Quiet Diplomats

12 December 2013
Author   J.W. ASHEEKE

We were always there; somewhere in the room, but no one noticed. Out of frame in the photos, witnessing the negotiations, tense situations, crises, tragedies, and celebrations, we are standing quietly. We are the fixers, preparers, smilers, huggers, volunteers, observers, and torch bearers of the country. In fact, not much moves without us, we are the quiet diplomats: the wives of Ambassadors.

It’s high time that the silent army of spouses of diplomats gets a word or two of praise. While the overwhelming majority of Ambassadors have wives, increasingly, there are men who accompany their wives on diplomatic posts abroad. They are also quiet diplomats.

An informed and experienced Ambassador’s spouse can make or break a diplomat’s success on post. The right dinner, lunch, cocktail party or celebration with the correct guest list can place the right people in the right place at the right time. Points of view held tightly during a recorded, formal meeting can slip out during a hug and a joke over a double gin and tonic at a private dinner at the Ambassador’s Residence.

An allied country seeking a private meeting withanother country can hold their off-the-record rendezvous at an embassy event. Messages can be passed via spouses at bridge clubs, exercise groups,fundraising luncheons, or visits to museums. Recognition of another country’s achievement or hosting an elegant welcome dinner for an esteemed national from another country, can all lay the foundation for positive relations. Equally, NOT doing these things when required can send a negative message, damage communications, and close or stall diplomatic and economic trade relations.

A spouse with an unchecked mouth can talk too much and give away too many hintswhile one without a clue about world situations can talk too little and miss an opportunity to insert a guided thought in the right place.

Years ago, I witnessed a situation where an uninformed wife innocently invited the wife of the Israeli Ambassador to her child’sbirthday party while also inviting the wives of Ambassadors from several countries that did not recognize Israel. A children’s party quickly became a nasty diplomatic mine field.

An April 2011 edition of a diplomatic newsletter captured some aspects of the value of diplomatic spouses when they recorded that: “…The wives of diplomats carried out routine diplomatic assistance…diplomatic wives were an unpaid benefit to the system. A British Minister noted that the advantage of having diplomatic wives was that the Foreign Service would have two diplomats in service for the price of one.”

The article went on to say that: “Male government officials relied on women’s unpaid labour in order to maintain relations with their political counterparts. By the end of the nineteenth century, diplomacy and hostessing became tightly intertwined. In fact, diplomatic wives were often busy running large diplomatic households, presiding as hostesses, maintaining influential contacts to complement official embassy work, and doing volunteer work in the local community...”

All of these activities preclude any independent career for an attentive diplomatic spouse. On post, she is ‘all in;’ her sun rises and sets on that Embassy. But, her husband gets all of the allowances, promotions, rewards and accolades and she survives and thrivesin his shadow. The smart Ambassador recognizes the value of a savvy diplomatic wife and supports her endeavors.

No one notices a chair unless it breaks when you sit in it; no one notices the pen and ink unless they are needed to sign a document. No one thinks about the headlights on the car until it is night and they are needed. Such is the lot in life for a diplomatic spouse.

Consider this example of the importance of diplomatic spouses. Aside from the hundreds of dinners, lunches, independence celebrations, welcome/congratulatory/protocol events, and other programs I personally planned and executed (along with a household staff trained by me) during nearly 14 years as a diplomatic spouse, I was involved in a timely information exchange that could not have happened if not for diplomatic spouses doing their duty.

During our tour of duty as Ambassador in Addis Ababa 18 years ago, there was a tragedy that unfolded when the (then) OAU Summit was being held and the (then) Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak survived a violent assassination attempt. My good friend on that post was the wife of the OAU Secretary-General (S-G).

That morning, she was en route to pick me up from the Namibia Residence in her official limousine so we could be together in attendance at the opening of the OAU Summit. Over 45 African Presidents and Prime Ministers were to be in attendance at the opening session that day. President Nujoma was there for Namibia.

In this time BEFORE the cell phone phenomenon we have today, the car of the OAU Secretary-General in which my friend was travelling, had a telephone. At that time, this was extremely rare, but proved to be a vital information link in what was about to happen.

The S-G of the OAU had just greeted President Mubarak and escorted him to the caravan of Egyptian security cars. Within minutes after the caravan pulled out, missiles were launched and machine-gun-roof-top and grenade attacks broke-out. This was witnessed by the S-G. Using a nearby airport telephone, he called his wife on the car phone to tell her everything and she, in turn, called to tell me (I was still at the Residence awaiting her arrival).

I received updated details of what happened just as Mubarak personally told the S-G and which the S-G had witnessed himself. I immediately called President Nujoma’s VIP bungalow to get to my husband (who had already left for the Summit Hall)but spoke to another Namibian Ambassador to whom I relayed the information. In this way, Namibia was likely the first delegation to receive updated, detailed information on the assassination attempt.

I was able to relay an estimate of how many rockets were launched, which cars were destroyed, how many motorcycle outriders and Egyptian security men were killed, the progress of the running battle with Ethiopian army units and the would-be assassins, and the status of President Mubarak.

This information was possible via ‘wife-to-wife’, an information network LARGELY under-estimated in its irreplaceable importance. Successful Ambassadors know this secret and use it wisely to their country’s advantage.

I recall a chilling diplomatic moment in 1994 after lunch with the African Ambassadors’ wives hosted by the Rwandan Ambassador’s wife. My friend, the Mozambican Ambassador’s wife and I were sitting together after everyone else had left; we were awaiting our delayed drivers. Madam of Rwanda who was sitting with us while we waited, broke protocol and commented on the ‘difficult’ situation in her country and told us in an even tone, that, “…the only way to end these kinds of difficulties in my country is just to wipe them all out; they must just be removed. You can never trust those people.” She was a Hutu referring to the Tutsi citizens of her own country. The ‘difficulty’ she casually spoke about was the Rwandan Genocide (though at that time, it was only the first week of the 100 days of genocidal terror we know about now.)

Chilled to my soul, I had to continue to sit calmly on that sofa, smile and make irrelevant noises in conversation while praying for my driver to come quickly. My Mozambican friend and I nonchalantly moved closer together on the seat to rub shoulders for comfort while we acted like we were sipping our tea and pretended that our colleague Ambassadors’ wife was not a monster.

‘Unsung queen bees in the service of their country’ = successful diplomatic spouse. Everybody enjoys eating the honey without giving much thought to who is running the hive where it comes from. Viva to the quiet diplomats!


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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