Getting to spend time with the highest-ranking American official in any country doesn't seem like a strong possibility to most people, but that's not the case in Botswana. U.S. Ambassador Michelle Gavin thoroughly enjoys leaving the Embassy to travel to villages and towns across the country.
She feels her most important roles are to be President Obama's representative, move the relationship with Botswana forward and maintain a partnership with a mature stable African democracy. She says, "I want to do what I can to inspire people about President Obama's presidency and focus on the future of what we can build together."
Ambassador Gavin is a bit of an international affairs rock star and has had a meteoric rise to her current position. After graduating from Georgetown University, she was a Rhodes Scholar and received an M.Phil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. From there she advised U.S. Senators on foreign affairs and spent a couple of years working at the Council on Foreign Relations. After 12 years of working on African issues and traveling to the continent, she became the Senior Adviser on African Affairs to President Obama from 2009-2011. The President then appointed her to be Ambassador to Botswana, where she arrived in June of 2011.
The Ambassador recently spent two days in Maun, Botswana and surrounding villages. When I asked her why these trips are important to her she said, "These trips are essential to knowing all of the issues. Former Ambassadors gave me advice to get out of the capital and meet people. If I don't do that then I fail completely to represent the U.S. to Botswana's citizens."
Her 2-day agenda was jam-packed with opportunities to learn more about Botswana's third largest village and the unique challenges faced 600 miles away from the capital. Maun, with a population of 58,000, is known as the gateway to the Okavango Delta, which is the largest inland delta in the world. Safari tourism dominates the local economy. However, there are a lot of difficulties in Maun. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is near 22 percent, unemployment is a major problem for people under the age of 35 who make up about 80 percent of the district and recent flooding is greatly affecting natural resources.
Ambassador Gavin is focused on three core areas in Botswana: youth issues, health and economic diversification. She possesses a distinctive leadership quality, which is to listen more than talk during meetings in local villages. There were a lot of people in the community ready and willing to share their concerns.
She started by meeting with local government officials at the District Council. After that she met leaders of local organizations at the office of the Ngamiland Council of Non-Governmental Organizations (NCONGO), which is currently receiving funding from USAID. The leaders briefed the Ambassador on the differences between people in Maun and those who live closer to the capital.
She had lunch with mobile safari tour operators. The small business owners were extremely delighted to meet a U.S. Ambassador for the first time and have a chance to address their concerns. Next she spent time at a local women's empowerment NGO, Women Against Rape. As the mother of a young daughter she was very concerned about community awareness, the rights of women and what approaches are effective in changing mindset.
Ambassador Gavin's down-to-Earth maternal instincts were more than evident in her next two stops. She went to a local library to read books to children and teenagers, emphasizing her love of books by making the stories come alive for the audience. Next was a roundtable discussion with youth from an organization for HIV positive teenagers started by Baylor College of Medicine called Teen Club. The Ambassador's conversational approach allowed her to speak with the teens about the challenges in their lives, encourage them to continue to build the strength they have shown and empower them to change the problems they see in their community.
She ended her busy day by having dinner with 5 Peace Corps Volunteers who are serving in Maun, saying, "Peace Corps Volunteers are the best ambassadors we have in the country and continuously make my job easier."
The second day of the Ambassador's visit offered the two contrasting perspectives of luxury tourism and local life in a small village, as well as how those separate livelihoods can be blended. The day was organized by the Southern Africa Regional Environmental Program (SAREP), which is funded by USAID and is focused on supporting the Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission spanning Angola, Namibia and Botswana.
The Ambassador began her day with a flight over the Okavango Delta to witness firsthand the impact of the U.S. government's environmental efforts regionally. This is truly one of the most spectacular views in the world. It's hard to comprehend the vast biodiversity of the delta as your eyes take in the ever-changing multi-colored lush landscape. The scenery is constantly changing from tiny islands dotted with trees, to broad flood plains and curly-q rivers. Throw in the herds of buffalo, elephants, a variety of antelopes and the labyrinth of flattened grass they leave behind on their travels and it's easy to see why Botswana is such a large tourist destination.
After the delta flight the Ambassador was taken to the small village of Tubu. This village has a population of 1,000 people and turns into an island from April to September each year because of the floods. There is no electricity in the village and a low amount of potable water. She was greeted by the local chief who welcomed her by saying, "You have shown your greatness in gifts you have given us for people who are developing. You have made your own history. You are the first American official to come to Tubu. You are welcome here."
The Ambassador sat at a table under a dark green military tent. Close to 100 people from the village came to meet her. Beyond the crowd were beautiful palm trees as far as the eye could see, traditional round huts and one woman slowly mixing porridge with a long stick. The Ambassador listened to community hopes and concerns from youth. SAREP has helped young people in Tubu develop a plan to provide jobs and teach tourists about the local community. The goal is to establish a link between economic empowerment and biodiversity conservation. Locals aim to create necessities, but also build a functional cultural village and campsite to attract tourists.
At the end of the meeting the Ambassador was given a hand-carved teak wooden chair. She said, "I will never forget this day. I am so inspired by what I have learned here. I bring greetings from President Obama. He would also be inspired by what you are doing. The efforts you are making are the kind we want to be supporting."
After that event the Ambassador was taken to a tourist lodge in the middle of the delta for lunch. Tubu hopes to one day attract tourists from such luxurious lodges. She was given a tour, then boarded a helicopter to go back to Maun.
Steve Johnson, Chief of Party for SAREP, felt a visit from the Ambassador was very important. He said, "Having the most official person from the U.S. view what we're doing is a big support and provides perspective for the Ambassador to protect biodiversity of the area. She's seen what we're doing on the ground and believes in it, which validates the technical side of our work, not just the political side."
I asked the Ambassador what she has learned from these local trips. She replied, "I have learned great things. I have seen the capacity of people in small communities to truly care for each other and make it their responsibility. I have seen how much patriotism people have in caring for Botswana. I've learned about the challenges that an upper-middle income country has. There is major diversity among the country. Getting out of the capital allows me to see that."
Ambassador Gavin has a great sense of humor and the fact that she loves her job shines through every interaction. When I asked her what she enjoys most about being Ambassador she said, "No two days are the same. I get to learn something new and hear something new every day. It's energizing and exciting to have these opportunities. I am so proud to represent the USA. For me and my family it's rewarding. I am the luckiest person I know."