The Power and the Glory

I have completed my first week and a bit in consular. No one died. It was a little overwhelming, as the first week on a new job always is, trying to figure out where things are and how they work, what I’m supposed to be doing and when, but it shouldn’t take me too long to get the hang of it.

Meanwhile we’ve had more excitement at the embassy – General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM, popped in for a visit. With a week’s notice. During Ramadan. While the defense attache was on vacation. I don’t know why the big shots always pick this time for last-minute visits to Conakry, but it’s starting to become a pattern. Anyway, the whole embassy was in an uproar to make sure the visit was a success, except the consular section, which remained an island of tranquility. In consequence this visit was a very different experience for me than the last one; last time I was fully embroiled in the hubbub and this time it hardly affected me at all. (He did take the time to meet everyone, shake hands, and thank us for our service, which was very nice.) Was it nice to have a relaxing weekend free while everyone else was slaving away in the office and running around going to meetings? Yes, it was. But at the same time I couldn’t help feeling a little left out, like I didn’t matter.

The funny thing about this is that I’ll have considerably more power to directly affect people’s lives as a vice-consul than I ever did as an economic officer. Did anything I did last year – all the meetings, all the cables, all the stressing out over congressional reports and visit schedules – actually accomplish anything concrete? Did it affect anyone’s actual life at all? Maybe? I’d certainly like to think so, but it’s hard to say for sure. At best I was a small part of something bigger that may make a difference months or years down the line. But the crazy hours and fancy cocktail parties make you feel important, necessary, even when you’re just a tiny cog in the big machine.

Consular work, on the other hand, can feel insignificant – sealed away from the rest of the embassy, shuffling papers and doing the same thing over and over, like working at the DMV. But the “same thing” I do over and over is to make decisions that directly impact people’s lives in a very real and tangible way. When someone leaves my visa window they can go to America, or not. Especially in Guinea this is a BFD, and I personally am the one who decides. Me. There’s some review from higher up of course, but that’s still an impressive amount of responsibility when you consider that I couldn’t send the most mundane of reporting cables without three people signing off on it. American Citizen Services days are even bigger, because parents come in with the paperwork to get their new little bundle of joy registered as a U.S. citizen. And who goes over the evidence and makes the call on whether this kid is a citizen or not? I do. That’s some phenomenal cosmic power in my itty bitty visa window.