, shown in the photo at the end of this post. Her number is 0722 330 776.
  • Shawarma: Shawarma is a regular feature at expat parties here, and there are a number of "shawarma guys" around. We have a team of shawarma guys, though, who provide what we consider by far the most juicy and delicious shawarma of them all. Just make sure you let them know they need to come and set up early, before your event. (The set up takes a while.) Their number is 0722 527 778.
  • Catering: I know it's odd to have two Middle Eastern food recommendations in a post about best services in Nairobi, but Cedars Restaurant catering is worth it! They are super responsive to email, offer services for a great price, and can host events at their restaurant or provide food for another venue. They also have a large variety of options to accommodate dietary restrictions. Most importantly, their food is absolutely scrumptious. Check out their website here. You can call Cedars at 020 2710 399 or 0722 512 916. If you want something a little more customizable, you can also reach out to Joyce at Foodie Fix at 0722 444 916.
  • Hair: I have very limited hair requirements, but I tried a number of salons that market themselves for white people hair in Nairobi, and Kavita's is by far my favorite. She has a salon out of a home not far from the Spring Valley/Westlands area, provides a women's haircut for about $27 that includes a luxurious scalp massage during the shampoo, and gives my locks the voluminous blowout they need every time. She does color, highlights, and more elaborate treatments, too - I just can't speak to those because I don't get them. Her number is 0714 601 665, and you can see examples of her work on her Instagram here.
  • Travel agent: Of course, if you work at the U.S. Embassy you have access to a particular travel agency that can be hit or miss. So I'm delighted to share my recommendation for the best local travel agent you can find! Eunice is Kenyan, so she knows her way around and can get fantastic deals that won't rip you off, but she has also spent a lot of time in the United States or working with Americans and expats, so she can manage a diverse clientele with ease and cultural sensitivity. Although she is based in Nairobi, she has contacts across the tourism sector of Kenya and is happy to present you with multiple options tailored to your timing, budget, and any other preferences you might have. Eunice's number is 0729 426 691, and her email is hifiveadventures@gmail.com. You can also check our her company's Facebook page here.

I hope these service recommendations are helpful for anyone who is lucky enough to live in Nairobi. It's fun to enjoy some of these services we wouldn't necessarily have or afford back home, while supporting an entrepreneur doing great work. I wish I could take all of these wonderful people back to the United States with me! Let me know in the comments below if you have any favorite Nairobi-based service providers to share.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Acting": Not Entertainment, But Plenty of Improv

One of the reasons I haven't blogged in a few weeks is because I was Acting Public Affairs Officer (A/PAO) for several weeks. In the Foreign Service context, "Acting" means you're formally serving in a higher role in someone's place. This is why, between Secretaries of State Tillerson and Pompeo, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan became "Acting Secretary of State". Unlike simply covering for your boss in his or her absence in other fields, serving in an acting role is a bit more formalized in our work. You make the decisions that fall to someone in that position and assume their responsibilities. (And for our acronyms, you can add "A/" to the beginning to designate "Acting".)

I had served as Acting Information Officer (A/IO) and Acting Cultural Affairs Officer (A/CAO) before, but this time I was asked to be the Acting PAO (my boss's boss) for almost three weeks during the absence of the PAO, IO, and at the very end even briefly the CAO. I'm not going to lie - this was a real challenge! I had to figure out a lot of things on my own, but thankfully I had great mentors to encourage and support me. For example, I had to lead a murder board session to prepare the Ambassador for tough questions for an upcoming live interview, but I had never even sat in on or contributed to a murder board before. All I have to say on that is that the following is true: you have to fake it 'til you make it.

To get an idea of how many levels up I was working, you can see the Foreign Service salary table (which includes class, also known as grade, in the left column) here. Counterintuitively, the lower the grade number, the higher your rank. Like other Foreign Service Officers who have not yet been tenured, I am currently a grade 4. When I have served as A/IO or A/CAO, I've been filling grade 2 jobs - this is called a "double-stretch" because I "stretched" from grade 4 up two levels to grade 2. The A/PAO role I filled for a few weeks is actually one level above this chart in the Senior Foreign Service, which made it a quadruple-stretch for me!

I was delighted to receive my boss's text that she had returned to Kenya, which means she can now be A/PAO and I can focus on covering the many other portfolios of those who are out of the office. At the same time, I was grateful to be afforded this opportunity to take on a lot more responsibility than I have previously. As the PAO put it before he left: "We're giving you the keys to the car, so don't crash it!" I learned a lot by attending senior meetings, fielding and following up on inquiries from Washington, and trying to keep the car from crashing. Despite the extra stress and pressure, I'm glad I had the challenge and the chance to grow. (Plus, now I'm looking forward even more to the break of home leave just around the corner!)

Saturday, June 8, 2019

How to Donate Money

I've gotten a lot of questions from well-meaning loved ones back home asking how they can help and even where they can donate money when I share with them some of the poverty challenges we've seen among our friends in Kenya. To be honest, this is one of the hardest things to answer. A lot of the root causes of poverty are systemic, and one-time cash infusions aren't going to bring about systemic changes. I've also seen a number of families get a temporary influx from donations, only to return right back to where they started a few months later.

That being said, there are plenty of opportunities to make a massive impact in others' lives through charity in general. There are a few schools of thought when it comes to giving, too, that I've found helpful in considering when I'm trying to decide where to put my charity dollars each year. The first and most obvious one is to donate to causes that resonate with you personally. This was our logic when we donated to the Lung Cancer Alliance in lieu of favors for our wedding - we had both lost family members to lung disease. Most people have some issue they are passionate about, and it's almost guaranteed there's an organization working in that field that would be happy to receive your support.

Another line of thinking focuses on the idea of "lifting where you stand" and benefitting your geographic community as much as possible. Proponents of this argument say we need to fix our own neighborhoods before seeking out opportunities to improve lives halfway around the world. No matter how privileged your area is, there are certainly people in the region who could use your help. In the very well-off northern Virginia county where M and I were, for example, there are a number of people struggling with poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. Nonprofits like Britepaths help individuals and families around our hometown get back on their feet with short-term support and an eye towards long-term stability. It's definitely worth looking to see what opportunities there are to donate where you come from or where you live.

Last but not least, there's a practical philosophy called effective altruism. The idea behind effective altruism is that the most ethical way to spend our limited resources (including charity money) is to maximize the benefit to humanity. This seems to be typically measured in the literal number of lives saved. If this appeals to you, I highly recommend checking out GiveWell's list of recommended charities, all of which have passed through a very stringent analysis process. Every one of their top charities would benefit substantially from additional donations and are demonstrably saving lives. It was through GiveWell that we found and donated to GiveDirectly, an organization supporting cash transfers to a subset of those living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Uganda. It's one of the most thoroughly researched charity programs I've ever seen, which gave us confidence that our money would make a difference.

Regardless of where you decide to donate, I do recommend taking a rigorous look at the recipient organizations you're considering. Do they monitor and evaluate their programs? Do they report honest results to the public? Do they terminate programs or cut off recipients when they find fraud or abuse? Do they keep administrative overhead minimal? Do most of your dollars go to the intended recipients or to advertising and other indirect costs? Do the leaders get huge paychecks? These are the types of questions I've found the most crucial. (In the United States, Charity Navigator can provide answers to many of these, especially for prominent charities. And Charity Navigator will take donations, too, to continue their work helping people give. How meta is that?)

There are so many hardworking charities changing lives around the world every day that could really benefit from the donations of those of us who are privileged enough to consider it. I hope this post has been helpful in illuminating some of the ways to start thinking about what might be the best way for you to give. If you have any other thoughts or tips for things that have helped you decide how to donate your money, please feel free to share them in the comments below!

(P.S. I can't discuss this topic without sharing one of my favorite hymns. I still remember what a huge impact it had on me the first time I heard it, and it so perfectly symbolizes the deep love, care, and concern we should have for all of our fellow human beings. You can check it out here.)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

We Did It! Our #30under30

Have you heard of the #30under30 challenge? The idea is to try and travel to 30 countries before the age of 30. M and I have each already been to 30 countries, but last year we realized we had been together long enough that we actually had a shot of making #30under30 together - in other words, going to 30 countries together as a couple before either of us turned 30 years old.

We didn't count transits or mere airport stops; we both had to go to the country with each other at the same time and spend a night (or spend a day if we were on a cruise ship spending the night at sea). It was so fun to try and see so many different places in such a short period of time. Let's just say we've taken a lot of international vacations in the past two years.

We recently wrapped up a trip to Benelux: Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. I didn't originally believe M when he said the word "Benelux" was a thing, but Google proved him right. These were the last three countries to push us to 30! I've sprinkled a few select photos from our Benelux vacation throughout this post so you can get an idea of some of the things we did. The countries were so close together and transportation was so convenient (we drove, but there were plenty of train options), that it's not only doable but truly enjoyable as a combined trip in our view.

Here's our total list of 30 countries we've traveled to together below, in order of when we went there.

  1. Trinidad & Tobago
  2. Jordan
  3. Jerusalem
  4. Italy
  5. Vatican City
  6. Switzerland
  7. Spain
  8. France
  9. Monaco
  10. Qatar
  11. Kenya
  12. South Africa
  13. Ethiopia
  14. United Arab Emirates
  15. Australia
  16. New Zealand
  17. Uganda
  18. Tanzania
  19. Slovakia
  20. Austria
  21. Czech Republic
  22. Hungary
  23. Germany
  24. Lesotho
  25. Eswatini
  26. Rwanda
  27. Burundi
  28. Luxembourg
  29. Belgium
  30. Netherlands

To be honest, it's pretty funny that we made this happen without ever visiting Canada or Mexico. We missed entire continents (looking at you, South America), too! Thankfully, there's still plenty of the world we have left to see, and we're excited to explore it together.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Doing KonMari Step 2: Books on Easy Mode

You may have seen my previous post about my efforts to apply the "KonMari Method" to my life before we make our upcoming overseas move after seeing "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" on Netflix. The first category I had to organize was clothes, and the second was books.

I'm just going to admit, this one was super easy. M and I got rid of almost all of our books before we moved to Kenya, so we simply didn't have that many. The first picture of this post - one shelf on a not-so-large bookshelf - was actually all we had to go through when I started tidying books. The majority of the books are either gifts from loved ones or written in languages that Kindle (or any e-reader I've found) doesn't support very well. Ultimately, I decided to part with some of them, including a stack of science fiction books with origins I couldn't recall and some church materials I'll donate to my friends here.

Going through these books did bring back a lot of happy memories, though. Seeing Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome reminded me of reading that book and discussing it extensively with my wonderful sister, debating morality and reliving my philosophy major days. I also rediscovered my signed copy of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, courtesy of my dear friend S (the one who visited in February). Then, uncovering my old Arabic notebook allowed me to share a good laugh with M over the absurdity of Arabic numbers, with their seemingly-arbitrary switch-offs when it comes to singular v. plural, masculine v. feminine, and which vocalizations (i.e., word endings) to use. I've been studying Arabic for years, and the numbers still blow my mind.

This was that same bookshelf when I was done tidying our books! It felt good to go through them and keep only the ones that continued to spark joy. I will add that M and I are both avid readers who are always reading at least one book at a time together, so this is totally possible even for bookworms! We've made it work by relying on our e-readers - in my case, Kindle, and in his case, his smartphone. As you can see below, I have almost 100 books on my Kindle and the list keeps growing. I've been reading almost exclusively on a screen for years now, and I enjoy not only the feel of it but also the features such as searching for key words, instantly looking things up in the dictionary, digitally highlighting my favorite quotes, and seeing what sentences have been commonly highlighted by other readers. If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it! (It just might help with tidying up, too.)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Before and After I Tried KonMari Step 1: Clothes

There's no better time to tidy up than when you're preparing for a major international move! I was feeling especially inspired after binge-watching "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo" on Netflix and learning all about the "KonMari Method" of cleaning and organizing. For those who haven't seen the show or read the book, KonMari emphasizes tidying by category instead of location. The first category, per this post's title, is clothes.

To organize clothes, Marie Kondo suggests taking all of your clothes no matter where they are in your house and putting them in one big pile so you can get a sense of how much you truly own. So I dutifully emptied my closet and drawers and wound up with the full pile pictured above. I didn't feel like I had a ton of stuff, but I did feel like I had more than I need.

Per the KonMari Method, I went through each item one by one and kept only the ones that still spark joy for me. The others I set aside to be let go, even if they had served me well in the past. The picture above is most of what was left over - this is the inside of my only clothing closet. I felt like I did a pretty good job!

In addition to the closet, I have three drawers of clothing items organized by function. Another one of Marie Kondo's suggestions I appreciated was to put things away so that you could easily see everything whenever possible. She has some very unique folding methods to achieve this effect with clothes. I can't really say I mastered the folding, but I tried my best and did succeed in making everything in all three of my drawers immediately visible when you open them! There are no hidden rows behind these clothes or layers underneath I have to dig through to find a specific item. I think I'm sold on this technique.

I do think the KonMari Method and the idea of only keeping things that continue to spark joy can be a healthy way to operate in an increasingly materialistic world where we're constantly encouraged to accumulate more and more. The shoes pictured above (which I will be giving away) are the perfect example, especially the beautiful silver pumps that I actually wore on my wedding day! They have sparked a lot of joy for me, but they were always a little too big and it's time for them (and for me) to move on to the next chapter. I can release them happily knowing that they'll go on to spark joy for someone else. Next step for next time - books!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

7 Tips for Your First Media Relations Job

Working in media relations or press affairs or whatever your industry calls it is very different from working in the media directly. There are a number of things I've learned over my first tour in Public Affairs (where I've spent over a month as U.S. Embassy Nairobi's acting Press Attaché - also known as Information Officer in the Foreign Service) that I thought I'd share. In no particular order, here are my top seven tips for your first media relations job:

  1. Nothing is more important than relationships. Relationships can make or break your success working with the press. Good relationships might mean a journalist contact WhatsApps you a photo of breaking news before it's been reported elsewhere or gives you a heads-up that they're working on a story that is very critical of you but they want to make sure they present your side of the issue, too. Bad relationships can lead to reporters avoiding your events or running with a story on your organization without even contacting you for comment.
  2. Tailor to the audience. Our audience is usually Kenyan, so you'd better bet we put distances in kilometers and amounts of money in Kenyan shillings. We want to make it as easy as possible to share our information and our talking points. We also work with our technical subject matter experts to condense things in a way that a layperson can understand.
  3. Visuals are king. Photos and videos are way better than press releases. I think I've seen more newspaper articles in Kenya written about our Tweets than our press releases.
  4. Keep things short. Really short. We keep our briefing handouts to one page, our press releases to a few paragraphs, and our videos to less than a minute whenever possible. Others can always reach out to you for more details.
  5. Not all members of the press play by the rules. Some individuals and media outlets have more professionalism and integrity than others. While you might be comfortable including some in off-the-record briefings, others may not be trustworthy enough. It's also easier to complain about a rogue reporter when they're part of an established media organization that wants to preserve the relationship with you - then you can contact the editor. With freelancers or bloggers, you might not have any recourse.
  6. You have something to offer, too. You can provide journalists with access to information, exclusive interviews, invitations to cover events, and a host of other things that their teams should value. You can pay for advertising, but you shouldn't have to pay for regular news coverage.
  7. Especially if you work for a large organization, it's worth the extra effort it takes to speak with one voice. We spend a lot of time jumping through bureaucratic hoops making sure we're using the same statistics and terminology, but it's absolutely worth it. Mixed messages from the same organization are confusing for everyone and can make you look incompetent.
  8. Most journalists are awesome. Like public servants, the vast majority of journalists I've met are motivated by a desire to give back to the people and by a belief in the importance of democratic institutions - where the Fourth Estate clearly plays a vital role. In a world of overloaded information, fake news, and other challenges, they're trying their best to make sense of issues of importance and interest so others can be informed. Although this might sometimes put our employers or industries in the ever-critical public eye, it's part of a larger, crucial mission any of us should find worth celebrating.

I hope this post was helpful for any new Public Diplomacy Officers out there or anyone else interested in media relations work. I've learned so much over my first tour, and I have to say working with the press is one of the most fun and exciting parts of my job!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

My Top 5 Favorite Nairobi Restaurants

With fewer than 100 days left in Kenya, our departure is feeling more and more real. Before we left, I wanted to pass on a handful of recommendations for some of my favorite things that have made our two years in Nairobi special. For a food lover like me, clearly restaurants deserved their own post. (For foodies actually living in Nairobi, there's even a Facebook group for you with grocery and dining tips!)

So without further ado, here are my top five favorite Nairobi restaurants, in no particular order:

  1. Mercado: The Mexican food scene in Nairobi is thriving so much that it recently got a shout-out from none other than the New York Times! Although some prefer Fonda NBO, I've always favored Mercado. They have a classy vibe, a great selection of drinks (and mocktails), and the churros are always excellent.
  2. The Lord Erroll: This is our favorite pick for a fancy dinner out for a special occasion, and we've enjoyed it more than other well-known spots like 45 Degrees Kitchen and About Thyme. The service has generally been top-notch, with only one notable exception. The food is delicious and the portions are large, so I recommend going with an appetite.
  3. Boho Eatery: This is the perfect place to grab a bite if you're already by Jomo Kenyatta International Airport or perhaps if you spent the morning on a game drive in Nairobi National Park. They have a lot of healthy, vegetarian, and vegan options, portions are generous, and everything is tasty.
  4. The View: The 360-degree rotating restaurant experience from the top of the Mövenpick Hotel is an unforgettable one (you can reserve a window-side table in advance and watch the sunset as you eat). It helps that the food at The View is scrumptious - I recommend everything except the meat fondue and the chocolate fondue. We've heard great things about the cheese fondue and everything else we've tried there has been delectable.
  5. Dae Jang Geum: Dae Jang Geum may not have the extensive menu I'm accustomed to in Northern Virginia Korean barbecue joints, but the food is authentic, banchan are included, and it's more conveniently located than alternatives like Ain Guest House.

I have a few honorable mentions, too, I had to throw in here with just a few words:

  • Taco: Really great tacos and, most importantly, corn tortillas
  • Urban Burger OR Rocomama's: My favorite burgers in Nairobi
  • Planet Yogurt: Perfectly classic, pay-by-the-weight froyo (located at Sarit Centre)
  • Mugg & Bean: Special treat for those not familiar with this South African chain boasting a massive menu
  • Domino's AND Cold Stone Creamery: Deliciously American
  • Mediterraneo: Good Italian food
  • Fogo Gaucho: All-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse with mediocre salads but delicious meat and grilled pineapple with cinnamon
  • Artcaffe: The most epic eggs benedict I've ever had
  • Tiramisu: Best cupcakes in Kenya

So that's the top list (with a few extras), and I hope it's enough to get any foodie started in Nairobi. In two years here, there are still so many restaurants we haven't tried. Although we'll try and venture out to a few more places before we leave, we know we can't cover quite everything. At least that gives us a number of restaurants to save for the next time we're in Kenya!

Friday, April 19, 2019

My Biggest Kenya-Specific Pet Peeve

As long-time blog readers will note, I've been very vocal about my biggest general pet peeve: mixing up "lectern" and "podium" (which I still experience at least once a week, in case anyone was wondering). After two years in Kenya, though, I can say that I have developed a certain, Kenya-specific pet peeve. I've tried ignoring it time and time again, but it still grates on me.

Moreover, to my knowledge I am the only person I know with this particular pet peeve. (If any others are out there, please back me up in the comments!) I've heard many complaints from American friends about matatus' reckless driving, the lack of orderly queues at customer service desks, and the wildly different approach to punctuality here. Although I've experienced all of those things, I do feel I've culturally adapted more and more to them over time. My pet peeve on the other hand, never seems to get less annoying - it may even be more irritating as the days go by, for reasons I can't explain.

So what is this thing that's driving me nuts? To explain what it is, we'll have to embark on a mini-Swahili language journey. It starts with the word "mzungu", the most common way I've been addressed throughout my two years in Kenya. People I'm meeting with will describe me as "mzungu", street kids will yell out "mzungu" when I walk by, people will cry "mzungu" at our car windows while begging for money, and so on. Most polite Kenyans will say "mzungu" means foreigner or expat. In usage, though, it pretty much means "white person" - most of the African Americans and dark-skinned foreigners I've met in Kenya are never called mzungu, and especially not by strangers.

I'll be honest - it's not enjoyable heading somewhere, simply minding my own business, as people yell out "mzungu". I stand out enough already without a bunch of strangers highlighting how out of place I look despite my best efforts to avoid drawing attention to myself by dressing modestly, not pulling out my phone, or wearing flashy accessories. The exclamations of "mzungu" are also often accompanied by requests for money, which I'm usually not comfortable giving as a result of previous bad experiences.

So imagine how I feel when someone is urging someone else to speak to me in "Kizungu", where "Ki-" is the prefix in Kiswahili that means "language of" a certain people. "Kiswahili" is the language of the Swahili people, "Kiarabu" is Arabic, and "Kizungu" is... the language of mzungus, or as I understand it, white people language. I don't think this is necessarily an ignorance thing. (I have met some Kenyans in mostly rural areas who really did think all white people spoke English as a native language, but there are probably similar proportions of Americans who think all Africans speak the same language.)

Where I have been surprised is among members of the educated and well-traveled (most of whom I've met through work) also only referring to English as "Kizungu". There's a proper word in Kiswahili I find immensely preferable for "English": "Kingereza", the language of "Uingereza", or England. For some reason, however, nobody seems interested in using "Kingereza" over "Kizungu". This is true even though everyone agrees "Kiafrika" or "Ki-" + any other race or geographic region that is not linguistically united would be silly.

Thankfully for me, "Kizungu" can remain a minor annoyance. For those labelled "mzungus" who don't actually speak English, I could see it being a major barrier to getting around. It also reinforces stereotypes that all light-skinned people are native English speakers. Even Latinx folks, some mixed race groups, some Asian-Americans, and light-skinned African-Americans who would not clearly be labelled as "white" in the United States (people like me and Meghan Markle included) are usually considered "mzungu" in Kenya by virtue of their skin color and facial features alone. I've reached the point where sometimes I'll say something and sometimes I won't when I hear "Kizungu", yet I'm fully aware that my reaction is a minor drop in the cultural bucket of mutual understanding. At the very least, I hope this blog post was at least a little thought-provoking for someone! Let me know whether you can relate or even whether you completely disagree.

(On a lighter note, while writing this blog post I stumbled across this very catchy and upbeat song, "Kizunguzungu" by SaRaha! I learned "Kizunguzungu" means dizziness, which makes sense since "mzungu" was originally derived from a Bantu term for "wanderer" referring to European settlers generally. You can read more about this etymology here.)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Makeup in the Foreign Service

Makeup and fashion are real elements of workplace culture. I remember having friends and roommates working in certain parts of Congress on Capitol Hill where most of the women had medium- to heavy-makeup every day, styled hair, and glamorous outfits. This is not a frivolous matter: there is a slew of scientific studies showing that makeup and appearance can affect how others perceive you professionally and therefore your career. Some researchers have found that a made-up face can even make you more likely to get hired than a bare one. (You can read a summary of just one of the many studies' findings here.) Even those who say they prefer a "natural" look at the office often subconsciously don't really want purely natural - dark circles, blemishes, and all. (This hilarious Amy Schumer One Direction-style parody video describes the phenomenon perfectly.)

So how's the makeup culture of the Foreign Service? To be honest, I would actually say the makeup expectations are less than average for what I've seen elsewhere in the government world. There are many offices in think tanks or other kinds of public service where seeing a women without makeup would be perceived as unprofessional or at least very rare. In the Foreign Service, a number of diplomat women at all levels don't spend too much time on their hair, makeup, wardrobe, and jewelry on a daily basis.

Among those who do wear makeup, the basics are common at work - maybe even as little as a touch of mascara. That being said, there are exceptions for formal events like balls and special receptions. For those types of working events, both men and women do typically put in some extra effort. Manicures and pedicures, hair styling, makeup, gowns, and high heels are commonplace at those sorts of galas. (For those like me who go bare-faced most days, it can be a fun change from the daily look, too.)

So what kind of makeup should you wear once you're in the Foreign Service? As long as you're not sporting a YouTube makeup artist-level dramatic look to the point it's distracting, you should be able to wear whatever makes you feel happy and confident. If you're still trying to establish a professional makeup look for yourself, I can highly recommend Sephora as a place to start (and no, I'm not getting paid to say that)! If you walk into a Sephora store in person, their amazing staff can help you find what you need and recommend things they think will look great on you. If you use the Sephora app on your smartphone, you can even use your phone's camera to see an approximation of what specific products will look like on your face.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Importance of a Portable Hobby

I'm convinced that one of the keys to Foreign Service happiness is a portable hobby. When you move countries every few years, it can be exhausting to start from scratch with a new pastime every time, especially knowing there's no guarantee you'll ever be able to do it again. Many of the happiest folks we've seen with this lifestyle have a hobby they can take with them (at least almost) anywhere.

For us, having these hobbies no matter where we go helps wherever we are feel like home a little sooner. We have a few fitness-related ones: M plays soccer, the most popular sport in the world, and I can always fall back on Blogilates YouTube videos, which I can do from the comfort of our home even if I don't have access to a gym or any equipment. I've learned the hard way from previous experiences living abroad that fitness is not a universal recreational activity, especially for women. I've lived in places where it was impossible to go running because of weather or crime or cultural sensitivity, or where the gyms were almost completely reserved for men. It can be that much more difficult to adjust to a "normal" life somewhere where you can't find a way to break a sweat.

On top of those, we can count on certain categories of entertainment made possible with modern technology like Netflix, video games, and e-books. (After all, in a lot of countries, just finding recently released print books can be a challenge.) As I type this, I'm watching M work his way through the Kingdom Hearts series on PlayStation (one of my childhood favorites I'm so grateful we can enjoy in Kenya).

In a mobile lifestyle like ours, these hobbies can be the difference between unbearable homesickness and relative comfort. Although it's fun to try new and exotic things, I'm a firm believer in finding the balance between adventure and stability - where we've found that commitment to knitting or board games or photography or whatever it is can really come in handy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Happy Belated Birthday, Relief Society!

Happy belated 177th birthday to the Relief Society, one of the oldest and largest women's organizations in the world, of which I'm delighted to be a member and a local leader! All adult women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are members of the Relief Society. Our motto is "Charity never faileth", taken from 1 Corinthians 13:8 in the New Testament of the Holy Bible.

In the spirit of celebrating sisterhood, Relief Society members across Nairobi came together to commemorate the birthday and have a friendly competition. We made tons of food and let the young women between 12 and 18 judge our creations on taste, presentation, and more. (There were so many categories, I'm pretty sure everyone won something.) Our ward (i.e., congregation, pictured below) went all out with a mix of homemade desserts that vanished in the blink of an eye. There was a diverse selection at the event. I personally felt drawn to the samosa table pictured above... That ward had made what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of delicious beef samosas to share! They were a great complement to our sweets.

We wrapped up the activity with a cake cutting. Our Stake Relief Society President (i.e., regional leader) did an amazing job organizing the party and procuring such a beautiful cake. I don't even want to think about saying goodbye to these amazing ladies - Kenyan and American - who have been such steadfast and loving friends during my time in Kenya, which is going by way too fast. I love them and the Relief Society that has so warmly welcomed me everywhere around the world I've traveled where it exists!