Full transcript of outgoing United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray's farewell media roundtable hosted by the Media Centre in Harare on July 26, 2012:
Earnest Mudzengi (Media Centre): Welcome everybody. I would like to introduce Jillian Bonnardeaux of the U.S. Public Affairs Section who will in turn introduce Ambassador Ray and proceedings.
Jillian Bonnardeaux, Acting Public Affairs Officer (JB): As you know this is the last media roundtable the Ambassador is doing here in Zimbabwe before his term comes to its natural conclusion. This July marks fifty, five zero years of public service to the US government, twenty years in the military and thirty years working as a representative of the US Department of State in the diplomatic corps. And so his due retirement has come and I’m sure he will be happy to talk with you about that theme if asked. The Ambassador won’t be making long remarks, may be just one new announcement and some words and he will be taking your questions…With that I will turn it over to Ambassador Ray.
Ambassador Charles Ray (Amb Ray): Well as Jillian said, I don’t have any prepared remarks. I wanted to leave this as a forum for all of you who have questions, if people keep saying 50 years, it really hasn’t sunk in that I have been working for my government for half a century, which is longer for all than but for two of us have been alive in this room. And I’m looking forward to continue to serve my country but in a private capacity.
I do have one announcement; we have just received word, as many of you know the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief- PEPFAR- has been one of our signature programs here in Zimbabwe. We’ve actually been a lot luckier than most Embassy’s around the world in that we have never had a reduction in our PEPFAR funding, we have actually got increases, when others are being reduced. And again this year we were notified just recently that we will be the recipients of additional funding, we will be receiving an increase of up to 60% to 91, 2 million dollars, which means Zimbabwe will receive an additional 18, 6 million dollars for ARV medication which will bring 60 000 new patients onto ARV’s for a total that we are supporting of HIV positive patients here in Zimbabwe of a 140,000 patients.
An additional fifteen million dollars has been approved for a voluntary male circumcision programme, which despite some recent press reports, has been scientifically proven to be an effective measure for HIV prevention. Not a hundred percent, by any means, but effective. An additional five million dollars has been provided to accelerate prevention of mother and child transmission, that brings the total US government contribution of HIV /AIDS prevention in Zimbabwe to ninety one point two million dollars, which comes pretty close I believe to being a record for the amount that we have had to apply to this disease here.
Before I go to questions I would like to say, my time here in Zimbabwe has been interesting or to quote a favorite science fiction of mine, fascinating. It’s never been boring. It has often added a few more grey hairs to my already grey hair; I have never regretted any day I have been here, mainly because of the most valuable resource in this country, its people. There has been a lot of news about diamonds and other stuff, but the most valuable resource that Zimbabwe has is its people and that is what makes it fascinating to be here even sometimes during less than happy times…
Q: Ambassador, you have been in Zimbabwe as Ambassador for United States of America during the times of trouble or hardships. Now that you are leaving at the time when the draft constitution is being finalised, which is a key issue towards democratisation in Zimbabwe. How do you feel about that, I understand there were efforts by the United States toward the achievement of that?
Amb Ray: I have to clarify, I actually came in 2009. While there was still some turmoil, I really hesitate to say I was here during times of hardship because that minimizes the experiences of people who were here during the really bad times. The dollarization of the economy had taken place before I arrived, as had the establishment of the coalition government, so I guess you could say I came at a time when it was just beginning to move along the path of normalcy.
And you are right, we have supported the constitution making process, and I’m happy to see it get to where it is, these things are never without difficulties and I appreciate all of the problems that are being faced as the drafters make an effort to create a document that will be acceptable to the majority of Zimbabweans and that will continue moving the country along a path to normal functioning and productivity and prosperity. And I’m happy to see that. This is a country with enormous potential that—because of a number of factors that I’m sure all of you are aware—has not be able to live up to its full potential. I think if the constitutional process proceeds credibly and it leads to a document that the majority of Zimbabweans can accept as the basic law of the land and operate in accord with, then you will be in a more rapid acceleration along a path to being able to live up to the potential that’s obvious here.
Q: Mr Ambassador, the WikiLeaks revelations did put you in an invidious position with regards to your relationship with your hosts, with President Mugabe’s party and those who are not in his party. How far do you think that damaged your relations with your hosts? And again your predecessor never bid farewell to (President) Mugabe, are you going to bid farewell to him?
Amb Ray: Yes (Laughter)
Amb. Ray: Yes, (Laughter), I mean, to answer that question, I do have a pending request for a farewell courtesy call with the President which is just normal diplomat protocol.
On WikiLeaks we have made the official statement about that in a number of times while we neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of these so called ‘sensitive or classified documents.’ We abhor the exposure of information that puts people at risk.
On the question of the impact of that on relationships with people we talk to. Anyone who talks to a diplomat and thinks that it is a private conversation is as naïve as anyone who talks to a reporter thinks that it is a private conversation (laughter), you know, and people recognize that and the unfortunate thing is it was done in such a way that it did put a lot of people at risk in a lot of places which was an absolutely unprofessional criminal thing to do, has nothing to do with freedom of information, has more to do with pandering and posturing.
But I have to tell you I’ve been in government since in 1962 and despite all of the press about WikiLeaks, it’s not the most glaring episode that I’ve ever been involved in. Most of you aren’t old enough to recognize the term Pentagon Papers. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press, Washington bounced around like a pachinko ball because it impacted on our entire global strategy but particular of the things that the government was in some cases thinking of doing in Vietnam but it was presented in such a way that it completely destabilized the policy-making apparatus for a long time. These things happen, and it goes in cycles, when you work in government the one thing you develop is you buy yourself a set of iron underpants, because you are going to get teeth going at your nether regions frequently and you move on and do your job.
I don’t think that Wiki leaks had permanent impact on our relationship with officials here. What has had a greater impact is the that since I got off the plane in 2009 I have made it clear that as a representative of the US government is to deal with the government of Zimbabwe and the people who occupy those positions. I am not here to look for a soul mate, I have been married for 40 years, I don’t need a wife. I’m not here looking for drinking buddies, I am here to represent my government’s interests, to protect the interest of the Americans and to build bridges that enable us to work together on issues of mutual interest rather than obsessing over the areas that we disagree on. That’s a long answer to your question. I don’t know if I have answered it. But yes, WikiLeaks hasn’t had any permanent damage; it was more of an episodic thing.
Q: Your Excellency, so are you satisfied with the support that you received from the US government in terms of the…are there areas that you probably wanted reinforced?
Amb. Ray: That’s a question you should ask a diplomat or a bureaucrat in the field or a soldier. No one in the field is ever hundred percent satisfied with the support they get from headquarters for the simple reason is that headquarters has to support everyone. The most important thing to me is here, if I don’t get 100% of what I ask for of course I’m not satisfied. Has it been effective? Yes, as you saw in the announcement we have managed to get increases in funding for a lot of very (important?) programs in almost every year of the three years I’ve been here. I’m not claiming any credit for that because we were getting increases in these programs before I came and we will continue to get increases as required in those programs long after I’m gone. I don’t really want to answer that question because personally No! I don’t ever get enough support from headquarters, I would like 110% more than I’m getting. Do I get the support I need to be able to do my job, Yes.
Q: Are there specific areas that you feel need to be addressed for your successor to focus on?
Amb. Ray: It wouldn’t be fair for me (to say), because I would be doing that from my particular perspective. My successor is a professional diplomat with a lot of years of experience, actually more experience in Zimbabwe than I had when I came because he served here before and I’m fully confident that he will see what needs to be done and focus on the right priorities, what those priorities will be though I leave to him to decide.
Q: EU has embarked no a programme of reducing the impact or the spread of restrictions imposed against Zimbabwe in 2002. The US seems to be taking a tougher line. What do you see in the future along this kind of thing? Is there any inclination to reduce the strength of the restrictions now in place?
Amb Ray: That’s really hard to say. I think there is an inclination to adjust our policies based on progress on the ground. And certainly the recent EU announcement that the conduct of a credible constitutional referendum would impact on their policies will be not be ignored in Washington.
What specifically will be done, and it’s really difficult to say, I mean, first of all, with elections looming in the US it is not easy to say who will be sitting in what decision making position, so forecasting is impossible at this point.
But certainly, and I have said this on a number of occasions, that a credible electoral process free of violence and intimidation where the will of the people is respected and implementation of agreement signed by all the (political) parties here would make our current policies relevant. I mean, the ball is entirely at this end of the court. It’s a matter of doing what has been committed to be done in a credible manner and then the sanctions…sanctions were a response to a violent electoral process and other things. Once that is off the board that’s a complete game changer, then you are looking at a totally different situation.
Q: What is the position on the US government with regards to credible and peaceful elections, even after the referendum, and then President Robert Mugabe wins the elections. Is the US government prepared to accept (President) Robert Mugabe?
Amb Ray: The American government is prepared to accept whoever is selected by credible electoral process. This has been said on any number of occasions. You have to distinguish between comments made by an individual and policies of the U.S. government. Our policy is and has always been that a credible election outcome is what we seek and what we would like to see and whoever the people of Zimbabwe elect in a credible electoral process we would accept.
Q: Your Excellency, the sanctions on Zimbabwe have been in place for more than ten years, do you think they have achieved the intended results?
Well, I wasn’t working on Zimbabwe issues when this was done; I had other pressing issues at the time. I think that there were a number of objectives for those policies and I don’t think that anyone would argue that they have all been achieved. One of the objectives as I have been briefed was to encourage a change in behavior which in any case hasn’t happened and so what they primarily achieve at this point is those people who haven’t changed their behavior at least are prevented from enjoying the fruits of their bad behavior in our country… It would be nice if they achieved other aims but you pocket the small change and until there is a change in the situation, as I said a credible election where the outcome is respected. It’s hard for me to say to my government you should do away with the measures that were put in place in response to a situation when that situation has not adequately been addressed.
Q: But do you also accept that the sanctions have also negatively affected other people, probably the general population?
Amb Ray: Well, I would argue that they haven’t in a macro sense. There might be people who were affected that were not intended, let’s be real, when you do something like that there is potential of impacting people you did not intend to. I would argue though that when the UN Commissioner for Human Rights when she was here she said something in her speech at the University of Zimbabwe that people have ignored but I have a copy of her speech and I underlined it. What she said was in cases where countries impose sanctions; they assume a responsibility to take actions to mitigate the impact of those sanctions on unintended populations.
And when you look at the amount of money the US and others have spent here- food aid alone since 2000, its two billion dollars, funding for health care and other issues that we have tried to mitigate those unintended impacts on the population. Another thing she said though that I find interesting is that the State that is being sanctioned also has a responsibility to take actions to mitigate or reduce the impact of those sanctions on its population and I would argue that merely complaining about sanctions is not mitigating the impact of sanctions on your population.
Q: We have heard that sanctions have not really achieved their intended objectives We saw that the bad behavior that was supposed to be done away with by the introduction of the sanctions.... Is there any expectation that if that the bad behavior is rectified as a country we are going to have good relations with the US government? Now that there has been a creation of some allegiance of some sort, there is this introduction of the ‘Look East’ policy that on its own has created a divergence of relations with the US government and other states. Are we expecting to see a reunion with the American government, if people who are on the sanctions list repent…are we in position to expect that?
Amb. Ray: First of all merely saying I’ve repented might work in a church but there has to be actions to back up the words and as I’ve already said the conduct of peaceful and credible elections whose outcomes are respected would be a physical action that would put us in a position to change our policy. On this whole issue of relations, we have never un-united. We have had an ambassador in this country since 1980, we have never withdrawn our ambassador from Zimbabwe, we have never downgraded our relations, our relations have been a little prickly at times, and of course what we tried to do over the last three years is to make them more professional, where we could talk about issues rather than just yell at each other and throw insults back and forth.
Your comment about Look East, implicit there is that when Zimbabwe has good relations with China it can’t have relations with the US and that’s a fallacy. That’s more like saying if you are friends with her you can’t talk to him, our country develops its relations based on its perceived interest and there is no reason to think that if Zimbabwe has good, effective and productive relations with Asian countries such as China and India then it can’t also have productive relations with the US and other countries. So I don’t..there is.. Look East, Look West, Look North, Look South; you look in the direction that benefits you in that particular time.
Q: Maybe on lighter note Ambassador, what were your greatest moments and what will you miss about this country?
Amb Ray: (inaudible)… (laughter) what I will miss are the opportunities to get out in the countryside and interact with people. Some of the highlights early in my tour here I visited Matopos Hills and I went on a patrol with the rangers and we spent about three hours walking through the bush tracking a male rhino, white rhino. I’ve got this picture of a rhino from 30ft eyeing me suspiciously, one of my best photos. We only got one photo and then I left the area (laughter). A few weeks back I had the opportunity to visit Great Zimbabwe, and it is an absolute wonder when you think when that structure was built and when you look at what was done, it is absolutely amazing. The highlight of that was I actually hiked the hill to the top of it and back down without passing out because that is not a shallow walk.
The chance to visit places like Binga in the Zambezi valley, well highlights! I have had one a week. It’s been a lot of fun …I’ve been here 50 000 photos, some of them are priceless some of them are really good, I’ll miss interacting with people and seeing some great scenery, one of my favorite past times when I’m on road trips—and I don’t fly when I’m in Zimbabwe, I drive…or I ride, I don’t drive—is sticking my camera out the window and taking pictures of life along the roadside in various parts of the country, but I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that’s a whole other society on the roadside with the vendors and things that take place, that I will miss. You wouldn’t dare do as much near a roadside in America as people do her, mainly because the traffic moves so fast, it will blow you away, I will miss that.
Q: Any exhibition of some of your photos?
Amb. Ray: Maybe, something to think about (laugher).
Q: Your Excellency, you’ve talked about your best moments, what about your worst moments?
Amb Ray: I think the worst moments are times when violence is taking place and people have been hurt. When things has been done that defy logic, you know for instance when the Minister of Tourism was in Europe, the year before last trying to promote Zimbabwe as a tourism destination….but when the minister was in Europe trying to promote Zimbabwe as a tourism destination and a group of people forcibly occupied a tourist site here and barricade people inside which created international news and put the minister in a very embarrassing position. Those are the moments that I would like to erase from my memory, because it makes no sense. Its like shooting yourself in the foot reloading and taking aim again.
Q: You have been here almost during the duration of the Unity government; do you think it has worked?
Amb. Ray: …yes, if you think about the situation before that government was formed, then you can see that the alternative to having a coalition government is something I don’t think anyone wanted. Coalition governments are like shotgun marriages, they never work perfectly but then the world doesn’t work perfectly. The idea is not to complain because it is not perfect; the idea is to identify how you can make it work better and improve it everyday. You are going to fall down a lot as you go through life. I define success as the string of failures that you survive and learn from. The idea is to, when you fall down, not to lie there and cry about it but to wake up and keep moving and I think that that’s what this government has been trying to do, not all successfully, but whoever is a 100% successful?
Q: You have been engaged in grassroots projects that includes youth development. Are there any projects that you can say are going to be sustainable enough even if you are not there?
Amb Ray: Yes, I think, we have a project…we work with rural families, and some of them are in economically depressed areas, to teach internal financing, which is basically teaching rural people in an area to use their own resources and pool their resources in a way that they can leverage…each individual in a community has a small amount but if they can pool their resources; they can develop enough money that they can then provide small loans to people for income generating projects. I visited one of the areas and after about 18 months of the project they had gone from really poor housing with thatched roofs that needed repair to new houses with new roofs and electric irrigation pumps. It was a complete transformation, it had reached that point without a penny of assistance other than training from us or from the government, with their own resources.
One group of women that I talked to said they started out contributing one dollar per woman per month and in 18 months they had gotten up to twenty dollars per member from their little savings club an I’m very proud of it because it was all their money. That’s sustainability when you can get people to a point when they are not depending on donations or contributions or external aid, but are learning to leverage their own resources, you create sustainable programmes that don’t really require you to be there, because this is their program. It’s not the US government programme or the programme of the Zimbabwean government, it is a program belonging to those people in that village.
So yeah, and I think a number of other areas where the programs will go on their own steam, that’s our objective; it’s not to make people dependant on our programs but to get people started so that people can then take ownership of and continue on their own. I don’t believe in giving people handouts. I’m always willing to give a hand up, but once I get you up I’m not turning you loose, because I don’t like charity. I grew up on a dirt poor farm in rural Texas in the 1940s and 1950s, I had never heard of welfare or government aid until I was an adult because people from the town I grew up in, when they could not do it themselves, …so I have an aversion to charity and I believe people should be helped to do it for themselves.
Q: You spoke earlier on about the conditions needed for the lifting of the sanctions and mentioned chiefly violence and also the meeting of the implementation of the agreements already made under the GPA, what is your feeling how things are going generally? How do you feel about the chance of resumption of violence, do you see signs of violence, preparation, what are your feelings about the military?
Amb Ray: That’s a lot of questions. There are disturbing signs of the potential of violence; there’ve been reports of some incidents even recently that could become problematic in an election environment. I’ve said it on a number of occasions so I don’t think it needs to be repeated too much but I spent 20 years of my life as professional soldier and I have very strong views on the role of the military in a society. The role of the military is to defend the nation and in order to do that you need to develop a degree of professionalism and while it does not mean that military people are not entitled to have political views, it means that military people, in order to remain professional and in service to the country, must delink their personal political convictions from carrying out their professional duties.
Q: You talked about sustainable projects that you have engaged in for the development of the communities and now we look at the constitution making process and devolution is one of the pressing issue and one issue that is actually stalling the effectiveness or the fast completion of the constitution making process.
When we look at devolution of power and we look at marginalisation and social seclusion, we realize that in Zimbabwe Matabeleland, is on the margin of development and a secluded region, so to say. Is there any recommendation that you can give to have a reuniting of a marginalized communities like Matabeleland so that national growth becomes equitable?
Amb Ray: My general recommendation would be that efforts should be made by everyone to dismantle the artificial barriers that have been constructed across the entire country, not just one region. I sense as I look around, as I talk to people, as I listen to people talk, there are so many divisions that have been created here that impede national development because they put people in these little pockets of exclusiveness where they are unable or unwilling to deal with others.
I mean you have, what’s the term ‘born free’ versus the, you know, the liberators, you have Matabeleland versus the rest of Zimbabwe. You have women vs. men, you have all kinds of artificial labels that are applied to people and while that’s natural in every society, you know, I’m from Texas, I vote independent, I like to play golf, those are all labels but when those labels become so important that, well, if you are from Mash West I can’t talk to you, if you belong to this church we can’t be seen together, you really put hobbles on the ability of a country to move forward.
The effort needs to be made to minimize the importance of all these labels. I mean you know if you’re MDC you can’t talk to anyone from Zanu PF. I’m sorry you’re all Zimbabweans and at the end of the day, if everybody tries to row their little part of the boat in their own chosen direction, you’ve just going to spin around in circles and go nowhere. So there has to be, and I’m not saying that people should give up their identities, I’m saying that you subordinate that specific identity on occasion to the good of the greater whole of the nation of Zimbabwe and the most important label that should apply is Zimbabwean. Not political party, not which region you come from, which tribe or what family or whatever, the important label that should matter (is) the national label, ‘I am a Zimbabwean’ and I will do what will make my country move forward. Once I’ve done that I might go and fight with him because he is from the wrong side of town, but we put those differences aside when necessary to move the country forward, that’s my advice.
Q: Ambassador, what is your perception, what perception did you have of Zimbabwe, before you came, what perception do you hold now, well fine the perception you hold now is that you want unity et cetera, but when you came first time what was your perception?
Amb. Ray: I actually was rather distorted because I had been subjected to, when I was approached in the summer of 2008 and asked to defer my retirement and take the job from about July 2008 until July 2009. I was given a weekly brief , I worked in the Pentagon ,so I had all these Colonels running around giving me papers to read, and one of the papers they gave me to read weekly was a press summary in the international media that talked about Zimbabwe.
I remember from July 2008 to July 2009, there were a lot of bad things happening and there were pictures of empty supermarket shelves, you know, so I have to say my view was that I was going to get off the plane and I wasn’t going to be particularly pleased with what I saw on the drive to the Embassy. I got a few official briefings that really weren’t a lot more accurate or nuanced than the media reports because everyone focused on every negative incident. And so I had a year or more, I had about a year and a half of these negative incidents crammed into my head on a weekly basis. I almost withdrew my offer to come here at one point, my wife pressed me to withdraw my offer and go ahead and retire but I had made a promise so I said I don’t care. I’ll do it, can’t be all that bad.
And I’m walking through this, you can understand the impact, we flew into Johannesburg and we sat on a plane at the Johannesburg airport for three hours with these constant announcement over the thing, ‘we can’t take off because there has been an incident at the airport involving a warthog’ (laughter) at the airport in Harare. Imagine I’m hearing this added with all the other negative incidents and I’m thinking ‘wow, what am I getting myself into’ (laughter).
We finally after three hours take us off the plane, they put us in a hotel before dawn the next morning, take us back to the airport and we finally fly here and we land…and as I’m getting off the plane I’m like ‘oh, I’ve been in worst in places.’ And the airport was functioning like any airport in the world and my driver was waiting and we get in the car we drive in, I didn’t see anyone carrying a gun , until we passed State House, the ceremonial guards (laughter) and the traffic lights happened to be working that day. So I was, I was a bit thrown off because it wasn’t- you develop these pictures in your head and I couldn’t, the traffic was flowing normally, people were walking normally and guys were hiking. You didn’t have quite as many newspapers as you do now, but guys were selling newspapers on the streets, we passed a couple of shops and I saw people coming out with their carts with stuff, so, obviously the shelves were no longer empty.
And thus began my re-orientation. That while yes there are many bad things that have happened, there are positive things that have happened which were missing in the coverage and the briefings. Life is not one color in its many shades, while there were bad things happening there are positive things happening. You have to sort of look at all the things and get a fuller picture.
And I realise when I had been here for about two months, you could come here as a visitor and stay here in Harare for a week or two and never realize if you didn’t read the newspapers that there might be something happening three of four kilometers away- like in any place else in the world. My view is there are a lot of things that need fixing here as there are in many countries.
But there are a lot of things that are working and in order to be productive and trying to fix the things that need fixing you have to recognize, that if you go in and see the flat tyre on one side of the car and you don’t notice the rest of the car might be out of gas so you put in a new tyre and still go nowhere. You get what I’m saying, is you have to look at the whole picture and the only way you get it unfortunately in our current media environment is by coming here and seeing for yourself.
Q: What are you views on Zimbabwe’s human rights and track record and do you feel that a new constitution will address some of those issues, considering that the GPA was formed as a result of the track record of the human rights issues.
Amb. Ray: Well, I think that the human rights situation could be improved. A constitution, as I’ve said a number of times, is a piece of paper, it is the commitment of the people to live to what’s in that constitution, that impacts on human rights, legal rights and other rights. If you write a beautiful constitution but no one obeys it, you haven’t improved a thing, what is more important than the constitution itself is the commitment to abide by the constitution.
Q: I may want to bring you back to Brian’s question about perceptions. You had all these pictures, perceptions, that had been created reports that you were being given. What is your comment in regards to the media in general be it the local in terms of shaping people’s perception?
Amb. Ray: My comment to the media is something that…I used to work for newspapers in North Carolina back in the 60s and 70s and I had a crusty old editor who grew up, if you’ve ever seen the movies with the guys with pencil in their teeth and crumply hats, I mean this guy was from that school of journalism and his was: when you report a story get all the information related to that story not just one side of it. If it’s bad so be it. If it’s good, write it. If its mixture write it all let the reader make the decision, don’t try to shape your readers opinion by how you report the news. And what it means is that when you go into a place normally, particular outside media, or you got to a place because something “news worthy” has happened and you report that.
But I was always told, when you do that, spend a little more extra time and see if there is more to the story than what first hit you. As my old editor used to say; never make up a quote. If they didn’t say it never say they said it. Never leave things out because you don’t agree with it or you don’t like it. If you can’t report on the issues you don’t like, then you shouldn’t be a reporter, because when you go out there, I used to do, I worked in an area in North Carolina where they, in 1978, they still had active chapters of the Ku Klux Clan and I have to go and report on these guys and trust me, they weren’t pleasant. The story you go out and you get and if you can’t go out and get it you turn your reporter’s notebook in and go sell cars. That’s my advice (laughter).
Q: Obviously Ambassador there is so much talk about sanctions and…
Amb Ray: There is too much talk about sanctions (laughter)
Q: Yeah, do you really think sanctions are the problem where Zimbabweans should really be focusing?
Amb Ray: I think what Zimbabwe should be focusing is on building its human capital; on encouraging the small and medium businesses here to expand, grow and create jobs; to, as I said, try and minimize the impact of all these artificial divisions so that the people feel better about themselves, feel more economically secure and capitalize on the positive things rather than obsess on the negative.
You can talk a lot about the things that you can’t do. But you still can’t do them after you have talked about them so what was the point of the conversation, if on the other hand you look at the things you can’t do. You know, as I was, my last, I don’t remember who I was meeting with, some government official, and I said something, it sort of popped out and I didn’t think about it until I said it. I said, you know, when I take a job I always knew there are always things I am told you cannot do this, fine, I make that list, I look at it, I memorize it and I put it aside. I look for the things that need to be done that are not on that list that I am not told I can’t do and I do them until someone says ‘oops we need to add that on the list too!’
I also focus on things that I absolutely must do to keep things going. And, you know, when you do that, it’s funny, the things that you are told you are can’t do they become less important, because you will find in life, most of you are young enough to remember when you were kids, you always looking for the things that your parents didn’t tell you not to do told to see how much you could get away with. That’s really how you make life interesting. And you will be surprised how much you can get done when you focus on the things you haven’t been told you can’t do.
Q: Because you still have guys who say we can’t even move an inch because of the situation that we have…
Amb Ray: Well, I mean, that’s horse (words indistinct)…I am sorry (laughter) that’s…people who say that oh because you have that policy I can’t get anything done are saying I don’t wanna do anything….I mentioned working with the rural families, when I first came here and I had a meeting and I was told “well, you know, because of your sanctions you can’t do anything with the Ministry of Agriculture,” and I said “I bet you, we can.”
First thing I know we can do is we can talk and we can share information. That led to the realisation that were a lot of rural families that needed help, that needed a particular kind of help and that we were not prohibited from helping. Within months we were assisting some 120,000 rural families who have now experienced an increase in their disposable income and who have an improved quality of life. So, that you know, all it takes is one exception to the rule to completely negate the rule. To say that we can’t move an inch because of sanctions, well, we can’t move down this path but that’s not the only path in the woods.
Q: Ambassador, do you have any business or financial interests in Zimbabwe?
Amb. Ray: Me? No
Q: No (laugher)
Amb. Ray: No. I’m sort of an old fashioned sticker, I write, I’ve written more than 22 books and as long as you are an ambassador, you can’t do that. Even if it weren’t prohibited by our ethical regulations it would compromise my ability to make objective decisions if I had business interests. So no, I don’t have. I have a lot of personal contact of people that I do enjoy being with. But no, no business interests. No. Once I’ve retired and I’ve sort of had the time to decompress, I’m not saying I might not look this way, but no.
Q: And any military bases in Botswana?
Amb. Ray: Any who?
Q: Military bases in Botswana?
Amb. Ray: Well there are Botswana military bases in Botswana.
Q: US bases?
Amb. Ray: No and no plans for any. No plans for any. We work with the Botswana military and there is joint training…Do you realize how incredibly complicated it is to build a US military base anywhere outside the US. Let me explain to you what happens when the US decides to build a military base and it might give you an idea why it ain’t gonna happen here. First thing they do is they have to have housing for not only the soldiers but all their families and the guys that run the motor pool, the guys that run the chapel and the guys that run… the dining room, the post exchange and the store and the commissary and the theater and the bowling alley and the tennis courts (laughter).
So an American unit for a thousand people turns into a base of about nine thousand people, because they got to have a school for the kids, a church for the people that go to church, a commissary to buy food a PX to buy their CDs and their cigarettes and stuff and, it’s a very expensive, labor intensive vast undertaking and I don’t think most of… probably the only country in this region that would the infrastructure that could actually absorb the US military base is South Africa but we all know that ain’t gonna happen.
Q: In your engagement and interaction with Zimbabweans, what do you think about our work ethic, ah, in terms of relating with foreigners like you?
I think Zimbabweans have a very good work ethic. You’ve got to go to Johannesburg and talk to people there about who their preferred workers are. I think what, and as far as interacting with foreigners, actually in some cases I have noticed that, because of these artificial divisions, Zimbabweans interact better with foreigners than Zimbabweans carrying the wrong label (laughter).
On of the things and I have to tell you, this is not only here, I have interacted with the Diaspora in England and in the US. I was shocked when I went to a meeting of about 40 Zimbabweans living in the Washington last year. And of the 40 people sitting in the room only three had ever spoken to each other before. They were all strangers. Yet they live, I mean, Washington DC is not a big area, its relatively small the population of the Washington metropolitan area, is just slightly over 1 million, yet you had 40 Zimbabweans who’d been living in the Washington area, in some cases for ten years or more, who had never met each other. Which is, is a bit disturbing when you think, I mean they have all common interests and they are hardworking and successful people but they didn’t interact with each other very well. They interacted with other people in their community.
I met a young Zimbabwean in Atlanta for five years and said she didn’t realize that there was a church predominantly Zimbabwean until a week before she decided to come back here. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed.
Q: You spoke earlier about the Ku Klux Klan, and I just wondered when you came to Africa did you have any sense of homecoming as an African-American experience for coming to Africa?
That’s a very tough question to answer because, I was never part of that establishment, you know take and take, take on the special name back then African movement, for the simple reasons I’ve been a student of history and one thing I recognize decades ago that many of my African American brothers in the US don’t recognise or fail to recognise is that Americans have an African descent for the most part, now that changes now with the immigrations from the continent, have no idea in most cases what part of Africa, what of the thousands of tribes and languages they might have come from, so for me to come here and say I’ve come home is a bit of a joke in all likelihood, I mean wow I like Zimbabwe it’s a beautiful place in all likelihood my African ancestors came from somewhere in West Africa, in one of the hundreds of tribes there, for me to go there and say I’m home,(laughter) where the hell is home, I mean you know, and I’m not saying that in a negative sense, I try to relate to Africa in all of its complexity , beauty and nuance not a place that I can call home because I have no idea where to start looking for home.
There are, in, you know, the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina are one of the few places where the traditional African Americans whose ancestors were slaves can actually trace their ancestry back because they lived in isolation for 150 years and they retained a lot of their language, a lot of their language and their customs because they didn’t travel much, their genetic pool didn’t change, so the Sea Islands, what we call the Gullah people of the Sea Islands of South Carolina Georgia were able to trace their ancestry to specific villages in Sierra Leone. They are the only African Americans from that group who can do that, I mean my African ancestors were probably landed in South Carolina, moved up in Mississippi, wound up Texas were they ended up married Scots, native Americans, who the hell knows who else?
My only ancestors who I can trace specifically are the native American ancestors who’ve lived for thousands of years in one little area in upper East Texas. The rest my European ancestors, I don’t know, my African ancestors are from somewhere there, so my coming was, it was another part of the world. When I left home in 1962 I was determined to see as much of the world as I possibly could- that’s every continent. The only continent I’m missing is Antarctica (laughter) and I’m working on that. That’s me personally, that’s how I view it, is coming to Africa was not coming home but to a new adventure, to learn some new things to meet new people to experience new cultures.
Home for me, I don’t even want to go back there, there is a little place of red dirt, pine trees and snakes in East Texas and the most beautiful site of that was the rear view mirror of the bus as I was leaving (laughter).
Q: Any chance of a career after you retire in standup comedy?
Amb. Ray: If I could sit down and do it. No I try to inject a little humor in my writing; I couldn’t make a living as standup comedian, could I?
Q: You could (Laughter)
Q: Ambassador, you are retiring, why is it so difficult for African leaders to retire, some of the African leaders?
Amb Ray: This is not exclusive to Africa. There is a saying that “power corrupts”, I think when people get a taste of power it is hard to let go. And when you don’t have a lot of other options it’s harder. A lot of people in politics, we have it in the U.S., we have had people who got a taste of that office and just didn’t wanna let go. I think really the main thing is that what people do to get to power and they don’t have alternatives to their positions of power cause them to be reluctant to let go.
When you are in sort of ‘winner take all or loser gets the trash’ type of environment you are not really creating a situation where people in power are gonna willingly walk away from it. What you need is an environment where if you lose political office you can go do something else that is productive while you stage a comeback (laughter). In most developing countries what is the fallback position for the guy in power if he is out of power? So I think that, again, like I said, it is not just typical of Africa, you look at a lot of countries in other parts of the world, especially people who have had to use violence to get into power in the first place
JB: Interesting conclusion, thank you Ambassador, thank you everybody who came…thanks to the Media Centre as always for having us. I think we now have a gap until the new Ambassador arrives we look forward to having him here as I am sure most of you are looking forward to.
Amb Ray: Good luck to all of you.
Issued by the U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section. Queries and comments should he submitted to Jillian Bonnardeaux, email@example.com, Url: http://harare.usembassy.gov