How I Became a Citizen Diplomat by Robin M. Wilson

Updated: May 8, 2020

"Average Americans, in their natural state, are the best ambassadors a country can have."--- William Lederer

Note: The names of individuals mentioned in this article will not be disclosed for the protection of individuals' privacy.

Lemon chicken, baked yams, purple cabbage, asparagus, black bean and split pea soup, and peach cobbler lined the serving table. The dining room table was set for six. The day before, I spent several hours preparing the main course for our special guest.

I knew that she was an International Women of Courage Award (IWC) recipient and that she had traveled from Burkina Faso, West Africa. However, her identity had been concealed until we were closer to the date of her arrival to ensure her safety.

The U.S. Secretary of State’s IWOC Award recognizes women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.

The IWOC Award recipient who was scheduled to arrive at my home was a women’s rights activist and public servant working to eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced child marriages in Burkina Faso. So, I was eager to meet her and to learn more about her story, and so were my friends.

She arrived with her translator clothed in a regal purple gele that was adorned with floral jewel beading on the crown. It matched her purple and orange ankle-length tuntun fani (a type of textile which is a mix of cotton and silk) dress and orange wooden-beaded necklace and earrings.

When she spoke, she had a pleasant and gracious nature. Her first language was French. So, I relished in the opportunity to speak to her in French. Global Ties Detroit, a nonprofit organization that hosts international exchange programs on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other governmental organizations, universities, and think tanks that promote global exchange and citizen diplomacy, coordinated her visit to my home.

As a member of Global Ties Detroit, I was asked to serve as a citizen diplomat by hosting a dinner in her honor. It was my first time hosting a foreign national. Still, I understood my role in representing my community and country by welcoming her into my home, and I simply wanted to show good will towards her.

To welcome her, I bought items from local women-owned businesses. I gave her a card and a small writing journal from Source Booksellers and a box of orange ginger tea from Socra Tea. I wanted her to leave with beautiful things that would remind her of her visit to Michigan.

When I gave her the gift, she rose from her seat and brought over a cotton fabric that had a Burkina Faso textured print. It contained two inscriptions written in French. The first read: Journée Internationale De La Femme (International Women’s Day).

The second inscription read: Crise Sécuritaire Au Burkina Faso: Quelles Stratégies Pour Une Meilleure Résilience Des Femmes? Security Crisis In Burkina Faso: What Strategies for Women’s Resilience?

For a moment, I thought that she was simply showing me the beautiful gift that she had received at the recent Security of State’s IWC Award reception that was held at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C.. However, the interpreter clarified that she was giving the fabric to me.

Initially, I graciously declined to accept the fabric because it was too precious and she had earned the right to have the fabric. It was her advocacy and work that was honored with that gift. Still, I could tell from the sudden shift in her facial expression that it would have hurt her for me not to accept it. So, I humbly accepted the fabric.

Before she left, we took a group photo in my dining room and exchanged contact information. She was on her way to her next destination before returning to Burkina Faso. She shared that she felt like she had gained new sisters. This warmed my heart because my goal was to make her feel at home. She invited me and my friends to visit her home in the future.

It is my hope that I will have an opportunity to visit her in Burkina Faso to further support the work that she is involved in for the advancement of women’s rights. I would like to visit her center for women and meet the girls that she mentioned during our conversation.

According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in countries where the practice is concentrated. Furthermore, there are an estimated 3 million girls at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year. In Burkina Faso, nearly 90 percent of girls who are under the age of ten experience FGM.

Her activism challenges the status quo and brings about transformative change for girls whose lives are being negatively impacted by FGM and forced marriages. In my view, these are not merely women’s rights issues but human rights issues.

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