If you are reading this post, chances are that you know Embry Howell. Scots-Irish to the core, she is earnest, hard working and determined. She is also stubborn and fearless. But this time has she gone too far?
Embry will turn 74 in a couple of months. No spring chicken, right? In fact for quite a while I thought she had retired from the Urban Institute since I personally attended at least two retirement parties for her with speeches and accolades, and I think there were others. She continued to go to the office, however, as is the custom at the Urban Institute for “emeritus” retirees; but she was not as fully engaged as she would like to be. After about a year or so of getting a bit bored with “retirement,” she decided to reinvent herself as an international consultant with a specialty in evaluating government programs. Her target was Africa. She had dreamed of becoming a missionary to the heathens in Africa when she was a child, and while still working at the Urban Institute had managed to get interesting moonlighting, pro bono assignments in Tanzania and South Africa. You would think that would suffice for most people.
Embry’s plan of action was to tweak her resume, create a few business cards, and attend as many networking events in Washington as she could involving firms consulting in Africa, mostly companies doing work for USAID. To my astonishment she returned home beaming a couple of months ago, announcing that she had landed her first consulting gig, working for a small government contractor doing USAID work in Mali.
Hmm, I thought, Mali. The location sounded pretty good to me since my image was that of a tropical paradise in the Pacific, but was quickly reminded that what I was thinking about was Bali, not Mali. Mali is actually in West Africa, just below Algeria and above Ghana, a bridge country between the Sahara and the rain forest. It is most famous for the ancient city of Timbuktu.
What she did not tell me at the time was that Mali is one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. This small tidbit of information was conveyed to me, not by Embry, but by a friend with work overseas. His response was simply, “What? Certainly you must be kidding!” It turns out that Mali is the center of a fight to the death by several warring, radical Islamic factions; and the country is in the middle of a bloody civil war with no end in sight. Yet in the middle of all this, USAID has invested millions of dollars in boosting agricultural production. Embry’s job is to evaluate whether these programs are working. Her role is to help design the research, monitor the research effort and help write the report. A bunch of other people will be working with her, many in Africa.
So how bad could this be, I thought. That is, until I heard the conference call between her and colleagues this morning that being kidnapped for ransom money would “not be all that pleasant of an experience” and whether ransom money was an allowable expense item by USAID. But certainly they were exaggerating and over reacting. And then with a sheepish reluctance, Embry shared with me an official communiqué she received from the U.S. State Department as shown below verbatim:
If you decide to travel to Mali:
- Draft a will, and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.
- Discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.
- Share important documents, login information, and points of contact with loved ones so that they can manage your affairs if you are unable to return as planned to the United States. Establish your own personal security plan in coordination with your employer or host organization, or consider consulting with a professional security organization.
- Be sure to appoint one family member to serve as the point of contact with hostage-takers, media, U.S. and host country government agencies, and Members of Congress if you are taken hostage or detained.
- Establish a proof of life protocol with your loved ones so that, if you are taken hostage, your loved ones will know specific questions and answers to ask the hostage-takers to be sure you are alive and to rule out a hoax.
- Leave DNA samples with your medical provider in case it is necessary for your family to access them.
Oh my goodness!
If you think that Embry is deterred in any way or rethinking her decision to get back into the fray of the consulting world, you do not know Embry Howell. She is chomping at the bit and ready for a new adventure—this time in one of the most dangerous spots on Earth where foreign firms doing business there routinely have line items in their budgets for AK 47s, ammunition, body guards and, yes, ransom money. She will leave for Mali in about a month and be on site for about a week—hopefully with fully armed bodyguards standing by. The day after she returns we head off for our trip around South America.
Stay tuned. More will follow.
You can’t hold a good woman down.