My life has changed remarkably since my Mitchell year eight years ago. I am still living abroad, but serving in a much different capacity. In January 2015, I became a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer (FAO) with a focus on Africa. In other words, I am now an African cultural and linguistic specialist (I speak French and Portuguese) whose mission is to carry out U.S. military programs in partnership with foreign militaries. I have been stationed at the US Embassy in Mozambique for just over one and a half years, where I have gained a much better understanding of the nuances of security cooperation as well as of Mozambican culture and the Portuguese language. I learn new things every day, which keeps my brain engaged and reminds me of my Mitchell year.
I have had the opportunity to travel throughout Mozambique, making it to 9 of the 11 provinces in the country during my first year alone. Some of the highlights have been getting to visit Niassa National Reserve in Northern Mozambique on the Tanzanian border– a beautiful, remote, and (relatively) ungoverned park the size of Switzerland. Niassa is home to the largest concentration of elephants in Mozambique, whose population has decreased over 50% in the last five years due to poaching. Currently, there are only about 150 park rangers with limited equipment and authorities to address the problem in the entire reserve. It is a daunting task to say the least.
USAID and the Department of State have partnered with the Mozambican government as well as Wildlife Conservation Society to address and prevent further poaching as well as the trafficking of precious minerals, illegal timber, and people. The US Department of Defense was given expanded authorities to counter illicit trafficking, so my office has been working in concert with our interagency colleagues to find potential opportunities for DoD to provide training support to the park rangers. Additionally, the US Embassy has been working with various stakeholders (NGO’s and agencies within the Mozambican government) towards creating a solution to address this crisis. It has been fascinating to learn how poachers operate as well as how all of the stakeholders interact and are involved in trying to solve this major problem.
A significant part of my portfolio is working to counter the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Mozambique, specifically within the military. The prevalence rate is 11% in the country and 20% in Maputo City, where I live. Our HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment program, part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), is the second largest DoD PEPFAR program in the world with a budget of nearly $8 million. As such, I have had the opportunity to travel to several military bases around Maputo and in northern cities (Beira, Nampula, and Tete) to ensure that standards are being met for program implementation.
Interestingly, a large portion of our prevention program is dedicated to voluntary male medical circumcision, which reduces the likelihood of HIV infection by over 60%. My knowledge of public health and HIV has grown tremendously. It is always incredibly enlightening to travel outside of the capital city of Maputo (a “bubble” of 2 million people in the southernmost part of the country) and see how the majority of the population (24 million) really lives and the challenges that they face.
As a Naval Officer, a lot of my work has also focused on building capacity within the Mozambican Navy. The US has donated equipment (small boats, equipment for maritime operations centers, trucks) to strengthen the Mozambican Navy’s ability to carry out operations along its coastline of 2,470km, literally the length of the east coast of the United States (!). My office implements training programs that promote both partnership and an exchange of ideas by both bringing U.S. trainers to Mozambique as well as sending Mozambican military officers to attend U.S. professional development courses. We also send Mozambican representatives to regional conferences focused on key security issues. I had the good fortune to accompany the Mozambican Admiral of the Navy to a seminar in Mauritius this past year to discuss maritime security policy issues with key military leaders in Southern Africa. What an incredible opportunity for me, a junior FAO, to interact with senior-level officers using both my French and Portuguese!
Also of note, a large portion of our program focuses on English-language training. Mozambique is a Portuguese-speaking “island” in Southern Africa; every one of its six neighbors’ primary language is English. In order to increase interoperability with neighboring militaries and to potentially participate in peacekeeping operations, Mozambican military members must learn English. As such, in line with Mozambican Armed Forces requests, the US has donated several language labs throughout the country as well as trained English-language instructors within the Mozambican Armed Forces every year. As other Embassies with a major presence in Mozambique do not speak English as their primary language, this is a real niche training need for the Mozambicans that the U.S. Embassy is able to fill.
My life is Mozambique has not been all work though. I have been fortunate to travel within the country for pleasure as well, which has been incredible. Visiting Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique was a really special experience. PBS did a special two years ago about the re-birth of the park. Mozambique suffered through a sixteen-year civil war after independence from Portugal in 1975; subsequently, the animal and human population in and around the park was devastated. Over the last decade, serious efforts by American entrepreneur Greg Carr’s foundation as well as USAID and other entities have made incredible progress in re-populating the park. More information is available here: http://www.pbs.org/gorongosa/home/ .
The beaches in Mozambique are also of note as many are not over- commercialized. In some places, one feels like the only person to have ever been there. Thousands of South Africans cross the border to Mozambique during the holidays to visit the beach, and once one has visited any of these destinations, it is easy to understand why. I loved visiting Tofo, Vilankulos, Bilene, Lake Niassa, and Inhambane. The Daily Mail recently published an article about how Mozambique has some of the best beaches in the world: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travelsupplement/article-4236990/Mozambique-Africa-s-new-Riviera.html
I feel very fortunate to have had such great experiences here in Maputo over the last year and a half. I’m looking forward to even more exciting adventures in 2017 and 2018.