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Utah National Guard Captain Makes Big Impression on Small Island

Written by Capt. Steve Calder

Published August 15, 2006

SAO TOME — From February to July 2006 I had the distinct honor and privilege serving as the Bilateral Affairs Officer to Sao Tome and Principe. As a member of the Utah National Guard, it was a truly unique assignment in that I was the sole member of the U.S. military or embassy (Ambassador R. Barrie Walkley and the rest of the embassy live in Libreville, Gabon) stationed in country. The unique opportunity to serve in this capacity along with the challenge of filling a lieutenant colonel’s position and speaking Portuguese on a daily basis were what originally drew me to the assignment.

In addition to the unique nature of the assignment, the country is also very unique. Sao Tome and Principe—also called STP—is an archipelago of islands off the west coast of Africa crossed by the equator. It has no traffic lights, practically no speed limit signs, only a handful of stop signs and no McDonald's.

STP is the second smallest country in Africa with only 386 square miles inhabited by some 170,000 people —approximately half under the age of 15—who have an average annual income of only $370 per person. But in spite of its relatively low wages, nobody starves to death because of the abundance of fish along its coast and tropical fruit growing in its rich volcanic soil.

Sao Tome and Principe have been referred to as the two islands that time forgot. Prior to gaining its independence from Portugal in 1975, STP had a plantation economy dominated by cocoa—once being the world’s leading producer. However, after gaining independence, the economy was destroyed by a 15-year experiment as a Marxist state which arguably moved the country even further backwards. Fortunately though, STP instituted democratic reforms in 1990 and has made great strides over the last 16 years in transforming itself from a 16th century society to a 21st century society.

It was extremely gratifying to have helped in this transformation. Some of the projects I helped execute included renovating the national hospital and its emergency room, renovating the national high school gymnasium and water system for some 6000 students, building two schools in Principe, installing a water system and latrines at a middle school, delivering some $170,000 worth of school supplies and procuring seven desperately needed vehicles—two for the Ministry of Education and five for the Ministry of Defense.

Although it was very gratifying to witness the impact of winning the hearts and minds of Sao Tomeans and Principians, it required long hours. My daily operational tempo brought me to my office at four in the morning six or seven days a week. This early start allowed me to talk to my wife and kids over the Internet—where it is six hours earlier—as well as get a jump on the day.

In spite of the regimented work schedule for my first three months in country—taking little time off other than to study Portuguese and attend official events—I took time off during the last two months to enjoy many of the islands’ splendors including scuba diving, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, sea kayaking, body surfing, bird watching, and hiking the highest point in STP, a 6,640-foot extinct volcano.

Based on my experiences, I would highly recommend STP as a travel destination to anybody looking to go somewhere off the beaten path. Just ask the American surfers who were in Sao Tome last week filming a documentary on the island’s surfing history.

In addition to Sao Tome and Principe’s tropical beauty, the people are the real reason I recommend visiting this island paradise. It was a life-altering experience getting to know the people of STP, working with them on a daily basis and being part of their community. It is a small community and everybody seems to know each other. When I introduced myself to the president of the country his reply was, “I know who you are.” Government officials, the military, street merchants, the international expatriate community, Voice of America employees and the approximately dozen Americans on the island simply called me Capitão Stive pronounced “Stee-vay” or Captain Steve. Conversely, I came to know hundreds of people around the country by name as well.

Although I arrived in Sao Tome and Principe only expecting to speak Portuguese, I was pleasantly surprised with the opportunity to speak other foreign languages. I spoke French on a daily basis with the French-speaking diplomatic community, representatives of many of the international organizations, French-speaking tourists and the owners of the inn where I resided. And I spoke Spanish regularly with the Spanish-speaking expat community, Cuban doctors, as well as representatives from Equatorial Guinea, a neighboring island, Spanish-speaking nation.

In addition to the country’s natural beauty, heartwarming hospitality and linguistic challenges, July was a month of celebration in STP. Ambassador Walkley came to STP from the embassy in Libreville and hosted a July 4 celebration on July 7, Sao Tome and Principe celebrated their independence day on July 12 and the French embassy hosted a Bastille Day celebration on the 14th.

My biggest regret about this assignment was not being able to share this unique experience with my wife and kids. Although I was hoping my family could have joined me on this assignment—as they did on a previous embassy assignment to Panama—my wife and I decided it was not worth taking the risk of contracting malaria as did my predecessor. However, I am hopeful that as STP moves forward into the 21st century, it will soon be possible for somebody in my position to be able to share this special experience with their family.

It was a great honor to represent the United States in this capacity. It is not often that a junior-grade officer from the Utah National Guard gets the opportunity to sit alongside ambassadors at official functions and attend an intimate dinner with the president, prime minister and other ministers. I am very grateful to have been allowed the opportunity to perform this once-in-a-lifetime mission by my wife Sara, my commander Col. Willis and the Utah National Guard.

Utah National Guard
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