About the Author: Michael Koplovsky is the charge' d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia.
This year in Lusaka, Zambia, we celebrated American Independence Day on June 12. June 12? But why? You see, there was this big sports match going on here in the region -- perhaps you've heard something about it. On June 12, the United States debuted in the first World Cup held on the African continent. On June 12, the United States played England. We Americans were underdogs in that match. We were expected to lose. But I reminded our guests that we were underdogs in 1775, too. In honor of the World Cup and the distinctly American flavor of a sports day, we took a chance and hosted an extremely informal national day event. And it was a big hit! Now, usually I would be expected to give remarks extolling our bilateral relationship with Zambia and inventory our development assistance and agreements. Such speeches send important messages about the importance of responsible and responsive government, about promoting peace and international cooperation, or about defending important freedoms and basic human rights. We noted the value of freedom and international cooperation and a government for the people.
But this year we dispensed with formalities, we let our hair down and we celebrated freedom and independence in a memorable way. We competed in quintessentially American games and sports while our guests enjoyed burgers, beer and Crackerjacks. (Yes, Crackerjacks in Africa!) Because you see, diplomacy is about more than just delivering serious, thoughtful demarches to the Foreign Ministry and implementing development assistance programs. Official representation is about more than press conferences and bilateral meetings. A crucial aspect of U.S. diplomacy is public diplomacy, our ongoing efforts to enhance mutual understanding among peoples. While World Cup fever raged in southern Africa and across the globe, we wanted to show our pride in our own home-grown sports and activities. And we wanted to share those with our Zambian hosts -- to build our mutual understanding and appreciation for our cultures. We embraced our inherent American-ness, donned sports jerseys, sneakers, and jeans, and organized a day of fun and frolic. Our guests got to know America and our culture better by throwing, not kicking a football -- one of our oblong, American footballs -- by tossing a beanbag into a hole, by jumping “double dutch,” by shooting baskets, by hopping down the lawn of the official residence in a sack and by pulling with all their might on the end of a thick rope.
So for one day we left behind talk of sustainable development strategies and of transparent political processes. We refrained from commemorating our successes in tackling terrorism, narcotics trafficking and climate change. And we forgot about bilateral trade and investment statistics. Instead, we got to know our contacts and colleagues as people. We let our guard down and had a go at tossing a bean bag or an American football. On that afternoon “joining together” meant competing in our three legged-race; excellent “donor coordination” was displayed through the double jump rope; and “African unity” described the winning tug-of-war team. There was no small talk, just trash talk; gentle polite applause was traded for rowdy cheers; and rather than clinking wine glasses, we heard the laughter that meant everybody was having fun. We celebrated America's national day in a way that would be immediately apparent to any American. And, after a few hours, we found that sportsmanship, fair play, self-deprecation, childish joy, and yes, for a few of us (and we know who we are), ardent competitiveness are universal and know no national boundaries.
We successfully bridged the divides, built the personal relationships, and attained the mutual understanding which will make everything else so much easier to achieve.
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