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Building a Personal Relationship: The U.S. Ambassador and President of Senegal

It was nearing 11 o’clock at night when the phone rang. “How was the speech?” Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas was surprised to hear President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal on the other end, asking her opinion of a speech he had given the night before.  This would not be an isolated occurrence in an unusually close relationship between this American ambassador and an African head of state.

Well before serving as the ambassador to Senegal, Elam-Thomas recognized the importance of creating genuine connections and credible personal relationships–at all levels. As she explains in her oral history, “I make it a practice to give respect and honor to the secretaries of all principals with whom I meet at home and abroad.” As ambassador, Elam-Thomas recognized the importance of personal diplomacy and found ways to connect with her most important interlocutor–the sometimes-prickly President Abdoulaye Wade.  

A highly honored diplomat, Harriet L. Elam-Thomas’s first overseas tour as a foreign service officer was in the same place she finished her career – Senegal. First serving as Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer in the mid-70s, Elam-Thomas would eventually serve as the Counselor and Acting Deputy Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) before returning to Senegal as ambassador in 2000.

Harriet L. Elam-Thomas’s interview was conducted by James Dandridge and Mark Tauber, beginning on June 2, 2006.

Read Harriet L. Elam-Thomas’s full oral history HERE.

Learn more about Elam-Thomas’s experience in her book, Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar. Just one of many in our ADST-DACOR book series!

Drafted by Joseph Baldofsky.

“From my perspective, this dependency mindset was not healthy for a nation that gained its independence from France in 1960.”

Unsolicited Advice: To be most candid, I used my African-American heritage and femininity to be uncharacteristically direct with President [Abdoulaye] Wade [of Senegal]. My predecessor and immediate successor where both former Peace Corps volunteers. Both spoke Wolof and they knew Senegal probably better than I did. However, I doubt they would have felt comfortable in saying to Wade: “You don’t want the Europeans to think you cannot run this country.” I do not know where or when I mustered up the nerve to make this statement. I continued to offer him more unsolicited advice in that same conversation with this observation: “You do not want them to think that you always need a handout.” At some point in most of our meetings, Wade frequently highlighted the aid they received from France, Japan, and other nations. The implication was “What could the United States [or] USAID [United States Agency for International Development] do for me this week?” From my perspective, this dependency mindset was not healthy for a nation that gained its independence from France in 1960. USAID’s worldwide goal is to mount sustainable programs which, after a mutually agreed upon time, the host countries manage on their own.

However, if almost every aspect of your lives relied on the influence and help of the former colonial power for decades, it may be difficult to change that mindset. I decided, as an African-American woman, I would be very honest with him. He actually listened and did not flinch one bit. My reminder of the poverty still present in Senegal seemed to resonate, albeit very briefly. I hoped that Wade would understand that requesting “handouts” at this stage of their development would be counterproductive to the progress needed.

“Much to my surprise… President Wade called me to ask, ‘How was the speech?’”

Personal Call: During my time as chief of mission in Dakar, we meet almost once a month. My predecessors noted that was unusually frequent. Of course, Wade was a brand new president and the U.S. certainly wanted to have a positive relationship . . . [Wade] often professed a desire for trade not aid, but in reality, he made sure aid came up during our meetings. Wade was/is known for being his own man, but he seemed to give weight to the advice I offered. His forceful stand on reparations for slavery at the Durban Conference on Race in 2001 and his public statement deriding Mugabe’s sham elections way back then, were not popular with his colleagues. When I heard Wade’s speech on Senegalese TV, I said to my husband, “It’s amazing he’s got all the points we talked about” that [I] gave him. Much to my surprise, a few minutes before 11 p.m. the evening following his Durban speech, President Wade called me to ask, “How was the speech?” I responded that the U.S. was extremely pleased. That was the first of three times during my tour that I received a call from the President of Senegal.

“No matter how intelligent you are and how many degrees you have, you must establish a genuine rapport with your interlocutor.”

A Genuine Connection: And so that was in one of my evaluations, then Asst. Secretary Walter Kansteiner noted, “How many people get the head of a country to call and say, ‘How did I do?’ To elaborate a bit, I said, “Mr. President, I could not have been happier, my government is so appreciative of your willingness to make this point on racism at this international conference.” I continued with Wade and stated, “Being of African-American descent, such a statement is doubly important.” I could sometimes give Wade a reality check by using my gender and race. “What I say might have credibility in a community in the United States is not resident in Foggy Bottom or sitting in the State Department.” Wade knew that I was from Boston. Wade attended Boston University’s graduate school. That was a good connection. No matter how intelligent you are and how many degrees you have, you must establish a genuine rapport with your interlocutor.

The day after September 11, Mrs. Wade paid a visit to my embassy office. She spent 45 minutes to offer her condolences and relate some of her experiences as Wade’s wife while he was a student in Boston…. Then she says to me, “My husband lived in Boston where when I came they couldn’t believe I was his wife” (she is French). I said, “You went to Boston at a time when interracial marriages were not the norm.” When she left the office, I established good rapport with her as well. I related how I was welcomed in France in 1962 and that her fellow citizens that helped inspire me to become a diplomat. We diplomats must capitalize on whatever we have in our wheel case to deliver credible messages.




     BS in International Business, Simmons College                                                                              1959-1963

     MA in Public Diplomacy, Tufts University                                                                                        1979-1980

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                                                1971

     Dakar, Senegal—Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer                                                                          1975-1977

     Athens, Greece—Cultural Affairs Officer                                                                                           1983-1987

     Istanbul, Turkey—Director of the American Press and Cultural Center                                     1990-1994

     Washington, D.C.—Counselor of USIA (Acting Deputy Director)                                                1997-1999

     Dakar, Senegal—Ambassador                                                                                                               2000-2002