Darcy Zotter, a U.S Department of State Career Foreign Service Officer, has worked as the Public Affairs Officer at the US Consulate since 2016. Preparatory to her retirement after 25 years of active service in different parts of the world, she spoke with select journalists about her work and experience working in Nigeria. HANNAH OJO was there.

You have worked as a teacher in different parts of the world prior to joining the US Department of State. Can you share the experience of your journey into diplomacy?

I was a teacher in Indonesia, and there is a man who was an American diplomat, and he really thought that it was a kind of big deal. I was very proud of being a teacher. So, this guy said to me, ‘If you are so smart, take the test.’ I thought, ‘I’m a teacher, I am smart.’ So I took the test and I passed. I failed the oral part, so I took the whole thing all over again, and that was how I became a diplomat. When I got the letter inviting me to join the US foreign service, I also got a letter inviting me for another teaching job. I remember my husband and I trying to decide what to do. But a friend admonished me to join the foreign service, saying, ‘If you pass off this opportunity, you may never have it again. That is a lesson that has stood me in good stead.

What challenges did you encounter at the initial stage of your career and how did you handle them?

Some of the initial challenges were just that in a teaching situation, you get into a kind of a rhythm of the year. But in diplomacy, you don’t have that. It is like going to work every day, so I wasn’t really used to that. The second thing was when I became a diplomat, my first tour was in China. I was the only woman and that was a big switch. When I joined the U.S foreign service, only 11 per cent of the political officers were women. None of the people in Chinese language training was a woman except me. When I went to the US embassy in Beijing, I was the only woman and there were 18 men. So that was one of the first biggest challenges to get over. The second one is that I have a tendency to be very candid. If you ask me a question, I’m going to give you an answer. And I remember thinking now that I work for the US government, I can’t say my personal opinion since I have to know the US government position on a particular issue. That was something else I learned how to do. To not just talk! Were there times you got into trouble for ‘just talking’? Sort of! (laughs).

I remember, this was one of my first tours and it had to do with China. And I told people (it was really sort of arcane issue) that I didn’t think it was important. I remember saying to someone, ‘it’s not something that we are focused on’. Well, the truth of the matter was the U.S at large may not be focused on it, but some people were very focused on it.

What was your reaction when you were posted to serve in Nigeria?

A lot of thoughts. First, I was very happy to be coming home to Africa. I sat next to a man for almost two years back in Washington who convinced me that if I hadn’t served in Africa, I couldn’t really call myself an American foreign service officer. Also, this particular man (his name is Mark) told me that I would like the dynamism and the energy of an African post.

And I thought okay, that was really good. The third factor, speaking candidly, was that I didn’t want to have to learn another language. So I agreed since Nigerians speaks English. Originally, there was an element of me that was very happy. But on the negative side, my mother was more worried about me coming to Africa than she was about me going to Afghanistan. My son was a curious about me coming to Nigeria. There was all sort of security concerns, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I remember going to some people to ask what I should wear on the first day at work, and I remember people telling me ‘wear bright colours and necklaces.’ That was my excuse to run around and buy a lot of colourful dresses and beaded necklaces. Now I am not sure if that really made a difference, but I do remember that sort of being excited at wearing bright colours.

You’ve worked in Nigeria since 2016. What memorable moment can you count?

I remember being here for three days and I went for a dinner at the Intercontinental hotel. The people were all very nice and polite. My first impression was that they kept saying so many nice things about the United States, and I thought, ‘do they really mean that?” Because every other country I worked in didn’t really like the US or Americans. Second impression was very quickly, the discussion turned into politics, and they were about 10 people ranging in age from mid-twenties up the sixties. Within a minute or two, all of the Nigerian guests had forgotten that we were there, because they were so vigorously debating Nigerian politics. And I remember then it was about the government.

I have been in countries where it was much more repressive and you don’t criticise the government. And I remember thinking, ‘these people like lively argument, these people are well informed, this is a country I am going to fit into.

Living in Lagos, how did you manage the change in lifestyle, especially in the aspect of the food and culture?

My first year here was a bit more difficult because I was afraid of the food, the traffic, and I was afraid to go walking. But slowly, I travelled a lot with people in my office and I would watch them eat and I would say ‘can I eat that?’ My one problem with the food is I really can’t eat spicy food. I remember one of the first things that happened when we went to an Education USA programme and the person from public affairs said to me, ‘Oh, we have small chops!’ and all I was thinking about small chops being little pieces of things all chopped up. I had no idea what small chops meant.

Then she gave me a box of small chops and I opened it up, and they were all these yummy fried foods. Who doesn’t like fried foods? So in terms of food, I have gained four kilos. As for the traffic, I just take a magazine with me, and when I get stuck, I just read. In terms of security, I have become more comfortable in my neighborhood now, so I walk a lot. I walk for 45 or 50 minutes during the day time, because like any big city, it would be stupid to walk around at night. But now I feel more comfortable. You seem to have a likeness for ankara fabric.

Do you feel more comfortable in them?

I am. It’s funny, because the other day, my staff gave me a book chronicling my two years, and you can see clearly how I’m wearing western clothes in some sections, and boom! I started wearing ankara. But it took me almost a year to get my nerve together to wear these bright colours, because where I’m from in Pittsburg. Secondly, in Washington DC, at the Department of State, we wear a lot of black, blue and a lot of conservative colours. It took me about a year to get used to ankara and now you can’t get it off from me.

And what would your favourite Nigerian dish be?

Jollof rice and fried chicken, the not too spicy fried chicken, I can eat that all the time. So whenever I go travelling, I can always count on that. The other food I Iike is pounded yam and then some little stew. I don’t take the whole stew because often it is too spicy.

As the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S Consulate, you initiated lots of educational programmes. Now that you are stepping aside, what would be your advice for beneficiaries of these programme on how they can contribute to the development of the country?

First, for those going out of Nigeria, one thing I heard from Nigerian students when I first got here is that Nigerians would often lament how little Americans know about Nigeria.

They would also lament about the negative impression Americans have of Nigeria. And as I mentioned, I was one of those people. The first thing I would say to Nigerians going to the United States, students in particular, is you represent Nigeria. You may be the only Nigerian these people are ever going to meet; you’ve got to do your best, stand proud, wear ankara, wear traditional clothing and talk about Nigeria. Secondly, those people going back, I would say that you’ve got to use the knowledge you’ve gained in the United States by making it fit into the Nigerian context. My observation is you can’t replicate the United States or Canada or China here, but you can ensure some of what you’ve learnt resonates here. It appears some Nigerians are yet to understand the U.S visa issuance requirement.

How would you advise them?

I have been doing this for 25 years, and in every country I’ve worked, it’s always been a thorny issue. What I would advise Nigerians is one, I would ask them to first of all figure out what type of visa is appropriate for them, then look at the requirement for that visa. Most of the people you see at the embassy are waiting for a visitor or business visa. What they should try to do is understand what the global requirement are for them and then see if they’ve addressed them. One of the requirements is that you have to demonstrate ties to your country. What constitute a tie varies from place to place and that’s what people have to know. What is going to compel you to come to your own country.

So denying Nigerians visa is not deliberate?

There are requirements for all countries. One of the things that has made the visa officers pause is the large number of Nigerians that went to the United States and then went on to Canada. Canada said to us, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’ Those are the kind of things visa officers take into consideration. What’s gonna compel you to come back to your home country? These officers have to be familiar with the issue on ground like what will compel a person to go to Canada and seek political asylum?

What are the factors?

Those are the things they have to consider. All the visa officers all over the world answer to the same standard, so the bottom line is I look at you and you are an intending immigrant, you have to prove to me that you are coming back.

So, it’s the same everywhere. You have been here for some time and you have seen the large youth population and the energy. What do you think Nigeria should do differently?

I think about this every day, and if I had one message for Nigerians, I can’t tell you how important I think it is for people to familiarise themselves with the issues and vote for the candidate that support that issue. I would also encourage everybody to make themselves so knowledgeable and figure out which candidate supports their position. Educate yourselves, vote and hold those leaders accountable.

What’s next after retirement?

I am going to turn myself into an activist, and the issue that I personally care about is the working-class poor who get up every day and they go to work and they just can’t get ahead. Those are the people I want to work on their behalf in the United States and make sure that our leaders are focused on the working- class poor in the US. I’ll move back to Washington DC first, sell my house in Washington DC and then move to Pittsburg. You joined service at a time when there were not many women. How did you cope with managing your family and career? Being a woman in diplomacy can be difficult. You work long hours, so you need to have a supportive spouse. You can have kids and, for instance, in my case, I was lucky because my husband was a teacher, so he always was able to have a job. Secondly, in the different countries we’ve lived in, we were able to hire people to help us look over our kids, and as the kids grew older, they really enjoyed being overseas. In the beginning, it can be really tough. But you really have to work together and you have to have a supportive spouse. I would say I know people who have done it as single mothers. It can be done, but it is difficult.

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