On the trail, finally…

One of the challenges here is that it’s often hard to get outside to exercise in Ouaga – the daily work hours, the heat, the traffic, the limited daylight, all seem to conspire to prevent me from getting out on a ride. But when I do manage it, the time is well spent. Thanks to a visiting English teacher, who used to race, we’ve put together a Sunday morning cycling group. The group includes people from the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and the United States. No one, except a couple of people, is super-fast or competitive. We pick a different direction each week and head out for a couple of hours.

Today, we rode north out of Ouaga and picked up a trail that runs along a railway line. It’s hot and the red dust of Burkina quickly covers every bit of exposed skin. It’s mostly flat with a few short ups and downs. But you’re away from the motos and cars and noise. There’s not much sound except for the hum of your tires on the dirt and birds calling to each other. Herds of goats, sheep and cows dot the landscape, but mostly you are alone.

Periodically the trail ducks through a little village of stone and wood huts and the inevitable gang of small children stop what they’re doing to stare at the “nasara” (the Mossi word for white people). We do our part, smiling and waving and shouting “bonjour!” to each and every one of them. Now and then someone will yell “Allez!” from the comfort of their shaded porch as the crazy foreigners ride by.

One morning, coming back from a ride, as we were stopped at a traffic light, a man on a moto looked at me and smiled. “Lance Armstrong?” he asked, laughing a little. I laughed along with him and said “I wish!” Riding away, though, I was more surprised than I probably should have been at him even knowing who Lance Armstrong is.

But they know cycling and bike racing here in Burkina. Every year, there’s a multi-day stage race, the Tour de Faso, that runs through the country in October. This year saw several European and African teams – and even Eddy Merckx presided over one of the stage finishes in Ouaga.

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That was the week that was…

So, a quick “week in the life” of a PAO:
Monday: Meet our visiting speaker, Dr. Woodrow Clark, a climate change expert and a Nobel laureate (shared with the IPCC and Al Gore in 2007), and host a discussion group with him and a couple dozen students at the embassy. In the evening, go to the airport to meet a Fulbright Scholar who’s going to be teaching here this year.
Tuesday: Spend the day coordinating the embassy’s Iftaar dinner. This is the traditional breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Twenty minutes before the guests are scheduled to arrive the sky opens up and drenches the whole affair. We quickly switch to plan B and move everything indoors. Despite the weather, we had more than 60 attendees and everyone left happy (and full!). Nice story in the local paper, to boot.
Wednesday: Four-hour drive to Bobo-Dioulasso with Dr. Clark. Spend the afternoon meeting with a local cotton cooperative and then another discussion group. The latter is attended by 150+ and has a very lively Q&A afterward.
Thursday: Press breakfast in Bobo – 11 reporters show up! Again, lots of discussion about the climate issues facing Burkina Faso – and the impact actions outside the country can have here. We follow breakfast up with a meeting with the forestry school in Bobo. Five hour drive back to Ouaga. Have my first dinner at home since Sunday.
Friday: Digital video conference with Dr. Clark and four other embassies (Niamey, Ndjemena, Bamako and Accra). In the afternoon, send Dr. Clark off to an interview with local television and wrangle press for the Peace Corps swearing in ceremony at the embassy. We have three camera crews and a dozen print and radio reporters – plus the First Lady of Burkina Faso! Event is an unqualified success, interviews and fist-bumps all around. Home by 9 for a late dinner and much-needed beer.
As Hadley says: Je vis le reve!

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Making a Splash in Ouaga

One of the interesting things about being a PR guy for the government, particularly in a place like Burkina Faso, is that when you show up somewhere, they treat you very differently. Case in point: This article ran in today’s edition of “Sidwaya,” the newspaper of record in Ouagadougou. I went to meet with one of the editors of Sidwaya and ended up getting a full tour of the whole operation, followed by about six members of the staff and a photographer.

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten this sort of treatment by a publication before and I was, frankly, a bit embarrassed. The role of a PR person is to get ink for the other guy, not you. But in the case of a government PR guy, it’s OK, even encouraged. In fact, my boss asked me to forward the article to our minders in Washington and the incoming ambassador as an example of our media efforts.

Not a bad way to end my second full week on the job.

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Well, here goes…

“Two roads diverged in a wood,

and I— I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

At least, that’s the big idea behind this new adventure called the Foreign Service.  A lot of people, friends, family, complete strangers, have suggested that I start a blog about my experience being a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) for the U.S. government (USG in the local vernacular).

I’ve dithered a bit in starting this because, frankly, I haven’t done much except get hired, attend a five-week orientation and take French for five hours a day for the last four months.

That said, since this is my first post, I should provide a bit of background information… After nearly 20 years working in public relations and, occasionally, freelance journalism, I decided, on a lark, in the summer of 2008 to take the Foreign Service exam.  OK, maybe not so much on a lark as the result of a need to do something more with my life than advancing the interests of various corporations.

To my surprise, I passed the written test and, four months later got invited to the oral exam. The latter is a day-long affair involving a simulated diplomacy exercise, another written portion and an interview. And, what do you know, I passed that, too. After getting through a security check, I was offered a job in June 2009. I began my new career on 3 August 2009 by attending A-100, a five-week orientation course for new FSOs.

On 31 August 2009, I was assigned as the assistant public affairs officer for Embassy Ouagadougou in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. The job starts in June 2010. Because Burkina Faso (once know as Upper Volta) is a part of francophone Africa (it was a colony until 1961), French remains the official language. Immediately after finishing A-100, I moved over to the State Department’s French language school. And that’s where I am today.

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