Saturday, February 28, 2015

When Knowledge Matters

All is not well at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Media reports have it that High Commissioner and Ambassador are worried about their futures because contracts have expired with no sign of them being renewed. Others live in dilapidated missions, while some wait for Appointing Authority’s signature.

Foreign Affairs say Ministry of Finance has not released money and Appointing Authority has not had the time to sign appointment letters. The appointing authority is President Museveni. But I obviously know better. It has nothing to do with money or a signature, but global social norms.

Chew on this.

In the UK, the Foreign Office in a review of its diplomats came to the conclusion that they have to undergo a stint at The Diplomatic Academy before taking up a posting. The academy will train them throughout their careers from foundation to expert level because “the world is too complex for individuals to grasp without help and where it was once a matter of elites talking to elites, now it’s about having to operate in many different registers in public, private, on TV and on social media.”

Here and during the Idi Amin era, before our athletes went abroad to compete, they went to camp to learn the ways of the host country – ‘the-what-to-dos’ and ‘the-what-not-to-dos.’ Today those camps don’t exist.

When we go abroad – athletes, diplomats and all, we simply hop onto Emirates but, we have little knowledge of the social cultures and norms of the countries we are going to because we figure as long we can read, write and speak a language that sounds like English, we have the knowledge.

I have never been to Finland and neither had our ambassador – until he got the posting. Until he got there, I bet he had no idea that Finns don’t like being hugged or kissed; that two or three minute conversations are common and should not be interrupted? Did Johnson Agara, our ambassador in Istanbul, know the Turks get deeply offended if the sole of your shoe faces them before he went there? I doubt. And neither did our ambassador in Malaysia know that insisting on eye contact and saying: “Hello, I’m Galabuzi” (or Nampeera), is not the done thing.

While M7 has not told me why he’s is not signing any foreign appointments, am sure he won’t do so until he has the right calibre person to send. He simply can’t pluck people out of the depths of a Mawokota, Kamuli, Kamwenge or whatever village and post them to Azerbaijan, Montenegro or the UAE, for who knows what diplomatic storm they might whip up when they do the wrong thing.

Fifty years ago we lived in a monoculture and all that concerned us was that corner of Uganda that we lived in. Today we are surrounded by other cultures and increasingly, we travel and do business abroad. But wouldn’t we be more successful if we were able to understand how the different cultures and societies operate?

If Foreign Affairs also open up a diplomatic school, they might as well open it for all of us. Knowledge you see, would have helped that man who sat next to me on a 12-hour KQ flight to Thailand. While I ate and quaffed enough Carlsberg’s, he looked on with envy - his throat all dry and a stomach that rumbled in hunger. When the trolley passed, he’d bark at Stewardess: “I don’t want!”

Ten minutes to landing he whispers: “Eh, are you not worried about your bill - you have been drinking since we left Entebbe?” Seeing I had the knowledge, with a smirk I told him: “Bill? All drinks and food are part of the cost of your ticket.” With that, his stomach rumbled even louder as I cracked open another Carlsberg.


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