First ten years in the foreign service
Transition to State and the Foreign Service. 1991 - 1993. Includes the year at Washington U.
Out of the Navy - St. Louis Blues
A year passed. My ship decommissioned. I moved to St. Louis and put my stuff in storage in anticipation of the fall semester at Wash U. Then it was two months in Palo Alto at Stanford for the summer AEA program and ten months back at Washington University in St. Louis doing two semesters of graduate work in economics.
Washington University’s program was heavy on quantitative, and calculus was the language of both micro and macro theory courses. I must confess here that, four years removed from any mathematics coursework, the mathematics was all Greek to me. I struggled. When I signed up for that linear algebra course at Jacksonville Community College I should have done a calculus course or two as well.
We were the charter group, the first year Chancellor Fellows. It was actually a sweet deal. The package included tuition, books (and anything purchased at the bookstore), and a stipend you could live on with a bit of frugality. I was staring at five years of hard work and a PhD at the end of the rainbow. My monthly Naval reserve duty kicked a bit more into the pot. I muddled through the course work and there were even moments of clarity. But the calculus killed me!
I became depressed. Writing poetry was my only salvation. One of my professors, only one, suggested I examine less quantitative-based programs. The MBA program at Wash U reached out to me. Perhaps someone told them I might be available. Perhaps I should have listened. With the Foreign Service Written Exam and the Oral Exam both passed and behind me, the only thing pending was my medical clearance. Same story as when I joined the Navy, slightly anemic red blood cell count.
At the end of the spring term I spent one month on Naval Reserve duty in Guam where we planned logistics for providing drought relief and medical assistance to people in the islands that made up Micronesia. I bid farewell to St. Louis after returning from Guam and drove to Washington, DC to begin my foreign service adventure.
Foreign Service A-100 orientation and pre-assignment training 1992 - 1993
A bit of a blur. We were 32, 16 men and 16 women. Some fresh out of college, some fresh out of graduate school, some, like me, in their mid-30’s and starting a second career. All very interesting people. Through the boring lectures, and through the regular nightly happy hours, we bonded (which was the A-100 purpose). To this day, eight years after retirement, I’m still in contact with A-100 buddies.
A-100 63rd class
postscript #1. I later learned, through reading autobiographies and oral histories of diplomats, that A-100, the orientation course for new foreign service officers, was named for the room in the Old Executive Office Building where the course was once held. This predates the re-location of the State Department to its present location at 2201 C St NW and the relocation of the training function, Foreign Service Institute, to Rosslyn and later to the sprawling campus in Arlington.
postscript #2. I made a big mistake not negotiating my initial salary. I accepted the FS-06 step 1 they offered me, but I should have made a strong case for additional steps to reflect the four years I spent, post-graduation, gaining critical management and supervisory skills as a sea-going naval officer. The experience certainly aided and informed my foreign service career and added value to the contribution I was able to make at every grade level. It is a cautionary tale for any new FSO’s just joining the service, especially those with prior military service. The Foreign Service HR system was not/is not equipped to automatically recognize the value of prior military service, and a few extra steps at the beginning can make a big difference in total earnings over the course of a 20-year career.
Between ConGen Rosalyn and the start of language training I had a six-week gap. My career assignment officer (CAO) found me a job “running clearances” in what was then IO/HW, Human Rights and Women’s Issues. In the pre-e-mail days, you actually had to carry drafts to various offices and wait while a responsible officer read it and made edits. It was a crazy time to be running clearances in the Department, what with the Bush-Clinton transition and all. And it was an interesting time to draft position papers for new political appointees and to put together the briefing book for delegates to the UN Human Rights Conference in Geneva. The Bush folks had packed up and the Democrats were taking over all the front offices after twelve years out of power.
The Human Rights Conference delegation was still Republican-led by Ambassador Kenneth Blackwell, a holdover from the Bush Administration. After completing the routine of getting clearances from the functional and geographical bureaus involved, I went to the various “front offices” for their approval and clearance. The new political appointees and their new staff assistants were pretty much clueless and would actually say stuff like “And what am I supposed to do with this?” I wondered what manner of organization I had joined. It turned out to be good practice, however. I would see two more transitions of comparable magnitude in foreign countries, the U.K. where the Tories had been in power for 18 years before a Labor return to power, and Ghana, where Jerry Rawlings was defeated in the polls after over twenty years of blended military junta and democratically elected rule.
GSO training was interesting though not much of it was actually useful. Consular training, interpreting ancient sections of immigration law was not really my thing, but I plowed through anyway and wrote a sonnet about it at the end. We composed haiku on the spot for our graduation ceremony (and you know I enjoyed that!).
Two weeks of compressed area studies with weekly single days of visiting lecturers during language training served as my initiation into a sort of “cult” of African studies and Lusophone studies that would continue until today. We loved Dona Maria who wrote the Portuguese verb book. There were others whose names I don’t remember. I do remember Dona Gloria. She was stern and tough but she was an excellent Portuguese instructor. Drill Sergeant Gloria. She would snap at us or roll her eyes when we mis-conjugated a verb. But we adored her in a Stockholm syndrome kind of way. And she knew everything about the place I had been assigned to, Bissau.
Some poems from this period.
Prayer Song to Grandma Lena Rankin Maxwell
Early, early in the morning
just before the break of day,
I arise, and count my blessings,
and fall to my knees to pray.
And I thank the Gracious Master
and I praise His name so sweet,
and I pour out all my troubles,
and I leave them at His feet.
“Prayer is better,” said the wise man
“than another hour’s snooze,
it will pick you up much higher
than some other stuff you use.”
Late at evening after dealing
With the problems of the day,
All bewildered and disheartened
I fall to my knees and pray.
And I thank the Gracious Master
for his grace in helping me
through another day of passage
on life’s cold and stormy sea.
“Prayer is better,” said the wise man
“than that wine or weed or dope.
It will soothe away your heartache,
it will fill you up with hope.”
like a seed that in dying
like a seed that in dying
sends forth a tender shoot,
my death now arms me with the will
to overcome the dark and mired soil
that seals me in.
“Save me, O God, for the waters are come in into my soul.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing
I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.”
my spirit must break through!
there’s light and warmth and fresh air just beyond
a world of growth, fruition soon awaits,
stands by to greet a new emergence.
“The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
the depth closed me round about,
the weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains;
the earth with her bars was about me forever;
yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption,
O Lord my God. –Jonah 2: 5,6
It’s cold, it’s dark, I cannot see the light.
I grope so slow, my steps so short,
my progress through the clay
cannot be metered, has no measure.
“Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his,
and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.
For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favor is life:
weeping may endure for a night,
but joy cometh in the morning.” -Psalms 30:4,5
rivers of forgotten thoughts
rivers of forgotten thoughts roar and crash
inside of me and flood my empty soul
terrain carving rivers
melting glaciers rushing down from
mountain-tops, seeking their own level
I walk a torturous path
I live a balancing act,
maintaining equilibrium between
completed actions and unfinished aspirations
around a curve momentum shifts,
pulling me towards the outer edge:
I stumble, I fall, my center disappears …
I taste the death of dreams …
rivers of unspoken thoughts
swiftly, smoothly, silently emerge
like springs, bubbling forth from secret sources,
and softly, slowly soothe my hidden wounds.
I fight with all my waning strength
distrustfulness and the self-suspicious fear
that seeks free rent. The night’s uncertainty
envelops me and whispers in my ear:
“Take arms, retreat; resist, cooperate.”
The will, the faith to overcome escapes
my grasp each moment I attempt to make
it mine. At times it seizes me, this fear,
engulfing like a parasite my source.
I cannot let it win! My soul must hold
its ground! Though wounded, bloodied, battered,
I must be…. justified.
The sword of victory and peace is drawn.
The darkest part of night precedes the dawn.
Sonnet #26 (The Sweet Peace trio)
Sweet peace, spring love was never meant to last.
But we’ve been blessed by chance and fate to taste
Its bittersweetness, to feel its incandescence…
Sweet peace, I tremble at the thought of touching you,
I stumble, hesitatingly, over-anxiously
As we touch, as our lips meet,
As our heartbeats synchronize.
Our paths may never cross again as in
this random moment, our lips may never meet,
complete, again, and spring, sweet peace,
for you and I, may never reappear …
This word is all that I possess to give,
and all is all my fragile soul can bear.
Sweet dreams, sweet peace, I hear your angels’ wings.
Sweet peace, spring love was never meant to last:
Its budding branches bear a tempting fruit,
Whose taste is bittersweet and innocence
That glows with incandescent subtlety.
Acknowledging spring’s temporariness,
I tremble at the thought of touching you:
I fear your petals may unfold too soon,
And, falling to the ground, disintegrate.
I stumble as our lips approach, then meet,
Our heartstrings and our heartbeats synchronized.
Spring love intoxicates us: spirits fuse,
Revealing in each other secret worlds.
Sweet dreams, sweet peace, I hear your angels’ wings.
My winter-weary soul awaits next spring.
Sweet peace, spring love was never meant to last:
It’s just a stint, a pause, a brief delay
In what is otherwise a boring, gray
Sojourn we call our lives. Today her buds
And blossoms tantalize our eyes; in haste
We contemplate the taste of spring romance.
Sweet peace, spring’s bittersweetness gives us cause
To recollect and circumspect love’s laws;
And yet, spring love commands her subtle dues,
And moves our thawing thoughts to feel her views.
Spring love intoxicates us: drunkenly
We stumble, stagger, tremble, wild and free.
Sweet dreams, sweet peace, I hear your angels’ wings,
My drifting, weathered soul awaits next spring.
A lynch mob forms and dissipates each day
Conversing and rehearsing how they plan
To seal the fate of those they choose to slay.
The eager group, polite despite, is dressed
To kill, to maim, to burn some flesh, to swing
A body from a tree until it’s gasped
Its last. Horrendous though it seems, they cheer
And celebrate this morbid mass of death.
The bulging eyeballs slime through charred remains
That were his head, while children poke with sticks,
Investigate the flesh that’s left, the parts
That didn’t burn, that wouldn’t yield to flames . . .
My love for you is like a fire, raging,
Self-contained and self-sustaining, flaming
Brightly, all-consuming, all-embracing,
Separating, burning all my dross away.
How is it that the flame which burns my flesh
And sears my senses purifies my soul?
Why must it be that pain and pleasure, love
And hate co-habitate in hopes and dreams?
It seems, and it must be that fear hates love
As much as hate fears truth, as truth loves light.
It seems, and it must be my plight, to seek
Your soul, to fan the flame I fear the most.
My love for you is like a fire, raging,
Self-contained and self-sustaining, flaming.
I tossed the ball to fall within her range
of view. She thanked me with a friendly smile.
I looked into her somewhat saddened eyes
and found a friendly home, to my surprise.
Inside she showed me to an empty place,
and bid me have a seat and rest my soul.
I fell asleep, I went into a trance,
She smiled again, I touched her eyes, the doors
That opened wide for me (for me alone,
I'd be so vain to dream ... ).
I watched her pupils dilate from within,
Behind the lids that always blink too soon.
I tossed the ball again to fall within her range
of view. She thanked me with a smile.
--------Harper's Ferry, WV October 1992
We sought asylum after we were freed.
Resettlement and refuge was our hope
And dream. We recognized that we had been
Excluded from the human race, and yet,
We chose to cast our buckets where we were.
Nobility convinced us that some day
We’d reap in joy what we had sown before
In blood and tears: and all the while our fears
Suggested otherwise; to wit, we had no right
To earn by birth what we had been endowed.
In retrospect, we should have sought asylum
Off these shores. Too many years have passed
To resurrect those pristine hopes and dreams.
The time has come to seize what we are due.
General services officer, Embassy Bissau. First year, 1993-1994
August 1993. Off we went to Bissau. Me and my old navy buddy, Jan. The first sign of the culture shock I was to experience came at the airport in Lisbon. On Sunday evenings at the Lisbon airport, flights depart to all the former colonies, Praia, Bissau, Maputo, Sao Tome and Luanda. My God! I had never seen so many Africans all together in one enclosed place. And the boxes. And the crates. And the colors. And the long lines. It all made me dizzy.
We arrived in Bissau around midnight. My new boss and his wife met us on the tarmac. It was raining cats and dogs — the middle of August and the height of the rainy season. They gave our passports to some strangers called expeditors and whisked us away. What about our luggage, we asked? “Oh don’t worry, it’ll come later with your passports.” Right. We arrived at the Embassy residential compound. It was quaint, in a word — four American-looking townhouses on the side and two colonial mansions in the middle. Cute. Quaint. “America em ponto pequeno” the locals would say, America in microcosm. The next morning the culture shock continued. My boss drove me to work and as I looked to the right and the left going down the Bissau’s main drag all I could think of was Dodge City. You know, the one with Sheriff Dillon and Festus and Doc. We arrived at the “Embassy.” What a dump! What a dump! I kept shaking my head and blinking my eyes and looking again, thinking that perhaps, what I thought I was seeing would change.
Bissau had its first parliamentary elections and its first ever presidential election on our watch. The coup leader/dictator “Nino” Vieira resigned from the military and ran as a civilian candidate. Our embassy sponsored (staged may be more appropriate) a pre-election mixed doubles tennis tournament. President Vieira, paired with the wife of the leading European retail expat, won the tournament, proving that he was virile and healthy. (Yours truly was eliminated in the first round!). The first round of the election was inconclusive; a formidable Kuumba Yala candidacy shifted the balance of the first round by capturing the Balanta vote. Ambassador McGuire encouraged President Vieira to stay the course and let the full democratic process play out. He listened and eventually won the election in the second round. Observers said the election was free and fair.
Conditions got better. We built a new, prefabricated chancery, State Department’s first, just across the street from the housing compound, and in a record time of nine months. My first assignment was to remove the squatters from the land the local government had given us. Getting the people to re-locate was easy; getting rid of the snakes, especially the black mambas, was much more difficult. I found a tiny, abandoned kitten on the site and took it home and nursed it back to health. We named her Manuela, after one of the maids in the compound. Manuela bore two litters with one of the he-cats at the next door “Chinese compound.” I caught her sneaking out the bathroom window. We provided kittens to Peace Corps volunteers throughout the country.
Other conditions got worse. Mefloquine didn’t agree with me and I stopped taking it. I came down with malaria. I caught it twice. Believe me when I say the cure for malaria is far worse than the preventative medicine. The sudden curtailment of the admin officer pushed me into his position. I doubled up on my one-a-day vitamins for a while as the work wore me down. Howard McGowan came in briefly as WAE Admin Officer and that was a big help. Al Jazynka came next, then Bob Kile. After acquiring a taste for the local food and the local intestinal parasites, I lost about 30 pounds in a way I had not anticipated. Ultimately I went on chloroquine and doxycycline for the remainder of my tour, and contrary to what the Democrats are saying, it didn’t kill me.
Nevertheless, this cloud had some silver linings. Friday poker night on the compound was always enjoyable, especially once I learned how to play and actually how to win! I met the Cuban cigar, Cohiba, by way of Cuban doctors resident in Bissau and we became lifelong friends. I also picked up a nasty little habit of smoking cigarettes and as fate would have it, Bissau must have been one of many last stops on the African continent for contraband cigarette shipping. Always old brands like Pall Mall, Old Gold, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfields flooded the market.
Shopping was always a challenge. The expat stores had prices that were out of sight high, and shelves were often empty. The local markets were an antidote of sorts, so long as you washed everything with chlorox to remove even microscopic traces of “nightsoil,” fertilizer from human sewage.
Here is a story I almost forgot. I bought green coffee beans in Bandim Market not knowing what I was buying, only that the vendor said it was coffee. I took it home and tried to grind it in my fancy electric grinder. The beans would not grind. I later learned from the housekeeper that the beans had to be roasted and allowed to cool before grinding. There was a lesson here: always ask first.
I experienced my first “campanha de caju,” cashew campaign. The total economy of the country gears up for the annual cashew harvest. Guinea Bissau ranked fifth in the world in actual cashew production, behind such power houses as Vietnam and India. Every aspect of the economy, even in the capital city, mobilized for the campaign. Money tightened and market supplies shrank as all resources were directed to the cashew production. Then, afterwards, everybody involved got their pay, and the economy could breath again. In retrospect, it was truly a sight to behold.
I learned to dance a modified kizomba. We’d head out to the local discos after our weekly Friday poker game, where we would run into our local employees and their friends, and the lovely Peace Corps volunteers in the capital for the weekend. It was at these late night disco meetings that I first heard the legends and adventures of life in the other former Portuguese colonies, mainly Angola, Sao Tome and Mocambique.
Going fishing with the USAID Director Mike Lukomski introduced me to Guinea-Bissau’s inland rivers, knowledge that would come in handy sooner than I expected and in ways I could not have imagined. Weekend-long bicycling treks through the backroads of the coastal region with Fulbright scholar Walter Hawthorne gave me a deep appreciation for the “terra” and the “povo.” Day trips to see the “Homem Grande” in Caliquisse exposed me to a different, a hidden knowledge. The FSN’s were troopers who always came through in the clutch.
In Bissau, the rainy season is followed by the cricket season. During the cricket season, there are crickets everywhere, almost like a biblical plague. After some complaints by compound residents, we had the gardeners apply a local product to “neutralize” the screaming crickets. One day, Manuela, a kitten abandoned on the construction site across the street who grew up in our household to become a big cat, got a hold of a cricket that had already been treated. She acted a little strange the rest of the evening. We found her the next morning, stiff and cold. We buried Manuela in the woods at the back of the compound.
I hired casual laborers to “harvest” the bat dropping out of the attic of the old chancery as we were moving out. I saw it on one of my inspections of the building, and had heard somewhere that bat droppings make excellent fertilizer. Bats are true herbivores, after all. We ended up with enough of the stuff (boxes and boxes of it) to fertilize the whole of the new embassy compound grounds with some left over. The gardeners, God bless them all, planted new grass, one stem at a time, under a hot summer sun. In a few weeks the newly planted embassy lawn was a rich and luscious carpet of green.
Negotiating the closeout of the old chancery building was fraught with coincidences. I started in earnest negotiations with the landlord, Carlos Gomes, Sr., the richest man in the country who was in the middle of a Ross Perot-type campaign for the presidency. Very early in his campaign he proclaimed that I would be the only person in the Embassy he would talk to. For weeks he baffled me with stories about the Bissau’s former colonial grandeur, about his ancestors and the role they played in the country’s development, and about his own role both in the independence struggle against the Portuguese and in the struggle for free enterprise against the first communist governments after independence. I listened and learned.
At length, we got down to brass tacks. Senor Carlos pulled out the original lease from 1975 and pointed to the sentence that read words to the effect that if the US Government ever departed from his building, it would restore the building to whatever specifications the landlord required. I gasped, not believing that a foreign service contracting officer would sign such a lease. We won’t mention his name. He went on to have an illustrious career, including several ambassadorships.
After some wrangling and horse-trading, we agreed that each party would hire an architect to cost out the restoration work, then use the two figures provided as initial offers. Then, in a stroke of pure luck, the TDY Admin Officer Bob Kile and I stumbled upon the landlord’s architect, at a bar, crying in his beer because the mean old man refused to pay him for his work in estimating restoration costs (the landlord was too busy running for president to focus on such a mundane issue). We hired him, had him work up for us a counter proposal, and, to make a long story short, it ended up saving the USG about half a million dollars in restoration costs. We paid the architect his fee.
About the same time, the warehouse landlord (a different landlord altogether) asked for $150,000 in restoration costs (same type lease. What were they thinking about in 1975?). Fortunately for us, we learned that Coca-Cola of Spain was moving into town and looking for a warehouse. They bought out the lease, restoration costs and all. The gods were with us.
As GSO, I was responsible for disposal sales. We had a warehouse full of old kitchen appliances, lamps and electrical fixtures, furniture, and even motor vehicles. As the new embassy building would have less warehouse storage, and just for good management, I set up a series of disposal sales to get rid of some old stuff.
Our first sale, a small number of lots to get the lay of the land, was a public auction. And frankly, the whole thing got rigged by inside employees and outside bidders. I chalked it up to experience, but I knew that public auctions would not be the way to go for the future.
In the next three sales, I instituted a sealed-bid process that would not be so easily hijacked. We set out well-defined lots, gave each bidder a set of bid strips, and allowed two days for bidders to browse the item lots and submit their bids. Our local IT guy set up a database for recording each bid to come up with the “winners,” which we posted publicly. After two days, if the first place bidder didn’t come in to claim his merchandise and pay. We went to the second place bidder. The sale went well, so well, in fact that by the final sale, which was advertised in radio, TV and local newspapers, the government sent a representative to the bidder’s conference to see the process and claim the government share. I seem to recall it was something like 5% of final profit, which we dutifully paid.
During one of the sales, a local guy explained that the country had never had full and free elections and he imagined our sealed bid auction process was something like how an election would be run. I hadn’t thought about it before, but yes, there were similarities.
It was good experience for sales I would run in Angola and in Ghana on subsequent assignments.
Note 1. Guinea-Bissau was my first overseas posting. It will forever occupy a special place in my heart and in my imagination.
Note 2. It is said that if you ever drink from the waters of Pidjiguiti, you will always remember Guine.
Note 3. If you like Year #1, you are gonna truly love Year #2! Of course these posts are really a metaphor. It is me in the final stages of post-retirement healing.
A gathering of local employees at the Residence, 1994
One final note from that first year. My Portuguese was, at best, halting. I needed to improve my language skills and I needed to pick up a bit of Crioulo. I found a tutor, a good tutor that the Peace Corps used, Dona Julieta.
Dona Julieta came to the Embassy two times per week. We started off slowly with everyday expressions and ditados, proverbs part and parcel of Portuguese expressions. Then she graduated me to poetry! She told me about the great poets of the liberation struggle, Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, and Agustinho Neto in Angola, and she had me memorize one of Cabral’s great poems, which became the national anthem of Guinea Bissau. We would sing the anthem together. I know anybody within hearing range probably wondered what was going on! I once asked my colleague, Faustino, “What is the jugo estrangeiro?” He told me, ”You are!” We got a good laugh out of that.
Let me memorialize the poem here:
Sol, suor e o verde e mar,
Séculos de dor e esperança;
Esta é a terra dos nossos avós!
Fruto das nossas mãos,
Da flôr do nosso sangue:
Esta é a nossa pátria amada.
Viva a pátria gloriosa!
Floriu nos céus a bandeira da luta.
Avante, contra o jugo estrangeiro!
Nós vamos construir
Na pátria imortal
A paz e o progresso!
Nós vamos construir
Na pátria imortal
A paz e o progresso!
Ramos do mesmo tronco,
Olhos na mesma luz:
Esta é a força da nossa união!
Cantem o mar e a terra
A madrugada e o sol
Que a nossa luta fecundou.
Sun, sweat, and the land and sea,
Centuries of pain and hope;
This is the land of our ancestors.
Fruit of our hands,
Fruit of the flower of our blood:
This is our beloved fatherland.
Long live our glorious fatherland!
The banner of our struggle unfurled in the skies.
Advance against the foreign yoke!
We are going to build in our immortal fatherland -
Peace and progress!
Branches of the same trunk,
Eyes in the same light;
This is the force of our unity!
Sing the sea and the land,
The dawn and the sun
That our struggle fertilized.
General services officer, Embassy Bissau, the second year, 1994-1995
Note 1. Yes, Guinea-Bissau requires two posts. A country small in geographical size, it is gigantic in historical significance, in spiritual force, and in wealth potential.
A whole chapter is required to report on my journeys to Caliquisse and meetings with the Homem Grande. “Homem Grande” in Portuguese means great man. But in Guinea-Bissau, Homem Grande means the big voodoo/spiritual/mystic guy, and Caliquisse is the capital of the spirit world. Now I was not particularly a believer in this stuff, though I did read a book on Santeria as an undergraduate that led me to make a pilgrimage to the above ground crypt of Marie Laveau in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Glad I made that pilgrimage then, because I doubt those sites still exist!
Anyway, returning to the original subject, a warehouse theft that we couldn’t solve resulted in my boss’s decision to consult with the Homem Grande to find out who was ripping us off. My boss was a very religion guy, very observant, but he had this obsession with, how can I say it, “local culture.” So one Saturday, five or six of us piled into two vans and headed to Caliquisse to visit with the local oracle.
After a huge midday feast at the home of a local merchant, Silvestre was his name, I think, we picked up gifts for the Homem Grande, rice, live chickens, a baby pig (leitao), and several bottles of cana (a Cape Verdean sugar cane liquor) and started on a trek into the bush. When the road ended, we continued driving until we reached a clearing, then the guide took us by foot several hundred yards to a wooded area where we found a large tree with a hollowed out base, one of those ugly trees that grows the delicious cabaceira, a white tangy powder in a large green pod. There, we awaited the arrival of the spirit man.
The spirit man arrived, greeted us and offered us a sip of cana, a distilled spirit made from sugar cane, from what appeared to me to be a very questionable container. I very politely declined. Through a translator, we explained that we needed to know who was robbing our warehouse. My boss believed our warehouse employees were guilty, but I maintained they were innocent and that it was clearly an “outside” job. The spirit man nodded, took another sip of cana and pulled a long rusted knife from a sheath. I thought to myself, “Oh shit, he’s gonna kill us!” But the knife wasn’t for us, it was for the hen we brought, the galinha de terra, the reading of whose entrails were to provide the answers we traveled to Caliquisse to seek.
With a quick snap of the wrist, he decapitated the chicken, while holding its still twitching body in his left hand. Then, with a smaller knife, he cut open the chicken’s underside. Here, he began the close reading. Looking carefully at the chicken’s ovaries (I found that out later), he revealed to us that bandits were entering the warehouse through the roof, and that it was definitely an outside job. I took a deep breath of relief; my staff was not involved at all! Then he asked us if we wanted to know anything else! My boss and the OBO project director asked if they would have sons. He said yes, sons for both. But in exchange, both would be required to bring their sons back to Caliquisse for a visit.
He looked my way, but I kept my mouth shut! (I had attended a lecture earlier given by a lady named Eve Crowley on the practice of making deals with the Spirit world. To break a promise is very bad ju-ju. Better not to make it.) The translator advised us that once we uncovered the plot and learned the truth of the robberies, we would be required to return to the Homem Grande and bring more rice, more cana, and more chickens. Satisfied, we piled into the vehicles and returned to Bissau. Little did I know, this would not be my final encounter with the Guinea-Bissau spirit world!
The locals, employees and contacts, adopted me as one of their own. They exposed me, through weddings, funerals, and late night parties, to the full cultural panorama of life in Guinea-Bissau. My favorites were the baby-naming ceremonies and the end of Ramadan Eid al-Fitra celebrations. The Peace Corps volunteers who came around on weekends from the interior of the country became lifelong friends as, after their service in Bissau, they navigated their way through life transitions, careers, family, etc.
We transitioned from the horrid location downtown to the new Embassy compound in Bairro de Penha. We managed to preserve the cashew trees on the compound, guaranteeing a supply of delicious cashew fruit and nuts. We also managed to preserve a supply of poisonous black mambas on the compound lawn.
Eid at the Bomba (Firestation). Bissau, 1995
It is worth mentioning here some Guinea-Bissau folklore. Going back to around the 13th century, the march of Islam across the Sahara and the Sahel saw the emergence of the Malian Empires of Sundiata Keita and Mansa Musa. The legend goes that the Malian Empire stopped its spread at the Kingdom of Kaabu, allowing that distinct people to preserve their non-Islamic culture. Kaabu later became present day Gabu in eastern Guinea-Bissau. Oral tradition and family records indicate that Kaabu was allowed trade and co-existence with Mali via Mandinka traders. It would explain the pride in culture displayed by the Guinean people. Over time, the leadership of Kaabu moved west to Bissau and Bolama.
There is also a legend that a ruler of the Kaabu Kingdom, upon the arrival of the Portuguese, took a large amount of gold and buried it underground inside a boat. No one can locate the boat now because the land underneath the surface has shifted and moved around. Finally, and I heard this from a young finance student vacationing in Bubaque, during the colonial period, Portuguese Guinea had its own currency, paper money and coins, backed by gold reserves in Lisbon. When the freedom fighters defeated the Portuguese to become the first Portuguese colony to achieve independence, several Portuguese families who had lived in Bissau for generations withdrew to Portugal and other countries. But the gold reserves never “transferred” back to Bissau and allegedly hundreds of millions of escudos of gold at present value sit in a Portuguese bank somewhere if not in the Central Bank of Portugal.
In July, 1994, shortly after the move to the new embassy compound, we got a call about trouble in a neighboring country. Well, sort of “neighboring.” When Gambian troops returned home to Banjul, Gambia, after a peacekeeping stint in Liberia, the troops, led by a then unknown Lt Jammeh, ran into a bit of “disrespect” from airport officials. In response to the airport slight, Jammeh and his crew plotted and carried out a coup d’etat.
The Wikipedia article says “In July 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) seized power in a military coup d’etat, deposing the government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Lieutenant Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state.” When the coup occurred, the deposed president was out taking a maiden voyage on a navy patrol craft the United States had provided to the Gambians. We maintained VHF radio contact with the president’s party from Bissau. Sir Dawda Jawara didn’t return to Banjul until several years later, when a more enlightened President Jammeh decreed that all former presidents would be maintained and taken care of by the State for life.
I almost left out the account of the time I biked out with our resident Fulbright scholar, Walter Hawthorne, to the lighthouse at Biombo at Prabis? We knew it was going to be a long, tough trek, so we packed lunch, almost like a picnic! God only knows how we knew when to leave the paved road and take back trails to our destination. Walter’s crioulo was better that mine and maybe he asked for directions along the way. We both had bicycles with off-road capability (although folks at the Embassy advised against it). We made it to the lighthouse and and when we returned I jotted down notes about it for a future poem which I posted here (along with an ancient photo of the remains of a once majestic lighthouse): https://thisismypoetryblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/from-the-archives-prabis-guinea-bissau-memories/.
When the time came, my CAO, Nick Williams, asked me where I wanted to go next. His predecessor, Kathy Peterson, who suggested I consider bidding Bissau in A-100, promised me a good follow-on assignment if I did well in Bissau. I thought, “Go for it now! It’s your only chance.” I asked for the London, CON/POL rotation. My second choice was GSO in Nassau. Rumor had it that the ambassador in Nassau heard of my work in Bissau and wanted me to join his team. His wife and my then mother-in-law allegedly cooked this whole thing up at their weekly hairdresser appointment (Ambassador Sidney Williams, Embassy Nassau chief of mission, former pro football player and big time Friend of Bill (FOB) was married to Congressman Maxine Waters). It went to panel and the deciders discussed (so I was later told) that the ambassador wanted me in Nassau and it was my #2 choice. But Nick intervened and reminded them that I had been promised my #1 choice after agreeing to Bissau. Nick promised he’d take care of me. He said he would work on it. I got the London assignment.
We can, frankly, end the whole story of my foreign service career here and it would be quite complete. Everything after Bissau is pretty much a footnote to be truthful. But let us continue.
GSO Farewell Party, Bissau. 1995.
p.s. Addendum 1
Our private security company (a model well-to-do neighborhoods and gated communities are likely to turn increasingly to as we take steps to defund public police departments) found car batteries for sale in a local market, traced them back to our embassy and to the band of thieves, who when pressed (spare us the details, please!), confessed they were entering the roof at night across the tops of several adjacent buildings.
As fate would have it, the owner of our security company is in 2021 the country’s Minister of Interior. But back then he was just a guy with a security company.
And yes we went back to Caliquisse. Well, you know Americans, after getting what we wanted there was no great motivation to return and actually pay the price. But towards the end of my stay I kept remembering that lady’s lecture about making deals with the Spirit World (She is still around, I think in Europe with FAO, Eve Crowley). With three weeks left and my boss having left post in disgrace, I got a driver to take me out to Canchungo where Silvestre lived, and he made the arrangements. We took a box of several bottles of Cape Verdean cana, aka grog, along with a couple of baby pigs and full grown chickens and paid a final visit to the spirit man.
Of course he wanted to do the whole thing again and give me a reading. I very politely declined.
Addendum 2. December 2018.
I learned some interesting factoids over dinner tonight with the GB Ambassador to the UN.
1. Secret back channel communications between Jonas Savimbi and GB President “Nino” Vieira attempted to resolve the almost 30-year conflict in Angola. The will of international arms dealers to prolong the conflict was just too strong in the end.
2. Portugal revised its constitution in 1951, identifying its overseas colonies as provinces before signing on to the UN Charter in 1955, to avoid any UN requirements to decolonize. Lots of ramifications here for a whole generation of several nationalities of people.
3. Reasonable people disagree on the political and philosophical legacy of Guine-Bissau native and Pan-African thinker and strategist, Amilcar Cabral. I have my own thoughts, but perhaps I need to do further research.
Consular/political rotation, Embassy London, UK. 1995-1997.
The consular year in London was uneventful. Local employees still spoke in hushtones about an unsolved crime concerning an American consular officer who got involved several years back with a local Jamaican gang guy. The Government shut down for a few weeks and the consular section bosses all took free leave. Junior officers were, of course, declared “essential personnel.”
In my spare time I started a mystery novel about odd third-country national visa applications at the visa window, strange travel patterns, and a vice-consul who took his work home with him one time too many. The novel never saw the light of day, but the draft still lives on my hard drive!
The Embassy was a quick bus ride from my apartment in St. John’s Wood, and an even quicker subway ride to Bond Street with a three block walk to Grosvenor Square. The neighborhood had lots of small diners and even more pubs with great pub food. Small wonder I gained all the weight I lost in Bissau to stress, heat, and parasites, plus some.
I continued doing NIV interviews in the morning and eventually took over the Volume Visa Unit in the afternoon. Toward the end of my consular “sentence” I headed the E Visa section after mornings at the NIV window. My boss warned me I was spending too much time on NIV interviews and wrote in my EER a backhand slap that I would make a fine political officer. I cut the guy a break because he had been really shitted on by a political ambassador in Dublin about his reluctance to issue a visa to a known terrorist. My excuse about gathering information for my mystery novel obviously neither amused nor impressed him. Luckily I got an early release and transfer to the political section, the second half of my London assignment.
Work in the political section was exciting, I must confess. It was a great team of mid-level guys who would all become famous in their own right: Jim Young, great science fiction writer in his spare time, covered Africa and Labour. Matt Tueller, with whom I’d cross paths later in Baghdad, covered the Middle East and the Lib Dems. Charlie Peacock, my office suite next door neighbor and mentor, did PolMil and was always good for a story (or to hear one). Blair Hall, at the far end of the office suite, covered Northern Ireland and the Tories. As the junior officer in the shop, I had Latin America, Scottish and Welsh national parties, international organizations, and global issues. We had outstanding leadership in deputy Marcie Ries and political counselor Mike Habib.
I taxied to Whitehall, the center of U.K. Government, several times a week to the Foreign Office to explain why the USG chose not to pay its annual UN dues. On alternate days I went to the Foreign Office to explain why the USG had a right to refuse visas to influential British subjects who invested in expropriated properties in Cuba. My North Carolina senator Jesse Helms was behind both efforts – demarches that my boss Marcie called carrying dirty water.
The UK had a special interest in Belize, a member of the Commonwealth. There were ongoing border disputes with Guatemala that the Foreign Office continuously monitored. We tracked them and reported back to Washington. There was similarly an ongoing border dispute between Peru and Ecuador that the British managed to get in the middle of. The Department had us do a multilateral demarche that included Spain, Ecuador and Peru representations in London. That was not only fun, but sent me to the Embassy library to actually do research on the background of the dispute.
And I got to write the annual Human Rights Report. Gathering the material and writing it was a different experience, but the clearance process was a real killer, no pun intended — I found it curiously strange that so many people of color were dying in custody in UK jails and prisons. Even more curious was the contorted criteria we devised for determining which of those deaths qualified as extrajudicial deaths while in police custody for reporting in our annual Human Rights report.
Every time someone, particularly friends and colleagues, says prove to me there was election fraud, in plain view of all the evidence available, I am reminded of my experience researching and writing the annual human rights report at Embassy London, a job that went to the junior guy in the political section. Scores of black men at the time were dying in police custody in British towns and cities. But in order to report it in the Human Rights Report, there was this torturous set of standards that had to be met. It was never enough that people were dying. Because first and foremost, our job was to protect the reputation of the UK, not the rights of black men dying extrajudicially. In the end, the numbers reported were a mere fraction of the actual total.
I met occasionally with counterparts in the Falklands office as part of my Latin America coverage. They were very keen on sending an American officer to the Falklands on an orientation visit. I was willing but my bosses thought our British counterparts might not take too kindly to it. Sometimes diplomacy can get VERY political.
Going by overnight train to Inverness, Scotland for the Scottish National Party (SNP) conference was an adventure in a lot of ways. It was my first work trip outside the immediate London area (not counting the prison health and welfare visits we did in the consular section). Surprisingly enough, at the national SNP conference in Inverness I met people named Maxwell and Hairston whom I presumed to be descendants of Maxwell (paternal) and Hairston (maternal) ancestral lines. Cousins, perhaps. Distant cousins. Way distant cousins. White cousins from the back-home families of absentee fathers who owned Virginia and North Carolina plantations. (There is no such thing as consensual sex with people whom you own). That’s a different story, of course, though I did find out many years later when I sent a spit sample to Ancestry.com that I am 12% Scottish! Shit happens in America. See my later poem: rape culture.
After my first big reception on the margins of the conference, an SNP Member of Parliament I had worked with in London, Rosie Cunningham, took me out for a single malt tasting expedition. We were in Scotland, after all. She regaled me over dinner with stories about the Loch Ness monster! I got real dizzy after the fourth or fifth sample. Forever a lightweight!
SNP members, at the time, were a curious blend of KKK-types at one end of the political spectrum and Weathermen at the other and everything in between. What a bunch! I remember writing a cable describing my meeting with the SNP leader, Alex Salmond. He reminded me, I wrote, “of a Southern Baptist preacher I had grown up knowing, one hand thrusting the Bible into space, the other holding a white handkerchief to wipe his sweaty forehead — one foot planted in the muck and mire of our temporal abode, the other foot already in Zion.” Way too much context, perhaps. Definitely way too much information.
But back to real politics. I spent a lot of time with UK counterparts on UN scales of assessment, the annual fees the UN charged to member states. I covered Scottish and Welsh devolution issues back in London and spent some time chatting with the then Shadow Secretary for Scotland and Wales, George Robertson. He later became Defense Minister in the first Blair administration and was later tapped to be NATO Secretary-General. Wow! How fortunes change!
When New Labour won the election, after 18 years in opposition, we scrambled. I mean, it wasn’t like we hadn’t read the tea leaves and figured out Blair and company would make a clean sweep. I even drafted a cable detailing what would happen in the event of a tie in the parliamentary elections. The Queen chooses who will set up the government if there is a parliamentary tie; it was called the Queen’s prerogative, according to my new best buddy and expert on Britain’s written constitution, then history professor (and now member of the House of Lords) Peter Hennessey, whose wife taught with my fiancee at QMW Medical College. But in fact, it wasn’t even close. As the junior officer of the section, I drew the straw to draft the Tory condolence note. “The US Government is so sorry you lost, buster. See ya, but I wouldn’t want to be ya.”
While serving as chair of the junior officer group, we arranged to have the legendary Terry Waite lunch with us in the Ambassador’s dining room. He shared accounts of his career as a hostage negotiator and gave us insights into the four years he spent in captivity in Lebanon. Definitely one of those foreign service learning moments.
Left to right, me, Terry Waite, and Penny Rogers. London, 1996.
Along the way, I was coned Admin (this was the “unconed” era. For a short span of years, FSOs entered without a conal designation and bid their cone in their second tour). Coming into the service directly from a year in a PhD program in Economics, I assumed I would go for Econ. But the fun I had doing GSO work in Bissau, coupled with the lack of fun I saw econ officers having in London conspired to persuade me to bid Admin, and I thought it made sense to chat with the Admin folks at post. The admin counselor, Lyn Dent, took me under his wing and remained a mentor throughout my career. He walked past my office one day and mentioned something about bidding on jobs in the Ops Center. I took him up on it and while in Washington that fall, stopped by the Ops Center for an interview. The rest is history.
A word is in order here about meeting Filomena, our courtship and marriage. Filomena and I met a month or so after I arrived in London, November 1995, courtesy of mutual friends in Bissau. We started dating the following February and shared most of our weekends together thereafter. It was fun, we shared similar interests, liked the same music, and enjoyed browsing London bookstores, museums and art galleries together. Cupid’s arrow struck. And it was so refreshing, hanging out with Filomena’s international coterie of friends and colleagues after spending long days cooped up in the Embassy.
In my August Wilson notes I wrote the following: “Our first time seeing Two Trains Running was at an off-the-beaten-path rather bohemian stage in London called the Tricycle. It was billed as the “English Premiere,” a bit of a misnomer, though in 1996 it may have been the first of any August Wilson plays to be produced/performed in London. I’ll have to look that up. Long story short, in my effort to “escape” the Embassy microcosm, I hung out in my then-girlfriend’s very multi-cultured world which consisted of her work colleagues, and folks from former Portuguese colonies, the Caribbean, and South Asia. It made life in London VERY interesting.”
She had her Portuguese-speaking friends, from Portugal, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, and Sao Tome. But she also introduced me to a circle of people from the Caribbean, from St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Jamaica, all with their tasty cuisines and colorful holidays.
In early Spring, 1997, Filomena and I decided on a road trip together. Initially we were going to drive to Lisbon, but once we mapped out all the tolls and costed out the gas we decided it would be cheaper to fly. But not be be outdone, we did plan and execute a road trip to Paris, even though Filomena’s co-workers warned her against it. It was a bit of a pre-honeymoon for us, and included an afternoon pit stop in Versailles, two nights in a tiny hotel room in downtown Paris, and a day at the Louvre.
We got married in July, 1997, just before the London tour ended. Happily ever after. We packed up and moved back to Washington together.
I enrolled in a graduate program at SOAS (University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies) in my last year in London. The Center for International Studies and Diplomacy was in its second year and reaching out to folks who worked in the hundreds of embassies in London. I went to an orientation session and decided to do it. I had classes three nights a week and spent evenings and weekends studying and writing papers for class. It wasn’t really kosher for the junior guy in the political section to dash out at 5:30 three nights a week to make it to Russell Square for class by 6pm, but I did it and suffered the consequences. The schedule was hectic, but it all worked out.
I developed lifelong friendships with the other two Americans in the program, Margaret O’Grady and Yolonda Rice. Based mainly on our seating arrangement in one of the classes, which was purely accidental, I ended up in a study group with mostly Asian women. I don’t remember their names but I do remember the countries they were from. Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan were represented. And me, the United States. The woman from Japan had been a concert violinist of note who hurt her arm in an automobile accident and felt the need to change careers. The woman from Vietnam, daughter and granddaughter of diplomats was a bit cool towards me and I understood why - the war between our countries took its toll on personal relationships. The ladies from Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore were all Muslim diplomats from progressive Islamic nations who brought a unique perspective to all our discussions. Lucky me, I suppose. Those group sessions actually turned out to be an integral part of my graduate education, which is to say, I learned a lot more from my association with them than from sitting through boring lectures.
Outside speakers addressed us in a very intimate, almost living room setting. They included Benazir Bhutto, Xanana Gusmao, Geoffrey Howe, and Malcolm Rifkind, the then current Foreign Minister.
I finished the coursework and passed my final comprehensives before the trans-Atlantic move back home. I completed my already started dissertation on transnational organization legal personality on time and within budget while on home leave. (Side note: Professors at Wash U encouraged me to get a laptop from the campus bookstore, even after I announced my impending departure, as it was covered in my fellowship. At that point, I just felt I had taken enough. Between Bissau and London I bought a Compaq with a 4G hard drive and 16MB RAM and it got me through SOAS. I probably should have taken my Wash U professors up on the laptop offer, because that piece of crap Compaq costs me close to $2500 in my own hard earned cash. I guess when I heard my faculty advisor talking with a classmate about eugenics being science I decided I had had enough of that place.)
Next stop, Washington, DC and the Operations Center!
Watch officer, Operations Center. 1997-1998.
August 1997. I arrived at Ops. George Kent, Lisa Johnson and Mike Keller had already reported for duty. Julie Adams, Lara Friedman and Mari Dieterich were ending their tours. Scott Boswell came the following year. It was a 63rd class reunion. We had a swell time and I got good material for my continuing mystery murder novel. Who dunnit? Nobody knows. The buck never stops. It never even slows down in this city.
This chapter is decidedly shorter than the rest, because, you know, if I told you, would you like it? Would you like it if I told you? Making the sausage is never pretty. Collecting raw data for policy makers is even worse. Blood all over the decks. Plus, if I told you I’d have to kill you! No, just kidding . . .
Operations Center, Executive Secretariat. 1997-1998. A lot of future stars in this group.
A highlight of my Ops Center tour, without a doubt, was working the Bissau evacuation. It was one of those rare and incredible moments of being in the right place at the right time with the right information. Listening in on a Task Force conversation (as was our jobs to do), I heard then A Assistant Secretary Pat Kennedy talking with then CA Assistant Secretary Mary Ryan about sending a small boat up a particular river to extract the embassy staff. I knew that river and I knew the nearest boat landing from Bissau fishing trips. I interrupted, with some initial reluctance if not trepidation, to tell them that the river was a tidal river and that when the tide ebbs the river turns to little more trickle through the muddy bottom. “Reluctance if not trepidation” was an understatement - I was totally terrified but I had information that I thought might make a difference and I shared it.
Fishing those inland rivers in Guinea-Bissau with USAID director Mike Lukomski and his executive officer, Mike Knight endowed me with a special knowledge that we were able to put to good use in the embassy staff evacuation. And coming from London where I occasionally “hung out” with my Navy brothers, I knew who to call at the Navy Base across the street from the embassy to get local tide charts for any location on the Atlantic (we learned to do tide charts manually in Naval ROTC. I imagine it all is done with computer programs now).
A small boat rented in Dakar entered the river at rising tide and met the embassy staff at a boat landing we used to call the Swedish Camp. The embassy staff trekked through the woods, pretty much in the crossfire between government troops and military coup plotters, with baggage and a few pets in tow, for the Swedish Camp rendezvous. All departed without incidence. Some folks say our efforts at Ops saved people’s lives. I got an individual Meritorious Honor Award for my unique contribution. Wrote an article about it years later for the Foreign Service Journal that you can probably find online.
Still newlyweds, Filomena adopted to the rotating schedule better than I did and kept me in line and on track. The work schedule consisted of three days on day shift, 7am to 4pm, three days on swings, 3pm to 11pm, three days on mids, 11pm to 7am, and three days off. We handled a lot of information and I used to teasingly say they made us work that crazy schedule to keep us all unbalanced, to make sure we’d never actually figure out what was happening in the world. But we figured it out anyway.
Early in our year on the watch there was the death of Princess Diana and the death of Mother Teresa and lots of press folks were jumping through hoops to get their passports renewed. One emergency citizens service case that stands out clearly in my memory was of college students marooned somewhere in Ecuador I got a real nice letter from the University President for my contribution to diffusing that crisis. One particular newly minted Assistant Secretary was always creating messes that we had to clean up (actually “cover up” was more like it. And there was the mess with Friends of Bill, diplomats going through Ops making phone calls to try to find jobs for one of his floozies who will remain unnamed. I was on a team with SWO Jim McVerry, Mark Bysfield, Jane Messenger, and Heather McCollough, but due to leave and other absences we rotated and intersected with other teams as well.
On off days I worked occasionally with the Model UN program student groups at Cardoza and Ballou High Schools. It was fun to bring them into the Department for simulations and group training. We even took a large group to New York to see and experience the real United Nations. We met with the US Ambassador to the UN and the kids were really impressed. Heck, I was even impressed, though I knew him from serving as control officer for his trips to London the year before.
I wonder if any of those students eventually became diplomats? Somewhere I have a box of letters they sent me at the end of the school year. The contact person overall in charge of the program was Ambassador Tom Miller, who went on to several ambassadorships in European countries.
Another height was working the overnight of the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, a sad event where many lives were lost, an event I would revisit often in a future PMO assignment. I recall it was a long shift, beginning at midnight and lasting until around noon the next day. There was a lot of work to be done. There were copy cat attacks announced throughout the night. We also learned in Ops that when CNN broke the news, 50% of the time they got it wrong.
Bidding time came again. I should mention here that I gave some thought to leaving the Foreign Service during that Washington year. Domestic assignments can do that to you. I prepared a resume, contacted search firms, and attended preliminary meetings with counselors. There was a big push at the time to place people in association positions and Washington, DC has a multitude of associations and association-like organizations. An old guy I trusted convinced me to stay with the Government until I could “cash in” on the time I spent in the military. It wasn’t the last time I would think about leaving.
Most of my Ops colleagues were bidding on desk officer jobs. I looked at some as well, and inquired about a PMO job in the Africa Bureau. The AF bureau deputy director Nancy Serpa told me I would need to manage a post overseas before I could be a good post management officer in the AF Bureau. (Such standards, unfortunately, no longer exist). I took the bait and submitted a bid for the FS-02 admin officer job in Luanda (really should have been FS-01. I bet it has been upgraded by now), a two-grade stretch, knowing full well that if I put it on my bid list, there was a very strong possibility I’d get it. What the heck, I figured, they had already taught me Portuguese. Why not use it again? After delivering a cryptic handwritten note from SS/EX Director Dick Shinnick (a friend and mentor at the time who would later betray me) to the AF/EX Director Steve Browning, and after enduring long interviews in AF/EX the morning after a long night shift on the watch, AF accepted my double stretch bid and assigned me to Luanda as administrative officer.
I managed to get enrolled in all the financial mgmt and HR courses before leaving Washington. I had time to take the overseas management officer course, but my brainless Career Development Officer (CDO) informed me that you had to be FS-02 to take that course. When I countered that I was going to fill an FS-02 job, she simply said, “but you’re an FS-04, No exceptions.” It was a big disappointment for me. I could have used that class. But that is spilt milk, no use crying over it. I don’t even remember her name.
Here’s an interesting side note. Folks I met in the Budget and Financial Management Course would go on to serve as budget officers, administrative officers like me, and eventually, Department leaders. We would be friends for life, that is, until I announced my support for Donald Trump. A most unkosher move on my part.
B&F Officer course at Foreign Service Institute. 1998.
Administrative officer, Embassy Luanda, Angola. 1998-2000.
November 1998. Approaching Luanda by air, you see this beautiful city on the coast with tall buildings and winding avenues. Only as you get closer do you realize the tall buildings are empty shells of construction halted when the Portuguese left suddenly in 1975. And when you get real close, you can see bullet holes from Savimbi’s last stand in 1992. Not to be confused with Savimbi’s last stand of 2002. My oh my! Luanda! No place like it on earth.
Embassy Luanda was a trailer park, plain and simple. As admin officer I was the only American in the admin section, which meant I was also leasing officer, contracting officer, certifying officer, and HR adviser.
One by one, we found residential properties outside, negotiated leases, and moved all remaining staffers out of trailers on the compound and into newly rented houses and apartments as quickly as our guys could complete the make-ready preps. Of course, it was never quick enough, nor the make-ready good enough for the prospective tenant. We did our best. Then we started the arduous task of securing the permits and permissions from various government offices to begin the New Office Building (NOB) construction project.
Side note. Not at all incidentally, the prevailing practice in Angola real estate was that the finder was paid a fee of 14% of the annual rent payment. For example, on a single residence with $6000 per month rent, the finder’s fee balloons to an annual additional payment of $10,080. That’s on one residence only. I had no inclination to take that fee because, while it was prevailing local practice, it was most definitely a violation of US contracting and leasing law. I can’t say what my predecessors did, nor can I speak for my successors. But I was having nothing to do with it. Of course, our Angolan landlords thought I was crazy. So I negotiated with them to delete the finder’s fee, i.e., subtract it from the total rent payment, resulting in an under market negotiated price. They didn’t care, $10K was actually $10K, and so they agreed to the proposal. We must have negotiated close to ten rent contracts, saving Office of Building Operations (OBO) and the State Department over $100K on my watch. End side note.
After several meetings with several different ministries and regional and local government departments, we arrived at a stalemate regarding a “showstopper” for the prospective New Office Building (NOB), closing off the back street to enhance, not to secure setback requirements. In a final meeting I attended with the Provisional Governor (who was on our side) and representatives from the Interior Ministry (who were not on our side), the Interior Ministry folks drew a line in the sand. Their position was that to grant us permission to close off the back street “for security reasons” somehow suggested that they were not doing their job to provide adequate security for a foreign mission (which of course, in their estimation, they were. The Interior Ministry guys studied under the Russians, the East Germans, and the Cubans back during the good old days. They were the best at what they did in the world.) It was all in the wording.
Side note: I had an internal security guy assigned to me exclusively. When I went to meetings at the Governor’s Office or at the Foreign Ministry, he was there. When Filomena and I went shopping, he was there. When we went to church, he was there. He was even at the public tennis court and the barber shop. I learned to feel great comfort in his presence. End side note.
One of the city traffic planners offered the following olive branch proposal: Close off the back street, not for security purposes, as stated, but to provide for temporary construction, knowing full well that once the traffic patterns were changed to close the road for the three years of the construction period, no one would bother to change them again back afterwards. I phoned the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) to get the go ahead. We cut the deal and shook on it. It was done. Ground was broken, and a few years later, after my departure, the New Office Building became a reality — the trailer park, a distant memory.
I had lots of interactions with the host government in my position as management counselor for the embassy. It was a bipolar relationship, at best. The Angolans loved us and they hated us, but mostly, they didn't trust us. And they had solid historical reasons for their lack of trust, let’s just say. Part of being a diplomat, should the bilateral relationship fail, is that you have already build personal relationships with your counterparts to fall back on to keep the work moving forward. You learn that on the road, in the field, and sometimes on the fly. They don't teach it in political tradecraft at the Foreign Service Institute. Success in those instances can be quite fulfilling.
We made a couple of important budgetary discoveries. One, FAS, a cost sharing device for spreading the costs of maintaining the physical platform across all the various agencies at post, had been supplanted and replaced by ICASS, International Cooperative Administrative Support Services. When we did the arithmetic, we discovered that one agency at post was supposed to have been making the cash transfer agency-to-agency in Washington. I checked with the budget office in AF/EX and, lo and behold, discovered that no payment had been transferred for the past four years. In effect, the State Department was subsidizing that particular agency. AF/EX budget office got us a windfall payment covering the four years and corrected the mis-allocation going into the future.
Similarly, the mission had experienced tremendous growth, new agencies had been added, and what was previously USIS had been absorbed. But there had been no corresponding increase in our representation funding as should have happened. All it required was a written request by the administrative officer. That was my job. We scored yet another windfall of back payments to the representation account. I was flying high and my bosses were loving me!
The FSN’s invited us to their outings from time to time. Once or twice we went to restaurants that were outside the 17km boundary and we had to get Regional Security Officer (RSO) approval. Such field trips always ended in good eating and dancing! One of our favorite “picnic” areas was across the road from this ancient colonial structure (below) in Cacuaco.
From time to time we’d venture out to the bairros in the city looking for good shopping opportunities, whether produce, artifacts of various types, or local music. One Saturday we were out and we spotted a procession of men in derby hats, playing trombones and trumpets. It was a funeral march that seemed it should be more in place in New Orleans than Luanda. Well, folks in New Orleans obviously got it from somewhere. Sampling discos on Saturday night and evangelical churches on Sunday morning clued us that both religion and recreation survived the middle passage.
It’s silly in retrospect, but we had a RSO who was not a team player at all. I met him in Washington before heading out to post and he reminded me that he would be reporting to the DCM, not to the admin officer (me). I said, “no problem.” It was actually fine with me. Less worry. It was a new bureaucratic thing that accompanied taking Diplomatic Security (DS) out of the Bureau of Administration and having them report directly to the Under Secretary for Management. Worked fine in principle, but RSO did not run his own budgeting or contracting shop at post, it came under admin.
So we got to post and all these hostilities and microaggressions emerged. Then I received comeback copies of cables leaving post without my clearance on administrative, budgeting and contacting issues. I called him on it. I had to. More hostilities and more microaggressions. I think a lot more was going on, but I’m neither a psychologist nor a family counselor. We eventually found an operational sweet spot and we able to work together jointly on issues of common management concern, especially dealing with the local guard force. But not before we both earned black eyes in our annual evaluations. No doubt this tension existed at other posts because of the bureaucratic shift. In the next cycle an assistant RSO was assigned at post and that helped to diffuse things.
Angola was a country at war. Savimbi’s folks were out in the countryside, always wrecking havoc when they weren’t raising crops to secure their hold. Their periodic attacks on generating stations outside Luanda meant constant outages of electricity and running water. I learned to tolerate doxycycline and chloroquine better but still had a couple of bouts with malaria and a local malaria-related malady. Gas was dirt cheap and food was reasonable if you steered clear of the expat stores, and I acquired an appreciation for Angolan robusta that still rules my coffee buying habits. We got a monthly shipment of meat from South Africa - best steaks and delicious ostrich meat! Angola became my favorite and my least favorite posting at the same time.
Unlike my Bissau experience, I knew what to do with the local coffee beans from the market. Even though Angola had a once-thriving coffee industry and one could find the local roast in stores (Bela Negra was my favorite brand, a dark French roast robusta), I enjoyed roasting the green beans at home in the oven, or stir-fried in a cast iron pan sauteed with butter and whiskey, a trick I learned from one of our Cape Verdean connections. Until, that is, I left a batch too long in the oven. Filomena put her foot down - no more coffee roasting at home.
Here is an almost lost memory. Angolan officials at the airport developed a curious habit of closely “inspecting” items arriving through the diplomatic pouch, delaying their delivery to the various missions. No doubt, countries were abusing pouch restrictions, but in general, and by international law, the diplomatic pouch is supposed to be inviolate. The topic came up in our monthly all embassies administration officer meetings and we decided to jointly “demarche” the Foreign Ministry about the delays and obvious intrusion. I don’t remember how or why, but I became the leader and spokesperson of the demarche effort, perhaps because we were hosting the lunch.
I explained, in my best, rehearsed Portuguese, to the representatives from the Foreign Ministry and Internal Security, that we had observed the delay and the actual opening of packages arriving via the diplomatic pouch. The Angolans at least acknowledged what was happening. Of course they attributed it to internal security requirements, that they were a country at war with insurrectionist elements (an understatement since Savimbi and UNITA controlled so much of the rural countryside that they were actually exporting foodstuffs to neighboring African countries) and needed to make sure no country aligned with the Savimbi crowd was using the pouch to provide the rebels needed supplies. It was all hogwash as we knew exactly who was supplying Savimbi and it had nothing to do with the diplomatic pouch. At this point, a few of the country reps got a little bit antsy but I was on a roll. I closed with a gentle warning about reciprocity, that we might be inclined to inform our ministries at home to reciprocate and delay pouch deliveries for the Angolan embassies in our countries. That got the attention of the Angolan foreign ministry officials. The pouch delays decreased in frequency. Diplomacy works!
One more curiosity and I will pause. Part of my job was negotiating with providers for internet services for the embassy. There were three internet providers at the time. We’d begin at the front and work our way to the back office where the real deciders sat. The front was filled with Angolans, but in the back office there was always a Cuban guy. Cuba and Angola went way back, you see, and there was still a hammer and sickle in Angola’s flag, or rather, a gear and a machete that looked from a distance like a hammer and sickle. There’s a lot more to be said on Angola’s independence struggle. A Luta Continua!
In retrospect, while I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, I would certainly come to miss the support DCM Jeff Hartley and Ambassador Joe Sullivan always extended to us. Telephones didn’t work half the time. There was no e-mail to the Admin annex where I worked, Casa Inglesa. But I could count on the support of upper management to do the work I had to do. I could take it to the bank. The support I enjoyed and took for granted in Luanda, the collegiality we shared, I would later learn, was rare in this outfit. I remain grateful for having experienced it there.
Next stop, Embassy Accra, Ghana.
Addendum: Farewell to Luanda (10/2000)
Dear friends and colleagues,
We are packing out and already I am missing this sad, strange place. Luanda. No place like it. No place like it on Earth.
Coming down with malaria is a pain that I won’t miss. Nor will I miss that illness we get from time to time that fakes out the malaria test. The locals call it catolotolo, while I call it total physical misery. But I will miss the peaceful sunsets and late dinners out on the ilha, the hypnotizing popular music, dancing (more like watching them dance) the kizomba and the high-fives shared when one hits that out-of-sync step with rhythmic perfection.
I’ll miss the taste of zindungo (a spicy sauce made from peppers, garlic and whiskey), the smooth harshness of Angolan robusta coffee, the sweetness of overripe pineapple sold at inflated prices by the women on the street who swear it will last until tomorrow, and the bitter-sweetness of gimboa (a type of local greens) fried with onions and olive oil. More than anything else, though, I’ll miss the effusive, infectious enthusiasm of our local Foreign Service National (FSN) employees, their willingness to learn, their professional dedication and loyalty.
The war, which resumed in earnest two years ago, continues in earnest. The rebels continue to wreck havoc and random mayhem in the distant and not-so-distant provinces. The government continues to blame the rebels and, by extension, the war for all the ills of the kleptocratic society it leads. Luanda’s majority continues its struggle to survive and overcome desperate, oppressive poverty. Luanda’s privileged elite continues to revel in opulent, ostentatious wealth. International oil companies continue to discover and suck out black gold, Texas tea, like there’s no tomorrow. And then there are diamonds. Diamonds are forever. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Diamonds. Y’all know the rest of that story. The American Embassy continues its bifurcated operation in the Miramar trailer park and on top of the downtown garage known as Casa Inglesa. Continuity, for better or for worse, is Luanda’s most obvious constant. The strong get stronger, the weak go further off track. Or, if corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely.
Angola diz basta, Angola quer paz. Angola vai vencer. Or so says the steady flow of local media propaganda. Angola says enough. Angola wants peace. Angola shall win. An associate with party connections gave me the red, black and gold t-shirt that repeats the mantra. That makes it so.
The NOB didn’t start on time and may or may not start in the foreseeable future. While I am buoyed by our accomplishments of the past two years, I am a little disappointed over the NOB delays and the failed prospect of being personally involved in yet another building project in yet another former Portuguese colony. Never mind. A luta continua e vitoria é certa (translation: the struggle continues and victory is certain).
First meeting of the newly formed FSN Association. I pushed for this and was very proud when they pulled it off.
We are coming up on ten years of official USG presence in Angola in the post-Cold War era (1992-2002). I am soliciting information, anecdotes, photographs, etc. from folks who have served in Luanda, and from PMO’s, FBO Area Managers and desk officers who have paid Angolan dues, so to speak. While talking with people in Luanda and in Washington, I’ve made interesting discoveries regarding the colonial-era Luanda consulate and its employees (1952-1975) and the Benguela and Luanda consulates that supported US Navy ships (the African Squadron) involved in slave trade interdiction efforts in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Keep those cards and letters coming and let’s all meet for a big birthday bash in Luanda in 2002!
Combined State/USAID gathering at our house in Bairro Azul. 1999.
Some lost diary entries
Saturday, November 14, 1998
First weekend in Luanda. I haven’t done any shopping, but Filomena says everything is available and the prices of many items, food, cleaning supplies, etc., are comparable to prices at Safeway or Giant.
I gave my first “speech” to the combined Admin/GSO section yesterday. The GSO told me the FSN's received it well and no American had ever addressed the section like that before. A driver voiced similar comments to Filomena. It was a simple 10-minute talk: I introduced myself, gave a short work bio, and shared my general expectations. I told them, as I was told in MM “A” School, that every job in the Embassy was important and necessary. But I stressed that their role in the Admin/GSO section was vital to the maintenance and operation of the diplomatic mission platform. Finally, I told them what my father told me: Don’t take no wooden nickels, and if you can’t be good, be careful. Of course, something was lost in the translation, but I think they got the idea.
The city of Luanda: Awesome sprawl view from the plane as we approached the airstrip. A million baracos, shacks all connected in neat little rows - very little urban development in terms of housing. The central city was not much better: unfinished high-rises from the seventies, tenement slums and ghettoes, vacant buildings occupied by squatters, children and mutiladoes (orphans who lost their parents and people who lost limbs because of the zillions of landmines we gave UNITA and Russia/Cuba gave MPLA during the twenty years of civil war) on every corner, open streams and puddles everywhere, breeding mosquitoes who carry parasites resistant to anything we can throw at them (the rainy season is “atingindo,” but the “river” in the street in front of our house comes from a leaking water main (I traced it, using those ancient naval engineering skills, ha! ha!, and if water can leak out, God alone knows what filth can leak in!!!!), not from the rains).
My boss, the DCM, is going to be a great guy to work for. I‘ve already started working with my American subordinate, described by many as a social “problem child.” I think he is going to be O.K.
Filomena is adjusting well. She has a buddy already, Anna, who whispers to people at social functions and who helped fudge the figures on the Retail Price Survey to get post an increase to 30 percent on the COLA (Cost of Living Allowance).
Haven’t done much at work: certified some routine vouchers, read through some old files. Next week, I’ll make my way to USAID, the PolMIL section, and MONUA to meet with the Admin folks there.
Sunday, November 15, 1998
The folks have been very hospitable here since our arrival. Wednesday night we attended a cookout at Miramar held by the departing TDY Army guys.
Thursday we went to Anna and Mike’s house, where we dined with three military guys from MONUA (can’t remember names, but they were from India, Hungary and Portugal (Fulgencio)), Carol from POLMIL, and Cindy from “the Pentagon.”
Friday we were hosted by the DCM, where we met most of the country team: Pat (Econ-Comm), Paul (RSO), Alfreda (Acting AID director), her XO, Cleveland (I think), Carol, Mike, Anna, Phil Ives (USIS), and, of course, the DCM. Saturday night Alex invited us to his suite on the Marginal (what a view of the bay!!!). There we met Doug (Equator Bank), and Corinne and Mateus (she, French, with UNHCR, he, Swiss, with (I’m not sure what he does). We had a great after-dinner conversation, which gave me some good ideas for my dissertation: how the army controls the economy by repatriating dollars to manipulate the unofficial exchange rate and the interest rate and how the black economy drives the official one; how oil is not the curse of Angola, greed and avarice are (the seven deadly sins); contending forces in Angola as a struggle that predates the Cold War and is thus not caused by it (guerra fria); the influence of the Protestant missionary movement in Angola, as a source of the liberation movement against the Portuguese, played out as a protestant/catholic luta (catholic/communist Luanda against the Methodist/Baptist/Congregationalist adherents taught by missionaries in the provinces (including Jonas Savimbi, whose father was a Methodist missionary and whose grandfather was a Bailundo revolutionary. Alex has lots of books and admits to being a part of State’s Greek Mafia.
Today we finish cleaning the Ambassador’s house in preps for his arrival tomorrow. There is another cookout at Miramar this afternoon. We meet the new Ambassador tomorrow morning at the airport.
Thursday, November 19, 1998
New Ambassador arrived Monday AM. Had a small dinner do at his house that evening. Monday Ricardo and I went to see Cine Miramar, where the owner gave us the good news that they want to offer us a long-term lease with option to buy, 20K per month, an idea which FBO also likes. We still need to figure out what to do about the erosion going down the hill. Also visited the bottom floor of the house next door to Miramar. The offer is $4500 per month on a ten-year lease, plus amortized discount for the cost of renovations.
Tuesday I wrote the cable, completed my travel voucher, did some routine work, attended the Country team meeting, and made far too many trips to Miramar. Tuesday night we ate at home, finally. Filomena made chicken soup (calde de galinha) and it was good!
Wednesday I toured the warehouse. The most important thing that happened was a meeting with Phillip Ives, PAO, about the STATE/USIS “crosswalk.” We determined that three of his employees would likely come over to the Admin section, retaining some specific USIS responsibilities: the Systems guy; the Admin woman; and his driver/expediter. I shared with the DCM my long-term vision for property acquisition and for personnel. Will detail in the journal later.
I hope today to look at the top floor of the house next to Miramar. We also need to prepare a cable of yesterday’s meeting with USIS. Finally, today Ricardo and I are going to schedule our meetings, which we’ll start next week.
Meeting with the DCM today on the MPP.
Friday, November 20, 1998
Emergency Action Committee is meeting today. RSO tried to gloss over the issue of “tripwires.” I raised a few points, then Bob Evans chorused in. The Ambassador acknowledged, but the RSO was visibly disturbed at the interruption. Afterwards the DCM and Alex whispered to me that they understood exactly what I was saying about the tripwire thing.
Returned to LightHouse, caught up with Adu, an interesting Nigerian-American who owns a real estate appraising firm in Dallas. Went out to the Ilha, hit all the spots in the cidade.
Sunday, November 29, 1998
Went fishing yesterday with Tony and Lusiana, Richard and Steve, and Mike. The POL/MIL bunch. We had a pretty good time, but only caught three fish. Did a little swimming off Mussulo - great exercise.
More thoughts about work, i.e., real estate acquisitions. Luanda’s is a dynamic, almost fluid real estate market. It is market driven. It is chaotic and sometimes appears anarchic. However, the anarchy and chaos is only a mirage, a façade: beneath all the appearances of disorder, there exists a cool, sinister, and invidious system of horse-trading, price fixing, and gouging. I’m trying to figure out what is going on inside the heads of FBO. Why do they move so slowly? We are dealing here with market forces that behave, metaphorically, consistent with the properties of steam. Nevertheless, with the right valves, the right piping arrangement and the correct auxiliaries, we can harness the power of this steam and make it work for us, not against us. First, however, we have to recognize that we are dealing with steam, not toothpaste, and certainly not peanut butter. In this equation, FBO is the King of Ice, or worse yet, rigid steel. Ice tools aren’t useful in a steam environment!
I am reading the files. Countless are the times that post management has had suitable properties in their grasp, only to lose out to competing interests, often American companies, banks and oil. Why are we even here? To protect American interests? What American interests? Commercial interests? Oil companies. Fucking oil companies. The same oil companies that beat us at the real estate table each time we go to play. It is early in my tenure, but I already have an inkling of the frustrations my predecessors must have endured.
Finally, a few words about this house in Bairro Azul. When the power switches from city power to generators (more often that one might imagine), only the air conditioners work. No lights, no appliances, no receptacles. Only air conditioners. Either there is a short circuit in the wiring system, or there is a weak circuit breaker or transfer switch somewhere. Either way, one day the wires are gonna fry and this house is going to burn down. Moreover, because of the design of the house and its distance from the center of the city, everything in it is going to burn with it. Forewarned is forearmed!!! Alright!!!!!!!!
postscript. Note I sent to the Luanda FSN group recently on the retirement of one of their colleagues:
I have fond memories of all the local employees at the US Embassy in Luanda. In all our overseas assignments, we never knew a group of employees more dedicated, more enthusiastic, and more resourceful. It was tough working with the Americans when the Embassy was opened in the early 1990's. The government didn't exactly trust Americans because of our previous support for UNITA, and there were reports that the government was not trustful of our local employees either. It probably made their lives a bit difficult, but they hung in there with us. They have their own stories to tell.
It is also worth noting that the US maintained a consulate in Luanda during the era of Portuguese colonialism, when Angola was considered an overseas province, dating back to the 1950's. It is an interesting part of history that at one point, Portugal actually considered locating the capital of the Portuguese Empire to Angola, in a town it appropriately named Nova Lisboa, which was later changed after independence, to its original name, Huambo. But it goes back much further. In the 1850's the US Navy maintained a fueling and supplies depot in Luanda for navy ships taking part in the Africa Slave Trade Patrol, an effort by the British and US navies to enforce laws prohibiting the shipment of slaves. That depot no doubt had local employees on the payroll.
I am saying all this to make the point that the relationship between Angolans and the US Government has a deep, rich and interesting history. When Angolans join the US Embassy as employees, they are entering a noble and honorable tradition of bilateral cooperation between our two nations going back more than 170 years. It is a history that is often overlooked. But it is not insignificant.
Supervisory general services officer,
Embassy Accra, Ghana. 2000-2002.
I was at my desk at Casa Inglesa in Luanda doing some paperwork when the phone rang. “Hello, may I speak to Raymond Maxwell?” Not expecting any calls out of the ordinary, I responded in my normal manner, “This is.” A woman said, “Please hold from the Ambassador.” I found it strange the ambassador’s secretary would be on the call and with so much formality. Ambassador Sullivan usually just picked up the phone and called. But it wasn’t Ambassador Sullivan, it was Ambassador Ledesma calling from Gabon, a somewhat neighboring country. He called to offer me a job as his admin officer. We were two weeks from pack out and pretty much set on going to Accra. I very politely declined the offer.
Lesson learned: if an ambassador calls with an offer, not the Bureau and not DC HR, you may want to give it very careful consideration. He (or she) has an interest in you and will very likely support you and “take care” of you. That support is nothing to take for granted, as I would soon enough discover.
November 2000. We left Luanda and moved to Accra where I took over the reins of the General Services section as supervisory general services officer (S/GSO). Prior to arriving at post, I bumped into my new boss at FSI. He told me “They say very good things about you in the AF Bureau.” He laughed, then said, “There is no way you can live up to your advanced billing.” He laughed again, then smiled. O my god, I thought, a psycho joker for a boss. Three years. OMG!
We arrived. Elections brought in the opposition just as we were settling in. The coup leader turned dictator turned democrat stepped down after nineteen years of rule. Western pundits called it the Ghana Miracle because Lt. Rawlings bowed out gracefully. But it was no miracle — just normal folks behaving like adults. To expect otherwise says more about the expecter than the expected.
Accra was fine and we did some outstanding work in GSO, especially in contracting and residential leasing. Filomena returned to USAID, managing child health programs. But the level of collegiality and camaraderie at Embassy Accra was not the same as it was in Luanda — partly, perhaps, because Angola was a country at war, while Ghana was a country at peace.
Embassy operations were spread out in locations throughout the city and bad traffic made moving from location to location stressful. GSO itself was operated out of four separate facilities. As lead contracting and logistics officer I had a very diversified operational portfolio of responsibilities. I spent a lot of my time on the road, getting from location to location.
A graphic on our decentralization across Accra. 2001.
Mentors warned me it would be taking a backwards step going from administrative officer in Luanda to supervisory general services officer in Accra. They told me I might not even be invited to Country Team meetings. Their predictions came true, but I was willing to take that backwards step for the complex construction, services and security contracting opportunities the position would afford me. It turned out to be a bad trade, especially when I had my pick of administrative officer positions in the Africa Bureau and beyond from which to choose. It didn’t help that this was my boss’s first administrative officer position and he had no interest whatsoever in my “big picture” previous experience.
There were tensions across agencies and even in the administrative section, lots of pettiness, lots of bickering. Having my own universe outside the main embassy did not make me immune from the seeds and sources of division.
On the other hand, being in Accra provided some very bright moments. Ghana was rich in pre-colonial, colonial and post colonial history. As an aside, It was Sierra Leone, I would learn, and not Ghana that the British had groomed for eventual independence. Historically, well-to-do folks in Ghana sent their children to Sierra Leone for civil service and teacher training during the colonial period.
(Side note. Three countries had somewhat interesting but unique and different recolonization pilot efforts for their freed and enslaved Africans. Brazilians sent their emancipated slaves back to Nigeria, from whence many of them came. By the end of the 19th century, British colonial officials outlawed the speaking of Portuguese by repatriated Africans from Brazil, ultimately under penalty of death.
The United States experimented with recolonizing freed and enslaved people to Liberia, even before blanket emancipation. President Madison, whose baby brother Willey had a plantation in central Virginia that eventually became the site of a prep school I would integrate in the early ’70’s (but that is a whole different kettle of worms), was a leading proponent of solving the Negro problem through massive “recolonization.” What a disaster that would have been.
Great Britain found itself with a sizable population of freed slaves following the rebellion in the colonies and their offer of freedom to any slaves willing to escape and join their cause. Similarly during the War of 1812. They were first resettled in Canada, then in England. Ultimately the British would experiment with resettling them and their dependents in Sierra Leone. End note.)
But that all changed in 1957 when the Ghanaians jumped the gun and declared their independence from colonial United Kingdom. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first leader, studied at Howard University and a steady stream of African American leaders made pilgrimage to Accra and to the Ashanti Kingdom center, Kumasi, over the 50’s and 60’s, including W.E.B. DuBois, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
Back to Accra, though. Our house in OSU shared a compound with three other families. We were within walking distance to the GSO compound, blocks away from a vibrant shopping district, and an even shorter trek to a handful of Accra’s best restaurants. I fell in love with the wide ranging daily and weekly newspapers and would sit out on the porch and pour through them over morning coffee on the weekends.
It was Ghanaians who introduced me to yoga. Fantes enstooled me and gave me the name “Nana Kweku Appia,” a tremendous and sacred honor and experience in my adopted home. Ashantis embraced me and taught me their culture and philosophy. Ewe and Ga protected me and kept me safe from harm. To quote an Emerson poem, “. . . give all to love . . . . when the half-gods go, the gods arrive.”
An American expat, Mona Boyd, started a tour company during our time in Accra. It was called Landtours and the Embassy (well, my office) sent her a lot of business by word of mouth. And whenever Filomena and I had guests, especially visitors from the US, we would book a Landtours trek. We booked Landtours trips to Kumasi, Cape Coast, Elmina, Axim, Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast capital), Bonwire, the home of kente-cloth weaving, and market shopping in Accra.
Beyond that, though, I did a couple of Volta River fishing trips with landlords and business contacts and made several weekend day trips to my adopted village, Gomoah-Adam, in the Central District.
Installation as “Development Chief (Nkosuohene)” in Gomoah Adam, Ghana. 2002.
At the end of my tour, the local employees and I performed a traditional “blessing” of the land where we hoped the new embassy would be built, Bud Field, but not before making a convincing presentation to OBO and AF/EX that Embassy Accra needed a new Embassy compound as soon as possible. I delivered a powerpoint presentation I composed to OBO Director Williams and AF/EX Director Huggins that provided a snapshot view of dispersed embassy operations at the time and made a strong case for a new unified embassy compound.
“How did I leave out 9/11? Probably because it was all very abstract experiencing it overseas. My wife was up north on a work trip to monitor some development projects so I was on my own. I got a call on my cell from Tim, the facilities maintenance guy. He heard that something had happened in the states. We arranged to meet at my house for a late lunch. A meeting had been called of the Emergency Action Committee but the GSO team weren’t members, just as we were not invited to Country Team. It was how Ambassador Powell ran things. Still, information filtered through that there had been some sort of attack. When I got home Tim was already there. I turned on the television and CNN was showing replays of those planes flying into those buildings in New York. I pulled out a bottle of single malt, Balvenie, 21 years, and we had a drink. Middle of the goddamn day. Things had suddenly changed forever.
Some months later we got more directly involved when there was a threat that the diplomatic pouch had been contaminated by anthrax worldwide. We donned anti-c’s and cleaned the pouch room down to parade rest as part of our effort, along with embassies and consulates around the world. It was the dawning, for us, of the Age of Terrorism.
It was also while in Ghana that I began planning for our 2012 retirement ten years out. I knew I wanted to re-tool and I was leaning towards my childhood dream of being a librarian. I went on the internet and put together a list of programs that interested me. At the time I was very interested in University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee because they had a joint program with Biblioteca Alexandrina in Egypt, but Catholic and UMaryland were at the top of the list because of location proximity to our place in Washington.
I joined the African American Association of Ghana shortly after arriving. One of the activities I got personally involved in was forging a relationship between the association and the Embassy, or more specifically, actually, the Public Affairs section. During African American History Month we were able to borrow the 16mm copies (several reels) of Eyes On The Prize and a 16mm projector from the PAO section to screen over several weeks at the W.E.B. DuBois Center for association members and their guests.
Following service on a promotion panel back in DC, I returned to Accra and immediately left for Lima, Peru to attend and present at the Department’s first Good Ideas Conference. I had been working on this idea to incentivize outstanding performance by actually standardizing which performance goals, once achieved, would result in cash awards. I enjoyed Lima.
“A” Bureau Good Ideas Conference, Lima, Peru. 2002
Former President Clinton came with a small delegation to Accra on a UN-sponsored anti poverty campaign. He was out of office but we still treated it like a POTUS visit, pulling out all the stops, polishing all the bells and whistles. Hernando De Soto, the Peruvian economist came on a parallel visit, and while we had nothing to do with his visit, I was able to chat with him at the hotel about his books, The Other Path and The Mystery of Capital. But back to Clinton. We got all the GSO staff out to the airport for his departure, and to our delight, his advance guy told us he wanted to meet the Embassy local staff. We had the motorpool staff, the warehouse staff, the procurement team, all lined up in an L shape. As President Clinton arrived and approached, I stepped forward and escorted him as he shook hands with all the GSO staff, introducing each by name. Then, at the end, he said, “Wait a minute, what’s your name?” I told his my name and where I was from. He gave me that firm Clinton handshake where you feel the electricity and his personal magnetism, even out of office.
The most memorable project I was involved in at Embassy Accra came at the very end of my tour. By a fortuitous turn of events, we needed at least a 200-year lease on a large piece of property for the construction of an embassy compound at the same time that the Ghanaian Ambassador in Washington needed to close a deal on property he was purchasing for his official residence out in Potomac, MD. The Ghanaian constitution did not allow foreigners to own land, but OBO assured us that a long-term lease of at least 200 years was as good as a title deed.
Fortunately for us, the new supervisory post management officer (PMO) in AF/EX in charge of the project, Stephanie Sullivan (presently the chief of mission in Ghana), had previously been political counselor in Accra and knew all the political players, including the Ghanaian Ambassador to the U.S., Alan Kyerematen. The management counselor was on leave, so it fell to me to handle the negotiations on the Accra side. We worked the phones, just like in Ops, Embassy Accra to AF/EX in Washington, Embassy Accra to the Ghanaian Embassy, Embassy Accra to the Foreign Ministry, Embassy Accra to the Presidential Palace, Embassy Accra to the members of Parliament, and every combination and permutation within and across all these elements. Stephanie steered me masterfully through the local and national Ghanaian government bureaucracy. Within mere days, we managed to execute an MOU with the Ghanaian government, in effect persuading legislators to amend their constitution to grant long term lease rights to a foreign government, resulting in granting us the 200-year lease on Bud Field that we needed for construction to commence. Great work, by the way, from the DC Office of Foreign Missions pushing the reciprocity angle.
Signing the MOU with Ambassador Twinning. 2002.
A couple of years later, NOB construction commenced at that very site, blessed by all the local chieftains on the GSO staff. And in a few months I would be joining Stephanie’s PMO shop, AF/EX, in Washington.