Pack like it’s Arizona

Major Steven Lamb, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs wrote

I am a private person; I don’t do Facebook, MySpace, Twitter or any of those other social networking things that have become so prevalent in our society today. The funny thing is I am the acting Social Media Chief for U.S. Africa Command. I like to have my experiences and share them with my kids and family, maybe a pic or two but that is really about it. Thanks to my career as a Soldier, a public affairs officer to be specific, I have had the opportunity to meet lots of interesting and famous people and to see lots of really neat things but most of it is recorded in my mind for my own use and sharing with those closest to me. I don’t collect photos of “Me and so-and-so,” and I only bring up such encounters when I feel it is germane to teaching a lesson or helping us accomplish a mission we are currently working on. Doing a blog about a trip, talking about my feelings or experiences, is foreign to me so please don’t approach this with the idea you will be traipsing down memory lane with a documentary similar to Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom….” you would be sorely disappointed! Ugh, I just dated myself too didn’t I?
OK, so I have been asked by the folks in my office to write a quick blog about my first trip to Africa. I will cover the personal aspects of it because I already had to write the official “story” about the visit anyhow and while telling stories is fun, regurgitating what is already out there is a waste of time to write and worse to read.

I found out I was going to get my first opportunity to travel to the continent around the first part of March. Botswana, Namibia and perhaps one other country were on the list. Needless to say I was very excited. I quickly looked at my calendar to get the timeframe in my mind and to begin laying out the incredible amount of work ahead. Six weeks, not much time to plan. Granted, people from U.S. Africa Command have been going to the continent for the last two years but this was my first trip so I had a head immediately filled with questions, concerns and most importantly ideas of what I needed to do to make this a good trip.

As I said, I am a PA officer so I have the responsibility of preparing the commander and others to engage with the media. This involves a lot of research which ultimately winds up in a 30-40 page read-ahead book full of all sorts of talking points, current news articles, copies of speeches and transcripts and testimony from ambassadors and government leaders among others. We also begin working with the U.S. embassy country teams and any of our own command who happen to be where we are headed. We need to coordinate whatever media coverage we deem appropriate because transparency is a cornerstone to our command’s way of working, and failing to announce a leadership visit would lead to rumors of clandestine bases etc. All of that is, of course, untrue but by being open and inviting the people in we can circumvent such sensational reporting, and it provides us an opportunity to focus on our real reason for visiting. A media roundtable, a press conference, an interview on TV or the radio; there are many possibilities we must consider to ensure the right message is delivered to the right audience, at the right time and with the right medium.

The trip was almost immediately dropped to two countries, Botswana and Namibia, which are both on the southern end of the continent. From here in Germany this means traveling roughly 5,000 miles or flying the length of the United States twice.

The short timeframe meant that I couldn’t possibly get a visa for Namibia so I planned to make the Botswana leg.

Next step, get with the Embassy. Gaborone (pronounced “Hah-ba-ro-nae”) is the capital of Botswana. Army Lt. Col. William “Chris” Wyatt is the Office of Security Cooperation Chief there at the Embassy and his team was incredible. I asked a whole bunch of “new guy to Africa” questions like where they stood with malaria, if there was going to be internet available, what uniforms I needed and what money / exchange requirements there were? I was relieved to discover that if I wanted malaria I needed to go north about “900 miles,” although AFRICOM policy still required I take medications to prevent getting it regardless. I also was pleased to learn that internet was available at the hotel which is critical for my doing my job. I would need both uniforms (wait, I was not pleased about that because size 10W boots take up a lot of space in your luggage), and money could be exchanged at the airport (I know, a no-brainer). The OSC office began to chuckle at some of my personal questions, I was obviously very green.

Finally they told me to “pack like its Arizona.” Well that is easy! I have been there, I vacationed there, I hiked the Grand Canyon with my father there 20 years ago, and I can do Arizona. A desert, no problem!

I packed light; I had to have my normal ACUs (Army Combat Uniform) but also my Class As (our formal jacket and tie type) and I needed some civilian clothes for travel and the evenings. Arizona, desert, short sleeves, light clothing, this is easy.

I arrived in Gaborone in a driving rainstorm. It turns out that they are just entering their winter and it had been ceaselessly raining for the last week. The “desert” was lush with green vegetation; the roads, many of which were unpaved, were chuck full of mud puddles and pot holes. Everything was soaked!

It rained all day, almost every day, until the day I left and that day was beautiful! General Ward, the AFRICOM Commander, was to arrive the day after I did, but visibility was so bad his plane was diverted to Namibia overnight. The next day they had to turn on the lights at the airfield just to land the plane.

Botswana, for this week was no Arizona; not by a long shot.

The trip itself went really well though. I learned a whole lot about the people of Botswana and the Botswana Defense Forces. I also got to try some different traditional African foods like Mielie Pap (a stiff corn meal mix) and spiced chicken. I really gained an appreciation for their spices, fantastic flavors, very rich. The Gaborone Sun Hotel was very comfortable and the service was great. The last day there the OSC folks ushered me around to several shops and markets to get a feel for local crafts and the people. I also was able to pick up some souvenirs for my wife and our six kids that are still at home.

In the long run the trip was a great success. Gen. Ward had the opportunity to meet with media and answer their questions, his visit was well covered and all the media reporting was very positive. He also shot some Public Service Announcements and addressed a large group of BDF officers on Intelligence operations.

On the personal side, I learned the value of doing a bit more research on my target location and also the benefits of being prepared for whatever changes might occur. I am excited about the many opportunities I will have to travel over the next few years because this assignment will open doors and experiences others can only dream about, but here I am getting paid!

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