Liberata Mulamula, now an Elliott School visiting scholar, shared stories with the Women’s Leadership Program about her 35 years as a diplomat.
By B.L. Wilson
Tanzania’s former Ambassador to the United States Liberata Mulamula, now a visiting scholar and acting director of the Institute for African Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, riveted students in the Elizabeth J. Somers Women’s Leadership Program Thursday evening with stories about how she moved through the diplomatic ranks of her country.
In a career that spanned 35 years, Ms. Mulamula was often mistaken as a student or an official’s daughter when she started out as the Republic of Tanzania’s delegate to the United Nations, seated among the powers of the United States, the United Kingdom and the then-Soviet Union.
“I was so small. I was a tiny woman,” she said.
Once, over the translator’s equipment, she recalled hearing the UK delegate say, “My God, this woman is making so much noise disproportionate to her size.”
Cynthia Vance Steele, a graduate of Mount Vernon College, a former member of the GW Board of Trustees and an award-winning television journalist, moderated the conversation with Ms. Mulamula at Post Hall on the Mount Vernon Campus.
Early in the conversation, Ms. Vance said, “I was going to ask you if you were intimidated, but clearly you were not.”
There was no better place than the United Nations to be schooled in international diplomacy, Ms. Mulamula told the students.
“At one meeting, you know what is the position of each country on what issue, what they fight for and what they represent,” she said. “Being in New York defined my career trajectory.”
Ms. Mulamula retired in 2016. She initially wanted to be a journalist, but the socialist government of Tanzania, which paid for her education, decided otherwise.
Her biggest challenge and proudest achievement of her diplomatic career was negotiating peace agreements in conflict-torn central Africa, where she witnessed the horror of the Rwandan genocide.
“Within 90 days, almost 1 million people were killed, butchered, not even using guns but by machetes,” she said.
As the first executive secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region of Africa for Peace, Stability and Development, she helped to negotiate the return of the Tutsis to Rwanda after many years in exile in a power-sharing arrangement that extreme elements in the conflict opposed.
“Fast forward, Rwanda is now the country that is doing better than any other country in terms of the representation of women in parliament,” she said, noting that women make up 64 percent of Rwanda’s representatives.
During negotiations, Ms. Mulamula said she often relied on maternal instinct.
“I would tell them you look like my son,” she remembered saying. “As a mother, I can’t continue to see the children dying every hour, the women fleeing.”
Working as a diplomat for more than three decades was not easy, she said, and her career path would have been impossible without the support of her family, especially her husband.
“For me diplomacy is not a job. It is like an obligation. It’s a calling,” she told students, several of whom asked how she balanced her career and personal life. Ms. Mulamula said that the work required sacrifice and that her family often lost out.
Her final posting was as ambassador to the United States during the administration of President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama chose Tanzania to host the first Africa–U.S. summit and asked her to help organize it.
She has long answered to her government but is now free to do what she wants to do. So, she teaches an Elliott School course, “Women and Leadership in Africa.” The class examines among other things, how women in Africa used the international conferences on women in Beijing and Mexico as well as Millennium Development Goals to set benchmarks that help countries shape policies.
“No country can develop with more than 50 percent of the population being left out,” said Ms. Mulamula.