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The Tanzanian ambassador: Mark Green reflects on his experiences in Africa
Green in his office: 'Once [Africa] gets in your blood, it's not something that goes away.'
Green in his office: 'Once [Africa] gets in your blood, it's not something that goes away.'
Credit:Christopher Guess

At first glance, Mark Green's office looks like one you might see anywhere in Wisconsin. There's a collection of baseball caps in Packer green and gold, as well as Badger red and Brewers blue. Pencil erasers and coasters made of yellow cheesehead foam sit on his desk.

But if you look out the window in January, you'll see tall palm trees and lush green grass. That's because Green is the U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, an East African nation near the equator.

Green, 48, is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, from Wisconsin's 8th District. But Africa has long been a big part of his life and consciousness, going back to the late 1980s, when he volunteered as a teacher in rural Kenya.

"Once [Africa] gets in your blood," says Green, "it's not something that goes away."

After Green lost his spirited race for governor against Jim Doyle in 2006 and finished his term in Congress, he thought his political career might be over. But before leaving Washington, he stopped by the White House to say he might be interested in a different kind of public service.

Then, one day in early 2007, Green came home to Oneida from a swim meet in Green Bay to find messages on every one of his electronic devices from Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin). President Bush was looking to replace then-ambassador Michael Retzer after he clashed with the head of the Peace Corps in Tanzania.

After Green's nomination was approved by Congress in August 2007, he and his family moved to Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania. It was a big deal for Green, his wife and three kids.

"For us, going on vacation was traveling to the farm in East Troy," Green says. "I'd never been in Dar, I'd never been in an embassy, so I wasn't sure what to expect."

What Green found in Tanzania was a relatively stable but poor country that shares a complicated past with the U.S. On Aug. 7, 1998, car bombs exploded outside the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, Kenya. In Dar es Salaam, the blast destroyed the embassy, killing 11 people and injuring 85.

In Nairobi, more than 200 people were killed and thousands were injured. The attacks put Osama bin Laden on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list.

But in the main, since it was founded in 1964 (with the merger of Tanganyika and Zanzibar), modern Tanzania has enjoyed relative peace and stability. The nation, unlike many of its East African neighbors, has seen no serious intertribal violence, despite the presence of more than 100 tribes.

But Tanzania is one of the poorest and least-developed nations on earth. It ranked 152nd out of 179 countries in the United Nations' Human Development Index, which compares the health, literacy and income level of people around the world.

U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region, says Green, are focused on combating poverty and disease. The goals are to help people, improve the United States' image abroad and promote U.S. security.

"Poverty does not cause terrorism," says Green. "But terrorists can exploit conditions of despair that poverty certainly makes much worse."

Unlike two-thirds of ambassadors who are career diplomats, Green is a political appointee. His background in foreign policy comes mostly from his time spent in Congress, where he served on the House International Relations Committee. But it's Green's experience with Harvard's WorldTeach program that gives him credibility, with both aid workers and the ordinary Tanzanians he meets.

"I know what it's like to teach in a classroom that has no electricity, has no glass in the windows, where children walk for miles just to get to class, where during the rainy season we canceled class because there were holes in the roof," Green says.

Some members of Congress were skeptical of Green's nomination, citing his lack of diplomatic experience. But Green seems to embrace his role as an outsider. On the whiteboard in his office, there's a quote from Mark Twain: "Thunder is good, thunder is impressive. But it is lightning that does the work."

Green explains that while many diplomats are trained to talk, and rightfully so, "my view is that literally you talk louder by just doing things." He prefers face-to-face interactions with Tanzanians and local leaders to what he calls the traditional "cocktail circuit."

The volume of U.S. aid to Tanzania increased dramatically in February 2008, when President Bush came to the country and signed an agreement with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete. It will provide $698 million in aid over five years, to go towards developing the nation's infrastructure, from power plants to roads. It's a welcome investment in a country where rains turn roads to riverbeds and blackouts are so common many people have flashlights on their cell phones.

One of Green's biggest concerns when distributing funds is corruption. Tanzania is still recovering from a series of scandals, one of which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Edward Lowassa. Green says the embassy keeps a close eye on how money is spent: "We're willing to help, but we're not going to be taken advantage of."

Green's time in Africa may soon be coming to an end. Since all ambassadors are presidential appointments, the incoming Obama administration could appoint someone else to the post. But whether or not he remains in Africa, Green is optimistic for the future of U.S. diplomacy in the country.

"I think it's fair to say that President Clinton opened the door to Africa for Americans, and I think President Bush opened the door and walked through with these great programs that we're doing," he says. "I see no reason why President Obama isn't going to take it to new heights."

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