Making a difference in Africa: 3 women share their passion for reaching out

[This post was originally published in 2008 on my now archived travel blog, and has been revised for sharing with my class at the University of Montana, as many students were interested in international travel and outreach. Updates on each subject interviewed appear at the start of each segment. For a variety of other essays and collected writings and images of my work in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World, visit this link.]

By Ron Reason

Nearing the end of two months working in Kenya (and off to Nigeria tomorrow), I’ve been thinking about others I’ve encountered who have committed to extended tours of duty in Africa. What inspires their passion, or keeps it alive, for living and working in what many would consider daunting environments? I decided to reach out to a few of them, and here are their condensed responses:

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Mary Catherine Phee, U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan: ‘Bad governing thwarts human potential’

Mary Catherine Phee, left, visiting with local agencies in Juba, South Sudan, July 2016. [Photo courtesy World Vision South Sudan.]

Mary Catherine “Molly” Phee (Molly is an employee with the State Department’s Foreign Service who has lived and worked in exotic places including Iraq. Most recently she was named U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan. At the time of this interview she was looking forward to her next assignment, in Rome. Here she shares thoughts of her time and service in Kenya and Egypt.)

“I have ventured abroad for two reasons. The first is to experience and learn and live as much as I can, because we have only one life and an incredible world to discover. The second, and with a gimlet understanding of what I can really offer, is to contribute in whatever way I can either to U.S. interests or to helping those abroad as appropriate. Of course we also travel because we can, because we were fortunate to be born into America in the 20th century and have access to these wonderful opportunities. And because I saw the movie Stepford Wives as an impressionable young high school teenager and decided I would die in suburbia!

“I first went to Kenya in the summer of 1988 when I was a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I had an internship at the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which is located on a beautiful campus in the suburbs of Nairobi. It was an extraordinary experience, and my exposure had a big impact on my thinking. I learned from what I saw in Kenya that political systems do matter, and bad governance can deny or thwart the capabilities of a nation and its people. I think the events of this spring only underscore that view.

“I was in Cairo from 1996-2000. My first year there I studied Arabic and then I worked as a political officer in the U.S. embassy for the next three years.

“A fascinating question about North Africa or the Arab states in Africa is the degree of their African identity. Egyptians think of themselves as the leader of the Arab world and do not generally identify themselves with sub-Saharan Africans. You can see this tension play out tragically in East Africa now particularly in the Sudan. There is also the academic debate in the United States, particularly among black Americans, about whether the Pharoahs were black. (Mainstream scholarship says no.)

“So, is your identity based on your geographic location on a continent or your language or your religion or your ethnicity or your skin color? Or, do we have to limit our identity to one characteristic, can our society or state or the international community tolerate a complex identity (also a particularly relevant question today in places such as Iraq and Lebanon, where the struggle for power and the absence of security tends to force folks to choose one primary identity to the detriment of national reconciliation).”

Of related interest: The State Department announcement of Mary Catherine Phee’s appointment as Ambassador to South Sudan.

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Anita Verna Crofts, educator/trainer: Helping preserve food traditions in the face of adversity, resettlement, war

Anita Crofts, left, with a training participant in Khartoum, Sudan. [Photo courtesy University of Washington.]

Anita Verna Crofts, Seattle (Anita works at the University of Washington as part of a privately funded initiative called the Population Leadership Program, funded by the Gates Foundation and the Packard Foundation. At the time of this interview we were both working in different corners of Africa. She most recently is the author of “Meet Me at the Bamboo Table: Everyday Meals Everywhere,” published October 2016, inspired by her work and travels in Africa and elsewhere.) 

I’m wrapping up a three-week stint in Sudan and Ethiopia, having been part of a training team from the UW that traveled to Sudan at the invitation of the Ministry of Health, and to Ethiopia at the invitation of three peer institutions: Jimma University, Gondar University, and Haramaya University. Our training included leadership development work, digital storytelling (my piece), translating research to policy, and program management.

“I find what compels me most about working in Africa and what motivates me to return are my African colleagues and friends. Their optimism and commitment to their work, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and in the case of Sudan, a fragile peace, is extraordinary. Furthermore, they are some of the warmest and most hospitable individuals I have ever met.

“My food research was so interesting: my charge had been to see how Sudanese were preserving food traditions in the face of adversity, resettlement, and war. What unfolded was the silver lining of this resettlement and displacement: regional food traditions were converging in Khartoum (home to one-third of all Sudanese: that’s like 90 million people living in Chicago) as people from war-torn areas east, west, north, and south, fled to the capital. Now, as their dishes are becoming popular in Khartoum, food is forming a Sudanese identity – slowly – beyond a regional/tribal/religious one. Great stuff.

“The day we left Sudan, a Sudanese journalist recently released from six years in Guantanamo landed at the Khartoum airport and was greeted by a bank of media just hours before we flew out to Addis Ababa. Given the devastating seeds my government has sown through their perverse policies, I feel the need has never been greater for me to travel and connect with people as a counterpart ambassador of peace and friendship.”

Of related interest: “Building a shared Sudanese identity through food,” by Anita Crofts, from Gastronomica, The Journal of Food and Culture. 

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Lara Weber, Peace Corps alum: Reaching out at the height of the AIDS crisis

Lara Weber, center with blue bandana, prepares to head off for field work in Zambia. [Photo courtesy Lara Weber.]

Lara Weber, Chicago (Lara was a Community Health Volunteer for the Peace Corps in Zambia, now a writer and editor for the Editorial Board of the Chicago Tribune.) 

“I’d always just assumed that I’d spend some time living overseas, doing study abroad or taking a job outside of the U.S. So when I hit my 30s and realized I hadn’t done it yet, I knew it was time. The AIDS crisis was just starting to get more attention, and since I was joining the Peace Corps, I really wanted to be as close to that issue as possible. It just felt like the thing I was supposed to be doing right then and there in my life. (Plus, I’d spent a decade as a journalist and felt wrong working on world issues from the point of view of a tower on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.)

“So when a Peace Corps assignment in public health in Zambia was offered, I was thrilled. For two years, I lived in a mud hut in a very remote part of northeastern Zambia, in a place that was just beginning to confront its own HIV/AIDS situation. I met and worked with incredible local health officials and I did see change happen while I was there. And, naturally, I changed quite a bit as well. In the midst of extreme poverty and disease, I got to know people who love life and aren’t burdened by the pressures we put upon ourselves in the ‘developed’ world. I experienced the greatest happiness of my life because of the people in my village who took me in as family and taught me to let go and laugh.

“What takes me back to Africa? Well, it doesn’t take much. The smell of a summer rain shower takes me right back to the rainy season, when roads are cut off by swollen rivers and the mud makes a bike ride an expedition but the world is lush and green. A taxi ride in Chicago with an African transplant driver is one of my secret pleasures of city life. Few are from Zambia, but it doesn’t matter.

“Sharing stories of Africa – and slipping into my ‘Zambian English’ accent – with an immigrant from Ghana or Kenya or Nigeria … what a way to take the stress away after a long day. Eating a mango. The grocery store varieties in Chicago will never compare to the thousands of mangos that literally dripped from the trees surrounding my house. But all I need is one bite of a sweet, ripe slice of mango and there I go again – back to the village, sitting in front of my mud house with a group of kids, completely overindulging on mounds of mangos. Heaven. There’s so much more. But it’s always the little things that take me back fastest.”

Lara Weber writes in the Chicago Tribune on the changing nature of the Peace Corps. 

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