Into Africa and Turkey…my Journey Covering Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Memories of a Historical Trip Brought Home to YOU–her Friends and Neighbors

Article and Photos by Grace Bennett

Dakur, Senegal. Juba, South Sudan. Kampala, Uganda. Nairobi, Kenya.  Lilongwe, Malawi. South Africa (Johannesburg,  Pretoria and Cape Town). Abuja, Nigeria. Accra, Ghana. Cotonou, Benin. Istanbul, Turkey…

nigeria-arrivalImagine, if you will, visiting 10 countries in 11 days, and following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meetings throughout regions of sub Saharan Africa “and beyond!” And imagine listening to the Secretary cite its lofty and wide ranging stated goals:  “to promote opportunity and development; spur economic trade and growth; advance peace and security; and strengthen democratic institutions.”

Consider underlying problems which hover–threatening to thwart such goals: whether deep and widespread corruption, election havoc, warring factions and regions, a raging HIV epidemic, and still, in so many places, extreme levels of poverty–all must be addressed too during the short time span that is a Secretary of State’s temporary “open window” into an entire continent.

“We are building relationships here in West Africa and across the continent that are not transactional or transitory. They are built to last. And they’re built on a foundation of shared democratic values and respect for the universal human rights of every man and woman.” Dakur, Senegal

And finally, imagine the responsibility of  responding to crises in other parts of the world at the same time, and having to, late into a journey, extend an already jam-packed trip by another day to continue diplomacy in yet another continent…this time, to Istanbul, Turkey, reeling from a sudden influx of refugees from now war torn Syria.  Once upon a time, I certainly couldn’t imagine any of that. Well, now…I can.  And here I hope to share at least some of the flavor of U.S. diplomacy abroad to you, as I promised Madame Secretary I would! Ready?

In each country, Special Air Mission (SAM) 757 would land.  Before heading to our “press van” in a long motorcade, several of us would wait for Secretary Clinton to “deplane” to photograph or film the reception (often quite festive) in each new country before she continued on with her diplomatic mission. She travels with her closest advisors in each country, this time, most notably Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs, and Robert Hormats, Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment–and a special U.S. delegation attending the first U.S. Africa Business Summit held in Pretoria to address issues relevant to Africa, which Secretary Clinton referred to time and again as seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world.

img_0168Ten journalists followed the former first Lady and two time U.S. Senator–our long time neighbor in Chappaqua–to witness her confer with and often downright dazzle yet another welcoming president, foreign minister, or chief justice. Or, we’d be there to watch her graciously sign a guest book at a health center (there were tours in three…meeting with doctors, nurses, local residents, patients and their children). Or, bolster workers in a dairy co-operative with new U.S. aid, offering a symbolic “bull”  to drive home a message of agricultural self sufficiency and productivity. Or, empower young girls at an all girls’ camp, where, after speaking, she determinedly made her way through aisles, shaking each young hand…leaving an imprint in a young girl’s heart forever.

“The eyes of the world will be on this election. I have absolute confidence that Kenya has a chance to be a model for all other nations, not just here in Africa, but around the world.” Nairobi, Kenya

Or, we’d listen to her commend Peace Corps. workers, U.S. military personnel, or the proud recipients of the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Defender Awards. And always, in every country, she’d rally Embassy staffs during any one of the mission’s traditional “Embassy Meet and Greets.”

Making History
History making moments for the Secretary were plenty too, including a meeting with 94-year-old President Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel in their home in Qunu. She praised his beautiful smile which Machel noted is his trademark! (The meeting with Mandela was limited to one “pool” writer–which meant, while I couldn’t attend, I was privy to the writer’s notes.) Clearly inspired by the visit, in Cape Town, she invoked Mandela’s profound influence over South Africa during a keynote speech at the University of Western Cape. She challenged the students in attendance at one point, saying:  “You, the young generation, are called on not just to preserve the legacy of liberty that has been left to you by Madiba and by other courageous men and women. You are called to build on that legacy, to ensure that your country fulfills its own promise and takes its place as a leader among nations and as a force for peace, opportunity, equality, and democracy, and to stand up always for human rights at home and around the world.”

Secretary Clinton also attended the State Funeral  and
services honoring Professor John Mills in Ghana after his sudden death two weeks post meeting with Pres. Obama. But it was her time in Malawi, as the first U.S. Secretary of State ever to step on its soil–to meet with its first woman President, Joyce Banda–and the colorful excursions from there, that she indicated was a definite highlight in this journey.

The diplomatic mission communicated the overall Africa agenda of President Obama. In a speech setting the tone in Dakur at the outset, she revoked his earlier words: “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.” In Johannesburg, she stated too: “We want partnerships in Africa that add value rather than extract it…(The region’s) emerging market present enormous opportunities not only for the people themselves who we hope will benefit because of inclusive, broad-based prosperity arising from growth, but also for American businesses who have a lot to offer.” Toward the end of the journey, she also emphasized the Obama Administration’s commitment to renewing the African Growth and Opportunity Act with South Africa before the act expires in 2015, and specifically a new provision especially beneficial for entrepreneurs and job creation.

“Successes” could be gauged too, as was the case early on in South Sudan where Secretary Clinton urged South Sudan leaders to open up oil reserves which had been shut down in South Sudan’s ongoing and brutal battles with North Sudan.  In a statement addressing the end of the impasse, she stated: “As I said in Juba yesterday, the interests of the people were at stake. The oil impasse has lasted more than six months…an agreement was hammered out…The future of South Sudan is now brighter.”

hillary-greeting-at-dance-night“What is she Like?”
People have been asking me: “What is she like?” and “What was it like to travel with her?”  I’ll try to answer that here! Even with ten days of relative proximity, I could never pretend to describe Hillary Clinton “up close and personal”  or based on one trip. However, I can tell you her manner toward the press is always cordial and good humored. In my first time and limited observations of her interactions with world leaders, I humbly offer that she appears to carry out her role effortlessly–with an easy smile and warm handshake for everyone–and the occasional hug too. With the general populace, I witnessed her border on playful sometimes, whether delighting in a dance troupe’s performance or song (sometimes asking for an encore. She really loves music!) or even boogying herself with respectable abandon (in my opinion) at a festive State dinner in Pretoria. Listen, no one can argue that this Secretary of State does not know how to have some fun too!

Most importantly, she projects a deep intelligence and command of the distinctly different and pressing issues facing each country, shifting easily to the issues at hand…a testament to her State Department staff as well, of course. But whether in a speech or in simple remarks along the way, her “smarts” is just never in question. From my chair, anyhow, she consequently seemed to command a reception that is both warm and extremely respectful.  One Ambassador commented to me that her “rock star” status abroad is simply unprecedented for a Secretary of State and that she is received more as a presidential figure.  She has a wry sense of humor I “caught” over and over.  At one point, with all the cameras snapping away, as usual, I overheard her say to a president, “You know, I never know what happens to most of these pictures they take!”  Well, with this issue of IC anyway, I hope she feels differently!

As a Journalist on this Trip
Each night, or every two nights, I crashed in another hotel bed (some very, very nice places too!) in another African city, checking my emails (the WiFi worked well almost everywhere) for word from home, to post on social media (I welcomed the support and palpable excitement about my being on this trip from family, friends and many of you!) and always, for new instructions from our main State Department liaisons, Caroline Adler and Nicholas Miller, and also from universally competent State Dept. personnel stationed in each country, on everything from “baggage drops” and breakfast times to  available “camera sprays.” For survival’s sake, I got used to the lingo…fast.

At a festive State dinner in Pretoria, Foreign Minister Mashabane magnanimously honored Sec. Clinton with an African name: Nomkita Noligwha, Zulu for: “She who shines light on all who follow.”

The press is privy to “embargoed” information (meaning you can’t report it till after the fact!) and, as press, were briefed periodically, with background info, a kind of “what to expect” from the deeply knowledgeable Johnnie Carson, who has held ambassadorships in Kenya, Uganda  and Zimbabwe. Carson would give us the lowdown each time pre-landing in anywhere from five to 25-minute briefings.

There was one casual outing with the Secretary for about 45 minutes of early evening drinks and snacks with our entire press group, in Cape Town, in the lounge of the beautiful Cape Grace Hotel. Joining her were the State Dept.’s Senior Advisor Philippe Reines and Spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Relaxed and friendly, Sec. Clinton made general off-the-record observations about many places we had visited and offered insights into the trip that still lay ahead to Istanbul.

“As the first country to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons, South Africa speaks with rare authority. You can most convincingly make the case that giving up nuclear weapons is a sign of strength, not weakness…this means South Africa can play an even greater role on issues like curbing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons or preventing nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.” Cape Town, South Africa

Just Between Us Again
There was also a very special few moments for me as a journalist and woman business owner–for which I’m grateful to Secretary Clinton. It took place in Pretoria, following detailed joint remarks in tandem with Foreign Minister Nkoana-Mashabane, about the broadening of economic ties between our countries–including a $2 billion dollar agreement to provide credit guarantees to stimulate the growth of South Africa’s renewable energy sector.

As the two left their respective podiums, I began my usual picture taking with a little wave to the Secretary too. She then stunned me by motioning me to come join her and Minister Mashabane. “I’d like you to meet Grace Bennett. She is a successful woman entrepreneur from my town who started her own magazine,” said the Secretary.  A brief conversation ensued, interestingly, about the challenges facing print media. Then Minister Mashabane said to me: “We need more women like you in South Africa.”  I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d be glad to consult on launching a hometown publication anywhere in Africa after that!  I’d been granted a unique opportunity indeed.  And it was all stemming from an “on the fly” remark to Hillary Clinton when she was in town for Memorial Day that it would be an honor to fly with her–anytime, anywhere–and bring international images and stories home to her neighbors and friends.  With a glint in her eye, she told me she thought that was an interesting idea…

And now, here I am, weeks post trip, contemplating my trip…and Africa. Over the years, I have shed tears, along with you, as pictures have streamed in from there to here, whether it was wrenching shots of victims of  famines in Ethiopia  and Somalia or the survivors of genocide from Darfur and Rwanda.  One past Inside Chappaqua cover story reported on local volunteer efforts to “Save Darfur.” From a seemingly always very sad media barrage, a negative image of a poverty stricken and dangerous continent can naturally take hold.

But it’s a skewed image, and I know that now. I firmly believe Chappaqua’s first couple, the Clintons, along with President Obama, have done more than any other leaders in the history of the United States to “open up” Africa to the greater U.S. population and to provide decidedly different glimpses of regions from every corner of that great continent.  They have helped make Africa, in many ways, a compelling place to understand and hopefully to support and to visit.

From the window of a press van or from inside official state buildings, and a few precious assorted outings, I can’t claim to have “seen” Africa.  My own “mission” was rather simple: to be an observer of Secretary Clinton,  to the extent that I was welcome to, in action on one of her diplomatic missions.

Over 11 days, I focused heavily on picture taking while also scribbling notes. I “hung out” a lot, waiting in press “holding areas”–some of them quite beautiful with generous spreads of delicious local fare to munch on. It was also fun keeping company with seasoned foreign correspondents and photographers for major media outlets including AP’s Matthew Lee and Jacquelyn Martin, Reuters’ Andrew Quinn, Agency France Presse’ Nicolas Revise, the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan, Voice of America’s Anne Look, a three person Fox News team: Pat Summers, Wayne Lowman and Greg Khananayev, and Ayelet Waldman, an accomplished novelist on assignment for Marie Claire magazine.

Back Home
Of course, the globetrotting clock never stops for many of those folks, and nor for the State Dept. Just three days post my arrival, and seriously jet lagged, I received word of another late August 10-day trip throughout Asia, including Beijing, Jakarta, Laos and Mynamar. With seriously mixed feelings, I declined, so that I could  focus on the other demands of this edition and, every bit as important, meet back to school responsibilities, including driving my daughter back to college! Still, after a few more days, I experienced second thoughts and fired off a note stating that I thought I could make arrangements after all.  Too late!

But that’s ok. Clearly, a new kind of travel bug had got hold of me in Africa–and I’m watching international developments with a new eye and far greater interest and understanding. With the rest of the country, I was deeply distressed by the mayhem that had broken out in the Middle East, and thought about how the State department folks I had met were coping.  I asked if I could continue at least limited coverage while Secretary Clinton was in New York City. Permission granted!
She arrived here in late September to meet over the course of a week with leaders from every corner of the globe (including with groups of Central American and Arabic foreign ministers, Korean, Japanese and Haitian leaders, oppositional leaders from Syria,  and, toward week’s end, with  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), and to communicate and promote her own initiatives too.

At a “Feed the Future” presentation, moderated by Nick Kristof of the New York Times, it was heartwarming to witness a reunion with Malawi’s President Joyce Banda. Together, they  joined hands to address how to meet world wide “food security” challenges–… “increased investments in agriculture and nutrition are paying off in rising prosperity, healthier children, better markets, and stronger communities,” she said, announcing too a commitment by InterAction, an alliance of 198 U.S.-based organizations, to allocate $1 billion of private, nongovernmental funds toward food security efforts.

Sec. Clinton also partnered with world leaders to address gender equality during the launch of her “Equal Futures Partnership,” its mission, in a nutshell, “to expand economic opportunities for women and to increase women’s participation in politics and civil society.”  Addressing challenges and initiatives in their own countries were charter members from Jordan, Tunisia, Australia, Denmark, Peru, and more.  Jim Yong Kim, the new president of the World Bank, offered his commitment to track the Partnership’s progress, and Michelle Bachelet, director of UN Women, promised her support as well.

It was a privilege to have had a “full circle” opportunity to observe Secretary Clinton at work at home too.   Imagine that.

Grace Bennett is the Publisher and Editor of Inside Chappaqua.

Publisher’s Note: This story is dedicated to the memory of the four Americans killed in Libya: U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, ex-Navy Seals Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and to Sean Smith, a foreign service officer.  It also honors  all diplomats and Embassy staff who devote their skills and talents each day in their service abroad.