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The Washington Diplomat

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The Washington Diplomat

Seeking a Common Future
Special to the Diplomatic Pouch by M. Ashraf Haidari

When I first joined the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., in 2004, as director of government and media relations, the embassy lacked everything from a basic management structure to carry out its routine diplomatic activities to a website that could help facilitate customer service online. The concept of public diplomacy through direct dialogue with the American people — explaining to them our shared interests in securing the future of Afghanistan — was unknown.

Indeed, like the rest of Afghanistan's nascent state institutions, no one was to blame for this fledgling status that I encountered in one of our key embassies in the world. But it was apparent that unless the structural and organizational problems were resolved to create a functional system, individual diplomats, no matter how resourceful and skilled, could hardly be effective in their duties to promote bilateral relations and a long-term strategic partnership with the United States.

To help address these interconnected issues, we set out to revamp the embassy's dysfunctional website so we could use it to present an image of the Afghan people and culture that was not well known to the U.S. public. More than two decades of war and destruction in Afghanistan meant that Americans had hardly heard about the core values of freedom, liberty, and pluralism that the Afghan people share with them. Nor did Americans know that the extremist ideology of the Taliban (which would later extend to sheltering Al Qaeda), which unfortunately prevailed in Afghanistan before the tragedy of 9/11, had been completely alien to Afghans before the Taliban's 1994 emergence in their country.

We wanted to raise awareness about a new Afghanistan, with one of the world's youngest populations, which overwhelmingly continues to seek a future of democracy and pluralism against totalitarianism and extremism. This took center stage in our outreach efforts. To help institutionalize these and other capacity-building efforts, I helped draft a five-year strategic plan, in which we organized our very limited human resources around the implementation of our core national objectives. In less than six months, consequently, the embassy began functioning as a proactive diplomatic institution, where issues of bilateral and multilateral interest or concern could be advanced or addressed.

We strove to fight against an image of Afghanistan as a "dirt poor" nation, often portrayed by critics of U.S. involvement in the country. The fact is that Afghanistan sits on about $1 trillion worth of minerals, and Afghans see this abundant mineral wealth as a way to secure and rebuild our war-ravaged homeland.

In addition to using the embassy website, I initiated an annual subscription to Global Business Gateways, through which we have tried to inform the U.S. business community of the profitability of being among the first to invest in Afghanistan's virgin markets, as well as our historical tradition of commerce and cultural exchange that dates back to the era of the Silk Road. We wanted them to know that with each economic opportunity that is seized, Afghans, as an enterprising and resilient nation, can move one step closer to reconnecting with the global economy and securing a stable and prosperous future.

At the same time, I understood that Afghanistan's untapped human resources lay outside the country in our large immigrant communities in many developed nations, particularly in the United States. So, I published two detailed articles in several prominent Afghan publications to highlight how resourceful Afghans abroad could play a vital role in the overall rebuilding and development of Afghanistan. I noted that they could do so by: 1) building institutional capacity in Afghanistan, 2) investing in the country's new and emerging markets, 3) strengthening the Afghan civil society, and 4) advocating to maintain international focus on the priorities of rebuilding Afghanistan.

Years of exiled life with its attendant hardships mean that most Afghan immigrants need to be motivated to make the first move, much like the "first mover" investors. So, as a former refugee and internally displaced person myself — who later learned at Wabash College and Georgetown University how other nations, including the U.S. and Japan, had built their nations and governments — I reminded Afghan immigrants of their debt of service to our homeland.

In an article called "Rebuilding Afghanistan: The Diaspora's Debt of Service," I wrote, "Let us never ask what Afghanistan can do for us but ask what we can do for Afghanistan. We can do for Afghanistan what the Japanese and other post-conflict nations did for their homelands. We should begin right here and right now in the West where we have the resources, the capacity, the know-how, and the wealth to walk our talk about the challenges of securing and rebuilding Afghanistan. Let us do our share and avoid going down in the history books as a diaspora that never made a serious effort to save our homeland and allowed it to be a pawn in the game of others."

I know from personal experience that the world hardly knows the soft and generous side of the United States. Indeed, it is because of the tremendous goodwill and generosity of the American people towards Afghanistan that their government continues to spend billions of dollars in civilian and military aid to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. In order to thank them in person for their continued support of the Afghan people — with whom Americans share a common future through globalized security and economic prosperity — and to explain to them in specific, tangible ways how American taxpayer money had changed the lives of Afghans forever in Afghanistan, I have vigorously engaged in public diplomacy.

Between 2004 and late 2010 when my assignment ended at the embassy, I traveled to more than 30 American states, speaking at universities, schools, churches, think tanks, professional associations, and senior citizen clubs to explain to the American people how and why security and prosperity in Afghanistan equates to the long-term security of the United States. I reminded them how neglecting the post-Cold War reconstruction of Afghanistan allowed transnational terrorists and criminals to base their anti-American operations in the country and to isolate Afghans from the rest of the world. I would explain that had the U.S. invested a fraction of what it has so far spent on the war against terrorism since 9/11, Afghanistan would have been a democratic and developing nation, contributing, like South Korea, to the security of the United States and to international peace. In individual conversations after each talk I was heartened to hear from many Americans that they agreed that their country had long neglected Afghanistan and they promised to support their government in not making the same mistake again.

Moreover, I visited many American military bases to brief the senior leadership of the U.S. forces who were deploying to Afghanistan. I learned through my own participation in these military briefings how hard the U.S. government continues to try and prepare its forces for effective military operations in Afghanistan, even though I frequently impressed upon them the strategic loss that we and our nation-partners would incur as a result of civilian casualties. "Alienating or harming one Afghan, who supports your presence in Afghanistan, would mean losing the support of his entire village or tribe," I would often remind the U.S. forces.

Incidentally, the embassy website allows visitors to enter their e-mail address into our online database so that subscribers receive our monthly newsletter with updates on the achievements of the government and people of Afghanistan, in partnership with the United States, as well as the challenges confronting our two nations.

I understand that stabilization of Afghanistan cannot be accomplished by the United States alone. We believe every country in the region and beyond must have a high stake in the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan — knowing that, in a globalized world, the effects of violent extremism and insecurity in one country can easily spill over beyond Afghan's borders. Of course, Afghans must lead the way forward. But the burden of securing Afghanistan must be shared by the whole international community; both to bring peace to the country and to ensure a safer world for everyone.

I will soon return home to take up a new assignment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Afghanistan, and I will draw on the past six fleeting years of experience in the United States to help advance the shared interests of Afghanistan and America toward a common secure future. I strongly believe this shared objective is achievable through a binding strategic partnership between our two nations, so that Afghanistan never again becomes a no man's land — a fertile ground for extremism and terrorism from which the United States could be attacked as it was on 9/11.

M. Ashraf Haidari works with the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and formerly served as the deputy ambassador and political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C.

Top photo: Ashraf Haidari speaks at the Embassy of Afghanistan on Nov. 4, 2010, to senior U.S. civilian and military officials associated with the National Defense University about the security, governance, and development priorities of the Afghan government.

Bottom photo: Ashraf Haidari speaks to students at Chestnut Hill Academy in the Afghanistan Embassy's backyard, on Sept. 14, 2009, as part of embassy’s outreach efforts to the American public.

Photos: Embassy of Afghanistan

Digital Diplomacy
Special to the Diplomatic Pouch by Jacob Comenetz

"These are not Twitter or Wikileaks revolutions. They belong to the people, but technology can expand and accelerate the pace of change."

Thus tweeted State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley on March 10.

Just hours later he would censure, in a small group discussion at MIT, the military's treatment of the Cablegate leaker Bradley Manning. His criticisms were reported by a blogger, and he was forced to resign days later.

Does technology accelerate change? Indeed.

The spokesman, with more than 25,000 Twitter followers, had been discussing the role of new media in foreign policy with university students in Boston, when he sent that telling Tweet.

The question of the moment in government, academic, and media circles is whether the Arab spring under way in the Middle East can accurately be ascribed to the revolutionary rise of social media.

The unprecedented uprisings across the Arab world, which began in December 2010 in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, and led to the dramatic and unexpected resignations of two long-time leaders (so far), has focused increased attention on the Internet's impact in shaping world events.

On one side are those such as Wael Ghonim, the 29-year-old Egyptian Google executive whose Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said" attracted nearly half a million followers and became a major driver of the protests in Tahrir Square. On Feb. 11, those protestors' demands were met when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after more than 30 years in office.

Ghonim, whose Twitter avatar shows a caricature of himself sitting intently before an Apple laptop — wearing the striped head cloth of the pharaohs and with a Twitter-esque bluebird perched on his head — later told CNN he wanted to "meet [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him. This revolution started on Facebook.... I always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet."

Others argue, however, that frequent references to "Facebook revolutions" and "Twitter revolutions" are exaggerated and misleading. Jeffrey Ghannam, author of the report "Social Media in the Arab World," argued that these declarations give undue credit to the tools, rather than the underlying factors — namely the presence of a huge number of unemployed, marginalized youth. "Had the Internet not been around," he said, "these revolutions arguably would have succeeded."

Even if Facebook and Twitter did not directly cause the revolutions, few would argue that they did not in some way contribute to them. The difficult question is how, and to what extent?

Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, wrote in a recent article in the New York Review of Books that it's difficult to gauge because the revolution in social media is ongoing and impacting all societies simultaneously.

"In the West, where digital social media were born, many of us find Facebook and Twitter to be new, exciting and important. When we examine an event like Egypt's stunning revolution, it is hardly surprising that we find social media to be new, exciting and important there, too."

Coll argues that it's certainly possible that labor unions, out of which youth activist groups such as the April 6th Movement emerged, played at least as important a role in mobilizing the masses as did social media. But all of these forces coalesced to produce sweeping, historic change, and an accurate picture of what exactly fueled what is impossible to paint.

As with all social movements of historic proportions, the most accurate explanation is bound to be more multifaceted and nuanced, involving an incendiary mix of tyranny, rising food prices, youth unemployment, and social media — that converged at an opportune time.

Michael Nelson, visiting professor of Internet studies at Georgetown University, put it succinctly: "The Internet is not causing the revolution," he said at a March 1 discussion sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance of the National Endowment for Democracy, "but it is enabling it." As fellow panelist, Egyptian-born blogger and journalist Mona Eltahawy, pointed out, "The Internet did not invent courage."

It was people, frustrated and courageous, given a new identity and aided by the real-time organizing potential of new media, who brought about change. Though the precise timing couldn't be predicted, and the fact that the spark ignited in Tunisia following the self-immolation of a fruit seller was unexpected (many saw Egypt, with its larger population and vibrant civil society as a more likely place), the impact of social media as a political force, far from being novel, has been gaining momentum throughout the past decade.

In his insightful essay "The Political Power of Social Media" in the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, published immediately before the protests, media theorist and techno-determinist Clay Shirky analyzed the technology's manifestation as a new pillar of U.S. foreign policy. This new pillar had been laid out in a January 2010 address by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on "Internet Freedom" at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. government had clearly been grappling to define a strategic position for Internet policy on the international stage long before the events in the Arab world.

Shirky's essay examines two competing approaches to Internet statecraft, which he terms "instrumental" and "environmental." The former approach focuses on preventing authoritarian states' censorship of websites such as Google or YouTube, through the use of advanced technologies including those which allow users to circumvent blocked content.

According to Shirky, "The instrumental view is politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong." It is wrong, he argues, because it overestimates the importance of repressed peoples' need for access to outside information, versus having a conversation about their grievances internally. Worse than being ineffective, the instrumental approach can imperil the very people it is designed to help if the technology is taken advantage of by governments to spy on them, torture or kill them.

Shirky's alternative, the "environmental" view, advocates a long-term approach to Internet foreign policy, focusing less on technology and more on the development of a vibrant public sphere. It's the type of approach followed by the National Endowment for Democracy and other democracy-promotion NGOs that target areas such as empowering independent media. Rather than being a tool for changing societies from the outside, social media can be most effective when they allow people to take part in a conversation, and foment change from within.

On Feb. 15, Hillary Clinton's second major speech on Internet freedom, delivered at George Washington University, took a broadly "environmental" approach to the complex issue. Though she acknowledged criticism from some (including tech companies) who want to see a technology-driven approach to ensuring a global, open Internet, she argued, "There is no silver bullet in the struggle against internet repression." Rather than actively confront countries that practice cyber-repression, the U.S. would as a general rule promote an open Internet as an extension of its historical promotion of open societies, she said.

Reactions to Clinton's speech varied, but some were positive. Ethan Zuckerman, a blogger and Internet activist at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said despite his low expectations for the speech, he "was very pleased to hear Clinton point out that there's no single tool that's capable of 'solving' Internet censorship.... We need multiple approaches, if only because they make it harder for governments to block tools."

But several leading thinkers in the field shared Zuckerman's main gripe that the speech did not focus enough on the role of the private sector in "Internet freedom." Zuckerman wondered, for example, why Clinton didn't pressure U.S.-based companies to make it harder to block their content in closed societies. "Her speech touched on the responsibility and power of U.S. companies only in passing. I wish the speech had been a call to U.S. companies to take a lead in ensuring their platforms can be used by people all over the world to push for social change," he said.

Evgeny Morozov, a Stanford scholar originally from Belarus who writes about the potential for the Internet to be used as a tool of repression, also critiqued the speech for avoiding the role that American companies play, more or less intentionally, in suppressing Internet freedom. Morozov wrote that rather than happening because of Facebook, Twitter and Google, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt happened in spite of them. The companies, he said, have an incentive to remain reticent over their use as political tools as they seek to gain markets such as Russia and China. But how long can these companies remain neutral when they are being used for political purposes?

For the U.S. government to pressure firms to take action to fight censorship and protect privacy, a legal mandate that does not yet exist would be required. Efforts to create such an authority, opposed by technology companies and some civil liberties groups, have thus far proved unsuccessful. For the time being, then, other types of initiatives seem more promising.

One initiative that has received much attention of late, including a mention in Clinton's speech, comes from the Washington-based Global Network Initiative (GNI), a nonprofit whose membership includes tech giants Google, Microsoft and Yahoo as well as human rights organizations, academics, and investors.

The organization's aim, said its Executive Director Susan Morgan, is to promote corporate responsibility in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector around freedom of expression and privacy."

Cynthia Wong, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Global Internet Freedom, itself a member of GNI, believes that GNI's guidelines offer ICT companies a valuable alternative to local law when conflicts arise, as well as tools for making important business decisions. In a rare case such as the Egyptian Internet shutdown (rare because a complete shutdown of the Internet severely impedes countries' economies), the GNI "suggests that companies can insist that governmental requests follow established legal procedures, ask for the legal basis for the request, and that the request be made in writing," she wrote in an article for Bloomberg Government.

Though it faces various challenges, the GNI may offer a way to ensure that tech companies uphold human rights concerning freedom of expression and privacy in the absence of "hard" international laws governing them. The main challenge is to attract members, including human rights groups, some of which don't think its standards are tough enough, and ICT firms, who are wary to sign up to binding commitments.

One thing is certain: as sweeping demographic change brings billions more people online, and political activity takes place ever more in cyberspace, Internet policy will become an increasingly central part of diplomacy and international affairs.

Top photo: Whether or not recent uprisings against entrenched leaders in the Middle East can be ascribed to a Facebook or Twitter revolution, the voices of Arab youth have clearly been heard. Members of Egypt's youth movement meet with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Cairo on March 21.

UN photo / Eskinder Debebe

Bottom photo: Posters showing Yemen's embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh hang in a shop in central Saana. His future too hangs in the balance following recent anti-government protests, organized with the help of social media, that have demanded his ouster.

Photo: David Harbin

Women's Voices Go Global
Special to the Diplomatic Pouch by Julie Poucher Harbin

Top women media executives and journalists from Canada,Britain, Uganda, Peru, Germany, Norway and the United States were among the guest speakers at an International Conference of Women Media leaders that drew around 60 delegates — "the international hall of fame of journalists" — and other invited guests from the far corners of the globe.

Organized by the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) and the George Washington University Global Media Institute, the March 22-25 conference was set up as a forum "to discuss gender barriers in the news business and craft a plan for the future," according to conference materials.

The first-ever comprehensive Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media, a two-year study commissioned the IWMF and unveiled at the conference, revealed that women now represent about a third of the full-time journalism workforce in the world. The study was based on research data drawn from 522 print and broadcast media companies, 59 countries, and about 170,000 people.

It found that glass ceilings for women in the media business in about one-third of the nations studied still exist; most commonly, according to the study, at the middle and senior management levels. And while men continue to occupy the vast majority of top management jobs, with women holding only 27 percent of those positions, this did represent an increase over a 1995 Margaret Gallagher study that showed women occupying an average of only 12 percent of top management positions.

Women hold only 36 percent of the reporter jobs, but the study found that they occupy 41 percent of the newsgathering, editing and writing jobs worldwide, so they are nearing parity with men.

President and CEO of the Paley Center for Media and veteran broadcast network journalist Pat Mitchell spoke at the conference's closing luncheon about the direct correlation between women's empowerment and a country's prosperity and security.

Praising and encouraging a room full of journalist delegates from all over the world, Mitchell said, "There are so many examples of stories that you have written, blogged, tweeted or read that have changed your communities in your countries."

"I do not accept that advocating for women's stories, insisting that women are present in the news, in every forum, on very panel, at every table where discussions and decisions are made, is a loss of objectivity. Advocacy for gender sensitive issues in the place we work, enforcing them in the organizations we support, the companies we lead, is our responsibility, as individuals, as journalists and as women leaders."

Newly appointed Ambassador to Botswana Tebelelo Seretse agreed. In a lunchtime chat with the Diplomatic Pouch, Seretse said she wished female journalists in her country would do more to cover the women running for political office and show them in a positive light, arguing that if there was more coverage of women, more of them would seek and attain political office for the betterment of their communities.

Why the apparent resistance of women journalists to cover women?

"It's cultural. They are not seeing other women as leaders. They don't speak up. They don't have a woman bold enough," Seretse said. "They have to be trained."

Seretse, who from 1999 to 2004 served in two government ministries and the Office of the President and was chairperson of the women's wing of the ruling party in Botswana, said she spent time training female politicians, in the absence of press coverage, on how to get support for their candidacies, such as understanding local issues and how to do a house-to-house campaigning.

"Very, very, very few stood in the last parliamentary elections in 2009. Of 57 in parliament, only four women were elected," she said, attributing this also to a lack of training, access to good financial resources and an unwillingness of the government to change the constitution to mandate more equitable female representation.

The Global Report on the Status of Women said that slightly more than half of the media companies surveyed had established company-wide policies on gender equity. Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa were even higher at 69 percent of companies.

Conference delegate Nadia Al-Sakkaf, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times and an 11-year veteran of the media business in Yemen, told the Diplomatic Pouch that while there are female Yemeni reporters, it's difficult for them to rise up in the ranks and become editors and publishers — admitting that she herself was lucky to rise because the paper is a family business. She took over for her father as publisher and editor-in-chief when he passed away, and her brother and sister are also involved with the company.

Al-Sakkaf, who has a strong reporting background, is frustrated with the lack of coverage she sees from female reporters, but for the opposite reason cited by Ambassador Seretse. "The stereotype is that women must only cover women and children's issues. It's difficult for them to get other things published," she said.

Mitchell expressed her deep appreciation at the luncheon for the kind of contribution that Al-Sakkaf, who was only in D.C. for four days and was due to fly back to Sanaa at its close, and other journalists have made to global media.

"Independent media is absolutely critical in a place like Yemen to have," she said. "Nadia is running a newspaper that is free of government influence and restrictions, and many of the women in this room are either working for independent sources or are an independent source of news and information themselves."

As the delegates and invited guests, including 10 female ambassadors to the United States, were finishing up their coconut cake and coffee, they turned their attention to Mitchell, who had invited Egyptian-born journalist and blogger Mona Eltahawy to the stage to speak about "Women's Voices in the Revolution."

Ambassador of Botswana Seretse, Ambassador of Bahrain Houda Nonoo, Ambassador of Cape Verde Maria de Fatima Lima da Veiga, Ambassador of Costa Rica Meta Shanon Figueres Boggs, Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Congo Faida Mitifu, Ambassador of Grenada Gillian M.S. Bristol, Ambassador of Liechtenstein Claudia Fritsche, were all seated near the front and listened attentively.

Eltahawy said the best way to look at social media's role in the revolutions and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa was to consider social media "the latest tool" that has enabled young people especially to get their voice across. She mentioned a young brave Egyptian woman, interviewed by Al-Jazeera English, who was determined to stay in Tahrir Square even when things got violent. Eltahawy, like so many others, followed her Tweets and worried if there was too long a gap in updates.

"I'd say that social networking especially, be it on blogs or on Facebook or Twitter, has created this seismic shift in consciousness, and has allowed young people, men and women to say I count, and once you say I count, in an autocratic state, you are essentially telling the regime ... that you will not be silenced anymore," said Eltahawy, while stressing that courage and activism have long existed in the region.

Eltahawy herself, with 43,000 Twitter followers, not only followed the tweets of protesters on the ground in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen to better understand what is going on, but she re-tweeted and has continued to re-tweet information in their posts to her followers.

"I'm trying to use my Twitter feed as a conveyer belt ... to get their voices out," she said.

She pointed out that while some high profile so-called western journalists were interviewing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, they weren't getting access to Libyan people on the ground.

"If you can't get on the ground, you can find citizen journalists who can get on the ground for you and connect you to people who someone like Gadhafi is preventing you from reaching," she said.

IWMF's Executive Director Liza Gross told the delegates how the idea for creating the IWMF had grown out of a conference two decades earlier but similar to the one held this March. "The Berlin Wall had fallen, Eastern Europen countries were becoming free, the Soviet Union was becoming free and there was a great growth in free press all over the world. We started an organization that believes very deeply that no press can be truly free unless it includes women. Now we find ourselves 21 years later and we have another area where freedom and free speech and free press are breaking out and again, we want to make sure that women are included in that very important struggle for freedom."

As United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer said in her keynote luncheon speech at the start of the conference, "The fact is that there is nothing that is not about us. As we fare so goes the world, as we prosper so goes the world."


Top photo: From left, Editor-in-Chief of The Yemen Times Nadia Al-Sakkaf poses with Egyptian-born journalist and blogger Mona Eltahawy.

Bottom photo: From left, Ambassador of Liechtenstein Claudia Fritsche greets Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Congo Faida Mitifu and Ambassador of Costa Rica Meta Shanon Figueres Boggs at the closing lunch of the week-long International Conference of Women Media leaders.

Photos: Julie Poucher Harbin

Tanzania’s the Star at Fundraiser
Special to the Diplomatic Pouch by Larry Luxner

A local Catholic charity put Tanzanian imagery to good use last month in a clever pitch to raise money for needy children in one of Washington's worst neighborhoods.

The Christ Child Society collected $186,000 at its Serengeti Serenade Gala, held Feb. 26 at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md. A big chunk of that came from the $175 ticket price paid by each of the 350 people who attended the annual affair and dined on petite filet, crispy vidalia onions with balsamic glaze, Columbia crab cluster, wild mushroom risotto and green beans.

The balance was raised in a live auction hosted by Maryland Terrapins sportscaster Johnny Holliday, which included everything from four VIP tickets to New York's "Daily Show With Jon Stewart" to a Tanzanian wildlife safari for two hosted by Regina Tours and Ethiopian Airways (winning bid: $9,000). Entertainment was provided by DJ Unique Dreams and the Nazu Dance Company Drummers.

The gala was organized by event chairwoman Mary Sentimore and chapter president Melanie Smeallie Mbuyi, a University of Nairobi graduate and former Peace Corps worker in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) who was also commercial attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa. For the past 20 years, Mbuyi has been with the World Bank.

Also in attendance was Mwanaidi S. Maajar — appointed Tanzania's ambassador to the United States last fall.

"I was invited as a guest of honor because the theme of this evening is Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, home of the Great Animal Migration," Maajar told the Pouch. "It's a good choice, because the Tanzanian Embassy is now promoting the Serengeti. There has been a lot of outcry about the government building a road that would allegedly destroy wildlife. But it's not true. We are not building it through the migration route. My president has said this over and over."

Maajar was previously Tanzania's high commissioner to the United Kingdom. She said tourism is one of her country's most important foreign-exchange earners, and that the United States is now the top source of tourism to Tanzania.

Sentimore, a conference planner by profession, said the banquet is her group's major fundraiser for the year.

"Everything we raise goes to help high-risk kids," she said. "Each guild of the Christ Child Society supports a school, and our school is Don Bosco. We buy clothes, sponsor coat drives, help out in emergency situations and volunteer our time. The school has even changed its prayer to include the women of the Christ Child Society."

The organization was founded in 1887 by Mary Virginia Merrick, who aspired to "take care of all the little children who had no one to take care of them." Despite a disability that left her partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, she and her friends began a tradition of giving Christmas gifts to destitute families that otherwise would have nothing.

Known to her friends and the thousands of Washington-area children she helped during her lifetime as "Miss Mary," she eventually established a camp for poor children to enjoy a respite from city heat. A convalescent home for sick children and a residential care facility for emotionally disturbed youngsters became part of the Christ Child Society's work. The tradition continues today, with a school counseling program that provides mental health services to inner-city Catholic school kids and their families.

Recently, the group established a recreation center in Anacostia -- the Mary Virginia Merrick Center -- whose goal is to enhance the lives of at-risk youth through sports, art, music and other organized programs.

Ambassador Maajar, incidentally, is promoting a VIP safari of her own to Tanzania. The trip, scheduled for June 30 — July 8 to coincide with the Great Animal Migration, offers participants a chance to observe the "Big 5" in their natural habitat while visiting Serengeti as well as Ngorongoro Crater, the "eighth wonder of the world."

Those who join Maajar on her "Discover Tanzania" adventure will also enjoy a private dinner with Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete and the president of Zanzibar, Ali Mohamed Shein. They will also participate in the opening day of "Saba Saba," Tanzania's premier international trade fair, and attend a VIP reception for the Zanzibar International Film Festival, billed as East Africa's largest cultural event.

The price for the week-long safari will be around $5,000, not including airfare. Maajar told the Pouch she expects 15 to 25 people to sign up.

"We are limiting the size of the safari to provide each participant with a truly special experience, so please let us know as soon as possible if you are interested in coming home with me to Tanzania," she said.

For more information, email Renny Hunt at

Top photo: From left, Matrida Masasi Mkama, Melanie Smeallie Mbuyi, Tanzanian Ambassador Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar, Mary Sentimore and Belle O'Brien attend the Serengeti Serenade gala held Feb. 26 at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., and sponsored by the Christ Child Society of Washington, DC. 

Bottom photo: Tanzanian Ambassador Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar poses with Marilou and Dave MacDonnell, winners of a Tanzania safari, at the Serengeti Serenade gala.

Photos: Larry Luxner

Ladies of Africa Center Stage
Special to the Diplomatic Pouch by Julie Poucher Harbin

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a very good forum because I can see that women got power," said Ambassador of the Republic of Congo Serge Mombouli, as he addressed a crowd of mostly women in the chandelier and sunshine-lit room overlooking the Potomac on March 2. The women cheered.

One could be forgiven for thinking the guests were there for an early celebration of International Women's Day. But the luncheon was actually a forum on Africa organized by the Capital Speakers Club. Five African ambassadors gave an overview of their countries and spoke about the role of women in the development process. Colorfully arranged tables beside the dining room were laid out with handicrafts, books and other items from Africa, while salads, aromatic rice, flavorful bean and beef dishes and fish were laid out in a tasteful buffet.

The official hostess of the program, prominent D.C. fundraiser Shaista Mahmood, wife of Pakistani Ambassador-at-Large Rafat Mahmood, had welcomed guests to the couples' Mount Vernon area home in a receiving line that included Ambassador of Ghana Daniel Ohene Agyekum and his wife Rose Ohene Agyekum, Ambassador of Tanzania Mwanaidi Maajar, Ambassador of Morocco Aziz Mekouar, Ambassador of Senegal Fatou Danielle Diagne, and Ambassador Mombouli.

Ambassadors' wives from Peru, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia, Ecuador and other countries also mingled with professionals from the World Bank and U.S. State Department, as well as business executives in hotel development, upscale furniture retail, multi-national management, and catering — just to name a few of the 100 or so guests at the late winter event.

Mombouli, who's been with the Congolese Embassy since 1997 and became ambassador in 2001, is an expert in corporate law and business negotiations by training. Once the cheering had died down, he proudly explained that women are "a key element of society in Congo" and that they are deeply involved in the country's economic and political life; working in the government, parliament, and the military. They also play a predominant role in agricultural production, generating 80 percent of the food crops for consumption, as well as tending to the domestic roles of water fetching, firewood gathering, food processing and preparation.

He also remarked that the Congo enjoys one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, including for women, and that women, as the sole educators, are largely responsible for this success.

One of two female ambassadors in attendance at the forum, Fatou Danielle Diagne served as minister advisor to the Senegalese president on competitiveness and good governance, before taking up her post as Senegal's ambassador to the United States. She focused most of her talk on Senegalese culture; specifically the tradition of glass painting and the ceremonial dancing of the saaba (a.k.a. sabar).

Though glass painting is not typical Senegalese (it dates back to the Romans and was popular well into the 18th century in Europe), it is an art practiced today in Senegal by young boys working on the riverside. The paintings depict woman dancing, or a house or village scene, or even a political leader. "They are very colorful to bring joy and ... they play an important part in our tradition and art."

The wives of the ambassadors of Egypt and Indonesia, Suzy Shoukry and Rosa Rai Djalal, admired one such painting that was being passed around the room.

With a nod to West African master drummer and dancer Kwame Ansah-Brew of Ghana who peformed after lunch, Diagne said, "As you know, in Africa we like to dance to express our feelings and everything. And we are so proud of our saaba."

Saaba, a dance performed to drumming rhythms on special occasions like weddings, births, and funerals, can be heard from a distance of 15 kilometers away.

Ambassador of Morocco Aziz Mekouar lamented that he hadn't come prepared to talk about Morocco's many cultural traditions, but had politics in mind instead. Specifically, he noted the work of the government and women's organizations over the past two decades to address women's rights by making landmark changes to what was an "unbalanced" family law.

"We had a strange situation in that we had women all over the place in the ministries, as ambassadors, doctors, and as entrepreneurs leading thousands of people — mainly men...but at the same time they were not really considered as adults within the family, " he explained. Divorce was unilateral and custody of children was always in favor of the father. Now, he said, spouses are treated equally under the law.

Ambassador ofTanzania Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar, a corporate attorney by profession and active member of an NGO that advocates for women's rights and access to the justice system, recounted the touching and personal experience of being a mother in her talk about the kanga, a traditional scarf-like garment worn as a dress in central and eastern Africa.

She held up a kanga, given to her by her son when he was 11. He and another boy had pooled their money and bought it during a school field trip for their respective mothers. "Mama, Mother is a mother eternal" was printed on the kanga. The two mothers shared the kanga until Maajar's son died at the age of 18. "Now I carry it all the time. And it is my connection to him," she said.

Maajar, who became ambassador just last fall, also noted that husbands or boyfriends often give kangas to wives or girlfriends to express their affection. A woman will also wear certain kangas to give messages to other women. "It's usually a sarcastic message," said Maajar, displaying a kanga that a woman might wear to the market when she thinks another woman has been talking about her behind her back, and knows she will see her there. The message on this particular kanga, loosely translated, said "Oh God, please protect me from hypocritical people."

At that moment, Mary Feierstein, wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, laughed, "Oh that would sell a lot."

Ambassador of Ghana Daniel Ohene Agyekum, the final speaker, turned the conversation back to serious matters, talking about women's "leading role" in Ghana, which has a female speaker of the Parliament, chief justice and minister of justice.

He noted that women constitute 80% of those engaged in agricultural production (like in Republic of Congo), and that girls, like boys, can go to school and become engineers, doctors, politicians or whatever they want to achieve. "There's absolutely no distinction between women and men," Agyekum said.

He proudly pointed out that Ghana was the first to achieve independence from the British "for good reasons" and it was the first African country to be visited by President Obama.

And he closed by taking the long view on Africa's development and evolution, which isn't always accurately portrayed in the West.

"As a continent we have been faced with very serious challenges; challenges of poverty, hunger; but there's so much positive things going on in Africa today, that would cloud the negative developments in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Cote d'Ivoire, Somalia, and Sudan. The point I'm making is that Africa has so many things to offer to the world," he said. "We have attained a large measure of relative stability and we are trying to pursue the path of true democratic governance."

To cap off the celebatory conclusion, Agyekum and his wife Rose took a turn on the dance floor, joined by other ambassadors who let their down their diplomatic guard to enjoy the moment.

Top photo: From left, Ambassador of Ghana Daniel Ohene Agyekum, Ambassador of Tanzania Mwanaidi Maajar, Ambassador of Senegal Fatou Danielle Diagne, and Rose Ohene Agyekum, wife of Ghana's ambassador, in the receiving line for "An Africa Forum."

Middle photo: Ambassador of Tanzania Mwanaidi Maajar displays a kanga traditional dress that says "Oh God, please protect me from hypocritical people" — worn by a woman to show a friend who has talked about her behind her back.

Bottom photo: Ambassador of Ghana Daniel Ohene Agyekum and his wife Rose Ohene Agyekum take to the dance floor.

Photos: Julie Poucher Harbin


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