The madness started on Christmas Eve when I overheard a whispered conversation between two friends who work for the US Embassy in Dar.
Picture me on the patio of a large house decorated for Christmas in the tropics. I was dressed for the special occasion and sweating profusely.
I had spent the past five minutes trying to figure out where the kids disappeared to; searching the dark corners to make sure they weren’t torturing a dog with kindness or picking up giant millipedes with their bare hands. In my hot wet confusion I was standing behind a big plant next to the eggnog bowl when I heard…
Person 1: [Leaning in close to whisper in her co-conspirator’s ear, but not quietly enough that I can’t hear them from behind the plant] So, I hear you got stuck with the initial planning?
Person 2: [Almost spitting] Yeah. These VIP trips are all-consuming. My life is going to be crazy for the next few months.
Person 1: Are you kidding? Everyone’s lives are going to be crazy. Watch out Dar es Salaam…
Being the indiscrete gossip hoarder that I am, I jumped out from the shadows, to ask:
Me: [Excitedly] Yeah? So who exactly is coming??? Bono? Dick Cheney? Bill Clinton?
Person 1: [Rolling her eyes at me for my lack of discretion] I can’t tell you. But knowing you, you’ll figure it out soon enough. But I can promise you it is no one as exciting as Bono.
Me: Because if it’s Bono I have some brothels I want to take him to see.
Persons 1 and 2: [Eyes rolling] You and your brothels!
Now I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t think about this conversation during the three weeks that followed as my family visited and we traveled around Tanzania. More than once I wondered who the bigwig was.
And then, the day after I got back from vacation, I got a call. I was urgently required at the Embassy. I needed to be there in an hour.
Let me tell you that as popular as I may be in Dar, being called into the Embassy urgently is not normally associated with positive outcomes. So it was with trepidation that I ran over to the Embassy compound where I found myself surrounded by the top people working in HIV.
They told me:
A very important VIP is coming to Tanzania. (Their redundancy, not mine.)
The Embassy is in the process of preparing a program for said very important VIP.
I am not allowed to know who the VIP is or when the VIP might be coming.
This very important VIP is indeed very important.
I am not allowed to tell my colleagues about a very important VIP coming to Tanzania or that I/we might be somehow involved. If I do, we’re out.
If I lobby for this with anyone at the Embassy, we’re out.
And finally, I am requested to provide the Embassy with a write-up by the end of the day describing a site visit the very important VIP could make to our project that promotes faithfulness in marriage as a HIV prevention strategy called Sikia Kengele (listen to the bell).
And, oh yeah, there is a 99% chance that whatever I submit will not be selected for the very important VIP visit.
At that moment I knew. George Bush was coming to Tanzania. Who else would be interested in our faithfulness initiative when we are doing such great work with sex workers and brothels?
So I did my duty and submitted a write-up – but not talking about it was nearly impossible. Everyone in the American community – Embassy or not – had heard the gossip. In fact, I may have been the last to know. Whispered conversations over grocery carts and at the vegetable stand were abound. Did I know anything? They would trade me their info for my info. And much as I love to gossip – I think I did a pretty good job keeping my mouth shut – for me.
A few days later I got another call to come into the Embassy. This time, the Embassy people were joined by HIV prevention partner agency heads like myself.
“Do you know who POTUS is?”
,” I said. “I’m from Washington DC
.” (I didn’t want to tell them that the real reason I knew was because of the West Wing - President Of The United States)
“And do you know who FLOTUS is?”
I said. (First Lady Of The United States)
,” they expanded, “we want you to rewrite your event for FLOTUS, not POTUS. And even though we don’t really have a natural place for your event, we want to try to link it with another event where FLOTUS will talk with 20 14-year-old Muslims graduating from a Madrassa HIV/AIDS education program
Right. Because there are close natural links between 14 year-old Madrassa students and a community mobilization initiative using bells as wake up calls to promote faithfulness in marriage. But true to the spirit of collaboration, I pitched this unnatural alliance from a lifecycle approach. We all knew it was bullshit. But we were trying hard.
Then I was told again:
Talk about this in public and it’s off.
Don’t tell your colleagues who the very important VIP is or it’s off.
The final decision belongs to FLOTUS’ people.
There is still a 99% chance this won’t happen.
Start to prepare.
So I went back to my office and told my top team that there is a very important VIP coming to town and we’ve been asked to prepare a Kengele event. I told them:
I can’t tell you who the person is.
I can’t tell you where the event is.
I can’t tell you what might be involved in the event.
I can’t tell you what days the event might occur (I still had no idea)
OK, let’s get started preparing…
So we began to prepare.
And in the preparation of an event that we had almost no information about, and for person whom my colleagues were totally in the dark, there was a level of exhilaration and novelty that was very exciting.
We were among the chosen few.
I was among the few people in Dar just ever-so-slightly in the know. People asked me questions and I told them I wasn’t able to answer them. It was powerful. I felt strong and connected; part of a secret society.
And I became invested – invested in making sure this thing happens. Invested in getting to meet Mrs. Bush. Invested in the 15 seconds of institutional fame that comes with having a President or his wife visit your project. Invested in having a project important enough to make the cut. And I even convinced myself that perhaps I would actually get a chance to meet the President himself.
I was totally, completely invested. Obsessed even.
And things were looking good. Slowly we had more information. I was allowed to tell my colleagues when and where the event would be. Every few days the Embassy people talked to the White House and planning continued.
By this time, about 200 of the 600 members of the Bush delegation were already in Dar. The press corps was crawling around – all of them looking to film skeletal people dying from AIDS for their reels - because that's all they can relate to when they report about AIDS. The advance team Secret Service guys were dressed in everyday clothes – not the suits and earplugs we are used to seeing. Nevertheless, it is easy to tell who they were. They have crew cuts and a certain familiar cockiness and swagger that is hard to miss.
My team and I were titillated. We were moving fast to print new t-shirts and banners for the event. We had a giant bell cast so that Mrs. Bush would have a fabulous photo-op ringing the bell of faithfulness. The Christian right would love it. At great expense I even had my mother DHL some new clothes to me since my wardrobe here is short on pantsuits a la Hillary Clinton. (Pantsuits or dresses are evidently the standard uniform for meeting Mrs. Bush, and I haven’t worn a dress in many, many years.)
Several nights in a row I woke in the middle of the night, “practicing” what I would say during my five minutes of face-to-face time, when I would have to introduce myself and the Sikia Kengele initiative to Mrs. Bush before inviting her to ring the bell of faithfulness.“Hello Mrs. Bush, my name is…”
“Hello Mrs. Bush. Welcome to Tanzania. My name is…”
“Mrs. Bush, it is an honor to meet you. My name is…”
Over and over and over again. All night long.
Then, last weekend I was at the playground with my kids, chatting with an Embassy friend. She told me on the sly that it wasn’t looking good for us. Mrs. Bush’s people (we were allowed to use her name now), were not convinced. Mrs. Bush prefers intimate events. Her people weren’t happy with the fact that our event required a small crowd, and the link between the Madrassa graduation and ringing of the bell of faithfulness was not particularly clear to them either.
I was totally depressed. I wondered how I would be able to face my colleagues on Monday.
So I was completely surprised on Monday morning when the call came for us to participate in a run-through with the Secret Service. An adorable guy from DC via Mississippi walked through the event with my team and the Embassy people. As we went along he pointed out where he would station his snipers, his anti-assault team, and his anti-terrorism team.
Who knew a simple event required so many teams?
But it was at this moment that I knew that our event was really going to happen. I couldn’t help it. I was ecstatic! My adrenaline has been pumping ever since.
But my excitement begged the question, why?
I can’t stand President Bush. I’ve never before had any desire to meet him. I once met his predecessor, President Clinton. And back in 1991 I stood on the White House lawn as part of a “welcoming” group when the first President Bush welcomed Japan’s president to the Rose Garden. But never, ever have I wanted to be in the presence of this current president, whose policies and actions (99% of them anyway) I’ve held with disdain for the past eight years.
And before this opportunity I’ve never even given Mrs. Bush a thought. I have no opinion of her one way or other whatsoever.
So why was I so invested?
Well… the easiest answer is because I wanted to write you a fabulous blog post about the experience. That’s true. But it is also sort of a cop-out of a response.
The next answer is uglier. Anyone who knows me knows that I like to be in the center of things. I love the excitement. I like the attention we are getting from my headquarters office in DC and from other colleagues here in Tanzania. I enjoy watching my colleagues and their excitement. I like the feeling of working with colleagues towards a common agenda. I like being part of an elite group. And even, somehow, I am enjoying a sense of patriotism that is buoyed by the fact that I do believe that the President’s HIV initiative has been one of the few things for which he deserves some credit.
But also I want to look into this man’s eyes; my president’s eyes; and see what’s in there. I want to stand in his presence to see if I can see the good mixed in with all the ugly that comes to mind when I think about him under normal circumstances. After all, most people are complex. I want to believe that he is no exception. He may be ordering the bombing of Iraq by day, but is he a loving husband and supportive father by night? I want to know if I can see that part of him. I need to know. Somehow it has become important to me.
On Wednesday afternoon I got the call. Our event, scheduled to take place on Sunday, was canceled.
Mrs. Bush loves children. She wants to spend more time with the Madrassa children, leaving no time for ringing the bell of faithfulness. The Secret Service weren’t happy with her being outside, anyway. The White House press office was unsure of how photo-worthy newsreel of Mrs. Bush ringing the bell would be.
But there was a small light at the end of the tunnel. Two colleagues and I were still invited to attend the event. At the end of the meeting with the children we could have a few minutes to meet Mrs. Bush.
But then on Thursday morning the White House nixed that, too.
President and Mrs. Bush landed in Tanzania today.
I won’t be meeting them.
They won’t be ringing the bell of faithfulness.
I won’t be sweating away under the unforgiving equator sun in 90 degree, 90% humidity weather in my new pantsuit a la Hillary.
I’m no longer involved in the visit in any way, other than joining the masses who will suffer in the traffic jams that are sure to result.
Sure, I am disappointed. But the good news is I’ve snapped out of my Pollyanna-like trance.
I’m back to being my irreverent disdainful self. I remember now, I can’t stand President Bush or his policies.
I’m back to being disenfranchised and mad.
From Laura Bush's last trip to Tanznia a few years ago