To think I was supposed to be in Cairo…how different life would be.
A few years ago when I started my career at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, my initial thought was that I would begin my life as a young diplomat somewhere in the Middle East, or dealing solely with it. So, when I received notice of a possible posting at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, it came as no surprise. However, a day before I was to be appointed there, I received a surprising phone call from my superior that forever changed my career path and my life: my posting had been changed and I was to be sent to Israel's Embassy in East Africa, located in Nairobi, Kenya.
To be honest, I had no idea what to expect as I had never been to Africa before. Nonetheless, the opportunity seemed exciting and new. As I readied myself for the journey that lay ahead, I tried to imagine what life in Kenya would be like but assumed it would be completely different from anything I was used to.
Indeed, a new world it was, not only with regards to what I was able to discover about Kenya and East Africa, but also what I discovered about myself and the country I represent, Israel. There is something very special and unique about Kenya specifically, something hard to fully grasp until one truly has had the opportunity to experience the land and culture in person. The vibrant colors and energy of the nation engulfed me as soon as I landed there—but it was the people and their genuine kindness that struck me the most.
I vividly remember the taxi I took from the airport upon landing in Nairobi for the first time. I immediately found myself engaged in conversation with the driver, whom upon hearing I was from Israel, smiled and said "thank you." I was surprised and asked him what the thank you was for. As we approached the city, he pointed at various buildings and said that it is common knowledge that these buildings were built by Israel in the course of the 1960s, in addition to some of the major roads, soon after Kenya gained its independence from the British. He also mentioned Israel's positive role in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda attack on the American embassy in the heart of Nairobi in 1998. I quickly realized how much more there was to learn about the people of Kenya, of this beautiful trait of gratitude and thankfulness. Here it was: my first diplomatic lesson—being able to remember acts of kindness and show appreciation is a principle not only valid in personal life, but also extends to governmental relations, as a form of people-to-people diplomacy between human beings.
Every day as I entered the Embassy building, I was greeted by the picture of Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, holding hands with Israel's Former Foreign Minister Golda Meir during her first visit to Kenya. That inspiring image was one that guided my aspiration to join hands in sharing Israeli knowledge and promoting each other's strongest qualities. As a result of Meir's visit, Israel's Foreign Ministry established MASHAV: Israel's Center for International Cooperation, based on Israel's best resource, its human resource. The courage, ambition, kindness, professionalism and desire to help are leading elements of Israeli community and society, all of which we found in Kenya as well. This desire to reach out and assist others was and still is the basis of Israel's diplomacy of the heart all over the world.
The diplomatic friendship that connects Israel and Africa is strong and deep. Just like Israel, Africa faced a similar problem of development, limited resources and dry climate. MASHAV has played a positive role in Kenya and other places around the World. Learning together how to better cope with drought, as well as making life easier for farmers with drip irrigation systems, are examples of making a difference in the life of individuals, which had a real impact on my appreciation of what diplomacy can actually achieve.
Goodwill inspires people to dare rather than despair. The beautiful Israeli-African dance that began so many years ago continues today with people reaching out and making a difference. Heart to heart diplomacy, face to face conversations, hands holding hands: this is a universal lesson that I hope we can all learn from and take part in today's diplomacy, both in our personal lives as well as the global arena.