City Paper is not for tourists
Ambassador and single mom Edith Ssempala sells the new Uganda to the United States.
A bit after 12:30 p.m. on a rainy Washington summer day, a modest-sized black limousine breaks free from the traffic congestion and slips in front of Mr. K’s Restaurant near Washington Circle in Northwest.
Edith Ssempala, Uganda’s ambassador to the United States, quickly tosses her Washington Post aside and hustles under the restaurant’s outside canopy.
Once inside, the manager escorts her to a VIP table in a corner booth. Several waiters approach the table individually to greet Ssempala. One of them brings the ambassador’s special chopsticks from a chest near the restaurant’s entrance, where they are displayed with those of other Washington notablescongressmen, administration officials, and diplomats.
Ssempala is well-known at Mr. K’s and in D.C.’s diplomatic community. Educated as an engineer, she was appointed as Uganda’s ambassador to the United States in 1996, after a 10-year stint as an ambassador to Scandinavian countries. Ssempala also serves as her nation’s representative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Ssempala is upbeat but tired, with deep lines under her eyes. She has just returned from a grueling weeklong trip to Uganda to attend a meeting between her country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. It’s one of the ironies of Washington diplomacy that ambassadors occasionally must travel across the world to get face time with officials who work only a few miles from their embassy.
Ssempala says that she was buoyed by the trip, however. She doesn’t grumble about the journey’s two travel days, or the 4:30 a.m. visit to the airport in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, in torrential rain to see Powell off. She also doesn’t complain about her frantic return to Washington to attend the high school graduation of her second-oldest daughter, Priscilla.
“I made it home just in time for the ceremony. Just in time. It was very close,” she says with a smile, recalling the nearly daylong series of flights from Uganda through Brussels to Washington.
“The trip was hard, but it was worth it,” Ssempala continues. “Secretary Powell’s visit was a great success. He said so many nice things about our president and Uganda.”
Ssempala’s professional struggles are a window into the challenges facing ambassadors who run small embassies on a tight budget in a world capital. Her personal story is also a compelling one: Ssempala is a single mother who’s raising three daughters and two nieces in the District.
“Diplomacy here is very, very hard work,” she says. “It’s interesting but not always fun. It’s not so glamorous, despite what you might read. It takes time away from your family. You miss important things back home. But I feel like I’m doing something usefulfor me, my family, and my country.”
Ssempala is friendly, intelligent, and passionately committed to her country. Sometimes disorganized and often late, Ssempala nonetheless is always on-message about her nation.
“Diplomacy is like marketing,” she says. “My product is Uganda. It is an easy product to sell. Because Uganda is a success story.”
Uganda’s embassy, on 16th Street NW, is just a few miles south of the Maryland border. It’s located in a neighborhood of private residences and small churches. As you drive by it, the embassy looks like just another middle-class home in the area.
Inside, however, the embassy has the feel of a small company. A large picture of Museveni looms above a fireplace framed by the Ugandan and American flags. Two mounted elk peer down from the off-white walls.
Ssempala’s office is on the second floor, with a view of 16th Street. It’s spare and neat, with the usual assortment of professional and family photos. Most of the time, she works at a large wooden desk in one corner of the office.
Ssempala runs the embassy with the help of four professional diplomats and a small support staff. Ugandan diplomacy, in Washington and elsewhere, is a frugal operation. “We have closed a few missions for financial reasons,” she says. “We are constrained by finances.”
The country cuts costs the old-fashioned way: by watching expenses. “Ugandan diplomats fly coach,” she says, adding that the embassy keeps a careful eye on international phone calls, too. “Phone calls between Washington and Uganda are very expensive.”
Uganda has about a dozen embassies across the world. The country’s mission in New York City is its largest unit, but the Washington embassy is the cornerstone of Uganda’s diplomatic effort.
Ssempala says that running both the embassy and her personal residence costs less than $500,000 a year. Both buildings were purchased by notorious Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada in the ’70s. “It’s probably the only good thing he did,” Ssempala says sharply.
With these resources, Ssempala has to fight for Uganda’s interests in the difficult world of Washington diplomacy. Photo ops with the president and secretary of state, chauffeured limousines, and nice tables at restaurants often mask a harsh pecking order that makes high school cliques seem compassionate. There are unending receptions and tedious afternoons waiting in Capitol Hill offices to snag a few minutes with a key lawmaker or staffer.
There is a public component to Washington diplomacy that is lacking in many other foreign capitals. One of the tasks facing ambassadors is to shape the American debate on international affairs and to influence U.S. policies that have global consequences. It’s been said that if diplomats acted in other capitals as they do in Washington, they would be declared personae non gratae. But if they didn’t follow the practices here, they would be rebuked for not doing their jobs.
“In Washington, there are 1,000 points of decision-making,” says Walter Cutler, a former American ambassador, who is the president of the Meridian International Center.
“In most European capitals, it is considered Rule No. 1 to keep a low profile,” observes a European ambassador. “Here we’re expected to speak, to talk, to peddle our case, and to attract attention.”
Ssempala is self-taught but already skilled in the ways of Washington. She is aggressive and visible. She speaks well in public and works a room with purpose and ease.
Heavily overscheduled and understaffed, Ssempala occasionally misses appointments and meetings. But she has built a sizable network of friends and contacts, digs into policy minutiae, and is willing to trudge the hallways of Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom to make her cases.
Traci Duvall Humes, a Washington attorney with Foley, Hoag & Eliot, has worked with Ssempala over the years and says that the ambassador is relentless and effective in making the case for Uganda. “With very limited resources, she is very effective and very efficient,” says Humes. “She is the Energizer Bunny of the diplomatic corps. She almost never refuses an opportunity or invitation to talk about Uganda or Africa. At the end of the day, she is more than willing to fall on her sword for Uganda.”
Ssempala spends a lot of her time explaining Uganda to American audiences, with a focus on boosting trade and investment. “I try to make sure that the important things don’t get lost,” she says. “If they’re neglected, I’ve failed. The challenge here is not to get distracted by all of the demands. I have to pick and choose. I don’t worry about competition with other countries. I worry about the competition for my time,” she says.
It’s a sunny but cool late-August day, and the ambassador is at work at her desk, dressed in a pink jacket, black blouse, and black pants.
It’s a few minutes after 10 a.m., and Ssempala has just arrived at the embassy for a full day of meetings and events. Among other things, she will appear on a Voice of America (VOA) TV broadcast on democracy in Africa. Later, she will attend a ceremony at the World Bank.
Ssempala ponders the VOA interview, which will be broadcast across Africa. She will be on a panel with a Howard University professor from Ghana and Kizza Besigya, the former Ugandan cabinet minister who challenged Museveni for the presidency earlier this year.
Ssempala is wary about the face-off with Besigya, who has alleged that Museveni rigged the election and that Ugandan security forces are harassing both him and his family.
Ssempala dismisses both charges and says Besigya is a poor loser. “I’m going to have to engage him,” she says. “I have a lot of problems with him. One of our problems in Africa is we don’t have a culture of losing. Somehow we just don’t think it’s acceptable to lose. So you have to cook up all sorts of excuses and reasons for why you lost.”
Uganda is about the size of the state of Oregon. It has a population of 20 million, and it shares borders with Kenya, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania in Eastern Africa. The country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962, and it’s had a stormy post-colonial history. Nine presidents have ruled since its independence, including the brutal dictators Milton Obote and Amin, who were responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and a massive plundering of the nation’s resources.
Ssempala’s career has been shaped by this political turbulence. She studied civil engineering in Moscow from 1973 to 1979 and had every intention of staying in the field. “If Uganda had been on a normal course, I would probably be an engineer someplace now,” she says.
She moved to Sweden after completing her studies in Russia and worked for the Rifa Electronics firm. There, she became active with Uganda’s expatriate community and chaired a group that supported democracy in Uganda. “My political education began in Sweden,” she says.
In 1986, Museveni led a guerrilla army that ousted the military regime of General Tito Okello. Museveni became president of Uganda and subsequently ushered in an era of peace and relative prosperity.
When Ssempala returned home in 1986 to see her parents for the first time in more than a dozen years, she learned that Museveni had appointed her as ambassador to the Nordic nations. She accepted the post and spent the next decade based in Copenhagen, representing Uganda to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
Ssempala speaks English, Russian, Swedish, French, and various Ugandan dialects. She enjoys reading biographies, and she is intrigued about the qualities that strong leaders possess.
“I’m fascinated with what makes them tick,” she says. “I think in all great leaders you find a very strong sense of purpose, a determination to make a difference, a commitment to make contributions,” she says.
The next evening, Ssempala enters her house in Spring Valley about an hour late for dinner, talking on her cell phone to a friend about her VOA exchange with Besigya. She’s frustrated about the debate, and she thinks that the moderator gave Besigya too many opportunities to make allegations without allowing her to respond.
Still pondering the broadcast as she walks in the front door, Ssempala gets hit from another direction. Her 9-year-old daughter, Kundo, gives her a hug and then expresses exasperation: Ssempala’s neglected to buy Pop Tarts at the grocery store on the way home from work.
“I can’t believe you forgot them,” Kundo says.
On entering the ambassador’s sprawling seven-bedroom residence, the first thing you see is the Ugandan flag. Ssempala’s personal e-mail address is now well-known, and her private phone number has gotten out and has become a de facto office number.
The living room down the hall is lined with photos of Ssempala with luminaries: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, and Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II. There is also a photo of one of her brothers, who died last year. Ugandan art is sprinkled around the room, as are framed Christian religious sayings.
Sipping a glass of red wine and curling up on the sofa, Ssempala describes a grueling schedule that often begins with calls from Museveni in the very early morning and ends late in the evening with receptions.
Ssempala rises at 6:30 a.m. and catches up on Ugandan news on the Internet. She prints out the stories that she wants to read or save and grabs some newspapers to read during the 15-minute drive to the embassy.
The ambassador tries to devote her weekends to her daughters. The two oldest, Patricia, 21, and Priscilla, 19, are in college. She has a driver and housekeeper during the week, but she does the driving and cooking on weekends. “Sundays are not so easy for me, because I’m the baby sitter. I have big girls, but big girls have their own agenda,” she says.
Ssempala says that she makes it a priority to keep up with her children’s school activities, slipping out of work to attend events. “That’s very important for me, because I like to be a mother. My first and most important job is to be a mother,” she says.
Dinner is served in an elegant wood-paneled dining room, Ssempala, two of her daughters, her two nieces, and I dive into a meal of chicken, rice, salad, and an African bread called chapati. The girls chat up a stormabout fashion, school, Uganda, the United States, and sports. The exchanges are animated and spirited. Ssempala presides like a proud matriarch, sitting back and smiling as the conversation flies.
“This is off the record,” the young women announce.
Ssempala often mulls over the demands of raising a family alone in the United States. “I think it’s very important that they have roots, that they are comfortable with themselves as being Ugandans, Africans, and girls,” she says. “And citizens of the world. I want them to know what they want and to go out and get it.”
“My work robs them of some of my time, but I see it as a sacrifice they are making for their own future,” she concludes. “As a mother, if I did not fight to help build a home for them that they could call home, I would be letting them down. Now it’s up to them.” CP