November 18, 2021, U.S. Embassy Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya
MODERATOR: Good morning, colleagues and family members, both here in person and joining us virtually. My name is Rob White. I’m the deputy human resources officer here at Embassy Nairobi. Welcome to our meet-and-greet with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
To begin today’s event, please join me in welcoming our Chargé d’Affaires, Eric Kneedler, for opening remarks. (Applause.)
MR KNEEDLER: Jambo.
MR KNEEDLER: Wow. How about that welcome by our own Mission Nairobi choir? Let’s have another round of applause. (Applause.) I don’t know if the State Department is ever going to have a version of the State Department’s Got Talent competition. (Laughter.) But we may have a contender.
Thank you all for joining today for this first in-person town hall, the first we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s wonderful to see you all here today. As you know, it is an incredible privilege to hear directly from the Secretary of State. But to have an opportunity to hear from the Secretary of State twice in one year, following on the heels of our virtual town hall in April, is a real tremendous honor. Mr. Secretary, we are grateful for making the time for us.
My colleague and friend, Jane Oluochi, will be introducing the Secretary in just a moment. But Mr. Secretary, what I thought I would briefly do is reintroduce our mission to you. This is a mission of roughly 1,700 personnel, as we were just discussing. Collectively we represent nearly all 50 U.S. states, nearly all 47 counties in Kenya. It’s a very diverse, a very talented team. We wake up every day thrilled to have an opportunity to build better futures in (inaudible). So we’re very, very lucky.
But having said that, as we discussed as well, this is a mission that has suffered its fair share of adversity. We lost three cherished members of our community. Many of us have lost friends and family. At the beginning of the pandemic, 650 members of our community departed for the United States on authorized departure, and we spread out across ten time zones. So it’s been a difficult stretch, much as (inaudible) missions all across the globe.
But we’re a very, very resilient community. And as you can see, there is a huge amount of energy and excitement to be back here together and in person again. And Mr. Secretary, we’re grateful for your time, for making time for us, and for the excuse, really, to bring us all together. So thank you, Mr. Secretary.
With that, I’m going to turn things over to Jane. (Applause.)
MS OLUOCHI: Jambo.
MS OLUOCHI: Good morning, friends and colleagues.
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
MS OLUOCHI: It is my honor to introduce Antony J. Blinken, the 71st Secretary of State of the United States of America. (Applause.)
MS OLUOCHI: Mr. Secretary, allow me to say karibu sana – (applause) – which means, “You are most welcome,” in Kiswahili. We are honored that you chose Kenya as your first country to visit in Africa.
President Biden nominated Secretary Blinken on November 23rd, 2020, and the U.S. Senate confirmed you on January 26th, 2021. Vice President Kamala Harris swore you in the following day. Over three decades and three presidential administrations, Secretary Blinken has helped shape U.S. foreign policy to ensure it protects U.S. interests and delivers results for the American people. This is Secretary Blinken’s third time working at the State Department, and many of you will remember that he previously served President Barack Obama as deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017.
Please join me in welcoming Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, Mission Kenya.
AUDIENCE: Good morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There is just a little bit of energy in this courtyard today. (Laughter.) It is so wonderful to see you all, and I know, for you, it’s wonderful to see each other. As Eric said, this is apparently the first real gathering you’ve had since COVID. I’m so glad that I could be part of the excuse to bring you together. I know the real reason you’re here. Thank you for that extraordinary welcome. (Laughter and applause.) And I feel like I should stop talking, sit down, and let them sing. (Laughter.) But let me just say a few things. Maybe we’ll get an encore. I hope so.
Jane, congratulations on your nomination as Locally Employed Staff Member of the Year. Yesterday was Locally Employed Staff Appreciation Day, and I want to spend a minute on that because one thing I know, having been around a little bit and having spent time at embassies around the world, our locally employed staff is the lifeblood of any American mission anywhere in the world. We could not do our work without you, without the partnership that you bring to us every single day. And I’m glad that there’s actually an appreciation day.
But the truth of the matter is every day is and should be appreciation day for the locally employed staff. There are about 30 locally employed staff here who have served for more than three decades, including (inaudible), who have each served for more than 38 years. And I don’t know if you’re here today. (Applause.) I also want to recognize someone here in Nairobi, who technically works for the UN mission in Somalia: (inaudible), our Foreign Service National of the year, but are you here? (Applause.)
So yesterday I had a chance to visit the August 7th Memorial Park, a tribute to the more than 200 Americans and Kenyans who were killed in the bombing, including 44 members of this embassy community. There are 95 people here on our mission team who were working back then. What a remarkable testament to your dedication. I was with a couple of our colleagues yesterday at the memorial. Thank you for everything you continue to do for (inaudible) country, for the partnership between the United States and Kenya. There are very powerful words inscribed at the memorial about how the tragedy has strengthened our resolve to work for peace. And for more than 60 years, this mission has been working to make those words true.
I got a chance just in the brief time that I’ve been here to see some of your work up close and to see how it resonates in ways that you may not fully appreciate. I spent a good chunk of time with President Kenyatta, with all of the leaders in government, inspiring conversations with civil society members, or the Karura Forest with environmental leaders, just a moment ago across the street at UNEP talking about reducing plastic pollutions of the seas, and multilateral gains on Ethiopia, on Sudan, on Somalia, and a number of other things.
But in each and every one of these engagements, I know that the work that you’re doing every single day is making a huge, huge difference. And this day out – day-in/day-out work of doing the diplomacy, rolling up your sleeves, engaging, building relationships, building partnerships, working to advance our interests, our values, sometimes it seems like we’re not making up a lot of ground, but one step at a time, before you know it, you’ve traveled quite a distance. And that is due entirely to the work that you all are doing every day.
Now, as Eric said – Eric, thank you for your remarkable leadership at a time of particular challenge. It’s – I know, I could tell by the welcome that you got from your team how much it’s appreciated here. I can tell you it’s very, very much appreciated back in Washington.
And I’ve heard about how this community, like so many of our embassy communities, has come together during COVID-19 to really build and strengthen the sense of community when it’s more important than ever to do so. I’ve heard about the care that you’ve shown one another – let’s have check-ins and trivia nights. Many of you, of course, work to give that little extra measure of care to your colleagues, showing empathy, showing that you understood what each of us – what each of you – is going through. The losses in this community, the LES staff, the fact that many of you had loved ones, family members who got sick, and some we may have lost – that places an extra-special burden on this team, but you came together and showed the resilience that I’m very, very proud of.
Let me give a shoutout to the consular team handling visa emergencies, reducing the immigrant visa backlog at a time of great need. And thank you all for helping Kenya’s COVID-19 response. This in itself was remarkable. Thanks to the work that was done here, we were able to deliver 4 million vaccines for our Kenyan friends and more than 6 million masks, and more is on the way. Two state-of-the-art field hospitals. Labs supported by the U.S. Government have conducted nearly half of the COVID tests here in Kenya. Kenya is a pilot country now for something we announced yesterday on the Global COVID Corps to bring insights and strength to the private sector to help overcome some of the challenges in the last mile actually getting shots into arms and do it in a way that’s going to build lasting capacity here in Kenya.
And of course, on climate, thanks to our colleagues from USAID helping Kenya protect key watersheds through early warning systems, increase household access to clean energy. Kenya, of course, is one of the few countries that set the goal of fully transitioning to renewable energy by 2030. As I was saying to our colleagues in the Kenyan Government yesterday, that is leadership, and it resonates around the world, and the support that you’re giving Kenya in these efforts is making a big difference.
This partnership between our countries has endured for a long time because it’s founded on some basic shared propositions: a commitment to democracy, commitment to free and open and diverse societies. We will continue to defend those values: diversity, inclusion, accessibility, equity. These are a top priority for what we’re doing around the world. They’re also a top priority for the institution that we all value so much, the State Department. It’s something that’s very much at the top of my agenda.
We’ve got broader efforts underway, some of which I talked about a couple of weeks ago, to modernize the department to make sure that we’re organized to meet the challenges of our time, to make sure you that you have the support that you need, the backing that you need, the training, the equipment, the technology that you need to really thrive.
So let me say that whether you’ve been here for a week or almost four decades, like (inaudible), whether you work for State, whether you work for the 20-some-odd agencies or departments represented here, whether you’re Foreign Service, Civil Service, Locally Employed Staff, a family member, a contractor, this is simply an opportunity for me to say two words to you: Thank you. Thank you for everything you’re doing every day for this partnership. Thank you for what you’re doing every single day for our country.
Our fellow citizens back home don’t fully know, fully appreciate what the work is, what it achieves. But I can tell you this: What you’re doing every day is in ways big and small making the world and making our own citizens back home just a little bit safer, a little bit more secure, a little bit more prosperous, a little healthier, a little bit more full of opportunity. And that’s a very powerful calling, and I’m so grateful to each of you for having answered it. Great to be with you. Thank you. (Applause.)