Our women in Africa: the British ambassadors changing the face of diplomacy

On his royal tour of Africa, three of the four British ambassadors hosting Prince Harry are female. Christina Lamb reports on a diplomatic sea change

NneNne Iwuji-Eme became Britain’s first black female ambassador last year when she was appointed high commissioner to MozambiquePORTRAIT BY ILAN GODFREY FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE

When Jane Marriott flew into Nairobi earlier this month to be Britain’s first female high commissioner to Kenya, she faced plenty of challenges. In January, the country had suffered another terrorist attack, which left 21 people dead; the political alliance between the president and his erstwhile rival was fragile; and the embassy, one of the UK’s biggest, had 350 staff who needed managing. She also worried about what to wear to present her credentials and how on earth she would be able to date with her bodyguards ever present.

Think of an ambassador and you probably think white, public school, Oxbridge, grey-haired. Think again. Our man in Africa has become our woman — half the UK’s ambassadors on the continent are now women. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, currently spending 10 days in Africa on their first overseas tour with baby Archie, will have been hosted by female ambassadors in three of their four stops.

It’s a dramatic change. Over the past 10 years, the number of Britain’s female heads of mission worldwide has almost tripled from 22 to 65, close to a third of the total. These include top postings such as China and within the United Nations.

Jane Marriott, Britain’s first female high commissioner to KenyaNICHOLE SOBECKI FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE

Like Marriott, 43, who went to a comprehensive school in Doncaster before going to Durham University, they tend to be younger, state-educated and not Oxbridge alumni. Some are young mothers, including Britain’s first black female ambassador, NneNne Iwuji-Eme, who is a single mum. Some did not go to university, and a few grew up not knowing what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was.

Among these rising stars is Holly Tett, 40, who became UK’s first female ambassador to Malawi in 2017, studied psychology at Sheffield, and is mother of four children aged three to nine. She is hosting Prince Harry to look at efforts in stopping wildlife poaching, while Meghan remains in South Africa.

“I’m excited about Prince Harry, but disappointed about Meghan,” Tett says. “I hoped she’d come with the baby so the kids could play together.”

Her children announced their presence at the Malawi embassy in dramatic fashion. Just days after she arrived, her two-year-old daughter set off the panic alarm. “All these armed police turned up!”

In my job as a female foreign correspondent for the past 32 years, I was long used to women known as “trailing spouses” making small talk at official dinners, passing round the Ferrero Rocher and organising diplomatic wives clubs. These days women call the shots, speaking everything from Arabic to Swahili, negotiating with presidents and opposition leaders, and, in the case of Marriott during her previous ambassadorship in Yemen, even hosting jihadists for tea.

It’s a change many have yet to assimilate. “I’m used to people looking behind me for the man as I enter a room,” Marriott laughs. When she joined the FCO in 2000, it was, she says, “a bastion of male elitist power and very intimidating for someone coming from a bog-standard comprehensive. It was a question of ‘fake it till I make it’.”

On the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s tour of Africa this week, Prince Harry will be hosted by Holly Tett, Britain’s first female ambassador to MalawiSAMIR HUSSEIN/WIREIMAGE

In 2003, shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, she went to Iraq as political adviser to the British colonel commanding troops in al-Amarah, the only female civilian in a military camp of 1,200. “He would say to people, ‘This is Jane. She sits in the back of the wagon and looks pretty.’ I didn’t say anything. I thought I’d let my work show him. That same CO, when he left, told his successor, ‘This is Jane. Listen to her and always do what she tells you.’ ”

She is clearly not to be messed with. Most recently head of the Joint International Counter-Terrorism Unit, she was acting ambassador in Iran when the embassy was attacked, and adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke, US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet, she says, “I’m not going to be assumed to be competent in the same way as a guy in the same job, which is annoying. You get invited to more things as a woman, but at least 20 points shaved off your IQ.”

For that reason she says she is delighted to be part of the Africa directorate, which has led the way in promoting women. “I’m no longer the only woman in a room of 50 men. Now it’s 50/50.”

Much of this is down to Harriet Matthews, 45, head of the Africa directorate at the FCO, who was herself a former ambassador in war-torn Mogadishu. When Matthews was there, the British residence was in a shipping container and she laid artificial turf outside on which to host surreal dinner parties using embassy china.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone for that job without a man saying you really need to do this,” Matthews admits. That man was Tim Hitchens, Africa director from 2010 to 2012, who “always made sure he interviewed a woman on any panel”, something that’s now routine at the FCO.

Matthews, who studied history at York University, has tried to continue that legacy of talent-spotting. “It’s not about appointing people because of their gender, but making sure people are applying. Women don’t always put themselves forward, even now they self-select out of a position.”

It seems to be working, if the experience of Holly Tett is anything to go by. “When I joined in 2002, most senior positions were held by men,” she says. “I had to breastfeed in the loo. Now there is a special room for mothers and babies and, if anything, more support for women than men — coaching, mentoring, inspirational speakers.”

Juggling the finer arts of diplomacy with the school run is not easy, of course. Like all working mums, she struggles for a work/life balance, getting up at 5.30am so she can take the kids to school and often working on the laptop once they are in bed.

Tett is one of a number of female ambassadors in Malawi, including representatives for the EU, Japan and South Africa. “Sometimes I feel age is more of an issue than gender,” she says. “The president is 79 and most of his cabinet are elderly. People talk disparagingly about the vice-president, who is head of the opposition, as ‘that young boy’. He is 46.”

The UK is an important donor to Malawi, spending £80m a year. Challenges include combating poverty in one of the world’s poorest countries, trying to stop wildlife poaching (the UK has troops training rangers that Prince Harry will visit), and regular street protests following what has become known as the “Tipp-Ex election” for all the blanked-out votes.

As a mum, Tett has to deal with the sort of problems many diplomats would not expect. “Once my third child asked to be picked up while I was giving a welcoming speech, then threw up all over me, which was quite embarrassing.” The morning of our interview, one of her children had got her head stuck in the railings of the residence.

Though her husband jokes about being a trailing spouse, having followed Tett to postings in Ethiopia, Tunisia and Argentina, in reality he couldn’t be less like one. Mark Kalch is an Australian explorer whom she met during a short posting in Cape Town. His latest challenge is paddling the longest seven rivers on all seven continents and he’s often away for months at a time. Earlier this year he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and the family moved back to the UK for a while. After successful surgery, they are now all back together in Malawi.

In the past, spouses certainly had less freedom. Brigid Keenan, who wrote about her 35 years as an ambassador’s wife in a memoir titled Diplomatic Baggage, remembers feeling miserable. “A trailing spouse loses her identity. When you go to parties and meet other women, you don’t ask them what they do but ‘What does your husband do?’ And yet these other women were doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, journalists …”

Keenan recalls meeting only three female British ambassadors in all those years.

When Sharon Wardle, 54, became high commissioner to the Gambia two years ago, her husband, Peter, retired from the Department of Trade and Industry so that he could go with her. He is, she says, “completely relaxed about being Mr High Commissioner at dinners. We do lots of entertaining because one of the diplomatic tools we have at our disposal is a nice residence. It’s a bit old and creaky, but it overlooks the ocean.”

Wardle, who went to a comprehensive in Milton Keynes, joined the FCO straight from school, doing junior admin tasks in the visa department and working her way up. She was posted to Beirut in 1991 during the hostage crisis, where she learnt to speak Arabic “with a shocking Lebanese accent”. The Gambia is her first time heading a mission.

She sees her gender as an asset. “Here in West Africa, there are things I can do to champion issues for women that a man could not.”

Though she spent much of her career in the less female-friendly Middle East, she insists that “the hardest thing for me as a woman was often the limitations you put on yourself. In Saudi [where she headed the trade department from 2005 to 2008], I was usually the only woman in the room and the only blonde with my head uncovered. But you know what, I stood out and never had a problem getting heard. By then I viewed it as an advantage not a hindrance.”

That said, there was a darker side. “I remember years ago going on trade missions where the predominantly male participants thought all bets were off for the evening.”

Sexual harassment is something close to home for Harriet Matthews, the Africa director, and these days taken very seriously. “When I was more junior, a minister from an African country had got hold of my mobile number and would call in the night, saying all sorts of things and being very insistent, and act inappropriately in meetings,” she recounts. “The young me wasn’t sure how to handle it. I was anxious that if I was rude I could damage Britain’s relationship with the country. I told someone here, but it was a bit of a joke. Now we would respond in a very different way.”

Jane Marriott had a horrifying experience in Iraq. “I was in a remote camp in Nasiriya and came back to my trailer one night and knew I had some dirty underwear to wash but couldn’t find it, only clean knickers. Then the Italian camp commander came in — he had the key — and said have you noticed I washed your underwear? I was 28 and didn’t know how to respond. He shoved me up against the wall and molested me. After he went I barricaded the door with the bed and sat up all night. The next morning I confided in a British military colleague who had become a friend. They wanted to escalate, but I just asked to be extracted and moved back to Basra. Now I’d formally press charges, but then I didn’t think I could do that. By and large you don’t have to put up with that stuff as a bloke.”

While the UK may have revolutionised the face it projects overseas in terms of gender, it still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity. NneNne Iwuji-Eme, 46, a divorced single mum, became Britain’s first black female ambassador last year when she was appointed high commissioner to Mozambique. “It’s an honour and privilege,” she says, “but it really shouldn’t be news in 2019.”

In just one year she has had to deal with two devastating cyclones — making sure the UK was one of the first responders — a peace agreement, a huge gas deal and a papal visit, in between finding a school for and looking after her 10-year-old son.

“Recently I went with my male deputy to a meeting with a man who didn’t even acknowledge I was in the room and assumed I was translating. Now I think it’s fun to watch their faces as the reality sinks in. Another time I was hosting an event at the residence and made the speech, yet this British businessman asked me, ‘What do you do?’ He just couldn’t get his head around the fact I was high commissioner. He even asked, ‘Are you from Mozambique?’ — I’m from Truro!”

Despite such comments, she is relishing the job. “Work-wise, there is lots to do. And Mozambique is a beautiful place. There are a lot of female ambassadors here of similar age, so I have a close-knit group and I host a weekly film night where we just hang out.”

Iwuji-Eme’s parents both worked for the United Nations, so she was used to mixing with diplomats and she loves entertaining. She took the civil service exams after studying economics at Manchester University, then saw an advert for economic adviser for Africa. “It was as if I’d written the job description for myself,” she laughs.

As for finding a new partner, she says: “Dating is the last thing on my mind. I am recently divorced in a new position in a new country, so after you balance work-child-entertainment, there is little time.”

“The nomadic lifestyle of a diplomat makes relationships a real challenge,” Harriet Matthews admits. Her husband, David Frost, is Boris Johnson’s sherpa at the EU, charged with trying to come up with a Brexit deal. The couple married last year after nine years, which was “a way of saying we want to be in the same place” and she does not yet know how they will handle future postings abroad. When she was ambassador in war-torn Somalia, the security situation meant it was rare to leave the compound, so she did a lot of reading and circuit training. “We used to joke that people come back from Mogadishu very fit because there was nothing else to do!”

For singles, the sheer practicalities of the job make dating tricky. “You can’t exactly just invite someone back for a nightcap when everyone has to be security checked,” says Marriott, the ambassador in Kenya.

Another potential minefield for female ambassadors is clothing, often scrutinised as much as their negotiating skills. In her new memoir, Samantha Power, a former journalist who became US ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, recounts how presenting her credentials to then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, “for reasons I cannot now fathom, I chose to wear a striped sundress that exposed far too much shoulder and leg”. When the French ambassador saw the official photo, he asked: “You wore your swimsuit to present credentials?”

Melanie Robinson, British high commissioner to Zimbabwe, at her residence in HarareILAN GODFREY FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES MAGAZINE

This is familiar to Melanie Robinson, 43, who became UK high commissioner to Zimbabwe in January. She recalls a colleague once taking her aside and saying: “It’s time to start dressing as a grown-up.”

Robinson, who studied history at Oxford, believes female diplomats can use their attire to their advantage. Like Madeleine Albright, the first female US secretary of state, who wore brooches to convey subtle messages, Robinson says: “I look at it as an opportunity, what do I want to project today?” But she also has to be careful what her choices might signify. “I wore a red dress when I hosted the Queen’s birthday party, and Nelson Chamisa [the opposition leader in Zimbabwe] said, ‘I like the colour of your dress’ — it’s the colour of his party, the MDC. So the next time I had an event I wore green [the colour of the ruling party].”

As the mother of two young children, aged five and seven, she is used to multitasking. “Sometimes I take the weekend off to take the kids to see wildlife, and in between looking at elephants I’ll have to check email to clear a submission. I don’t hide the fact that I am also a mum. I’ll say to people, give me five minutes, I’m talking to the kids.”

So do women make better diplomats? Most of Britain’s female ambassadors are, of course, far too diplomatic to say.

“I am not going to put my foot in it — it depends on the woman,” Iwuji-Eme laughs, “but there are different strengths we bring to the game.” The female of the species is often regarded as not only deadlier but better at listening. “We will sit and listen and navigate. But we are also conditioned to see that as a weakness, so sometimes feel the onus is on you to prove you’re not a weak female.”

Marriott sees the tendency to underestimate women as an advantage. “People speak more freely. By the time they realise their error, it’s too late. I’ve built up some great relationships — and got the best information — this way.”

The trend is set to continue: 55% of the fast-stream intake to the FCO in 2017 was female, the highest yet. For most of their senior colleagues, the only downside is much longer queues for the ladies loos.

The other day, Melanie Robinson was arriving back at Harare airport and the official at passport control said: “You’re an ambassador? You don’t look like one!”

“In future,” she told him, “this is what they will look like.” He thought for a minute, then replied: “That’s really nice, you look normal.”

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