Maya Dietz

U.S. Foreign Service Diplomat

By Marjorie F. Eddington

Categories: Diplomat, Forgiveness

Maya Dietz is a Diplomat in the Foreign Service. She shared stories about her tour of duty in Rwanda, how she was inspired by a group of people who absolutely trusted God, and how Jesus' example has motivated her to choose a career of service. She also shared how, as the principal writer for the human rights report, she humbly worked through language and cultural barriers and differences to build strong relationships and why she sees forgiveness as essential in reconciling the people after the 1994 genocide.

Why did you decide to go into the Foreign Service?
It was a natural progression for me. I was in graduate school doing a Masters in international studies. The opportunity presented itself, and it seemed to be the next right step for me. So I went to Rwanda for my first posting.

Why Rwanda?
Rwanda was my first choice out of the 95 posts I had to rank order. I had focused on microfinance and ethnic conflict, and these two things were converging in Rwanda. I knew that a variety of things would happen in my tour, among which were the first multi-party national election since independence and the tenth anniversary of the genocide. The 1994 genocide still plays an incredible role in everything that happens there. There was a woman touring around Africa talking about reconciliation. She had been based in South Africa for awhile and had seen their great reconciliation. So it sounded like a wonderful opportunity for me. I bid mostly on African posts because we didn't have direct economic interests in Africa, so we could pursue what is important to us -- democracy, human rights, economic development. I thought it sounded exciting.

What was successful about your experience in Rwanda?
At the time when I got there, we really had no contacts with anyone outside the ruling party, outside the official story. During the two years that I was there, we gained a much better sense about what was happening politically, with human and civil rights. The U.S. puts out a report every year on civil rights, human rights, press freedom, etc. I was the principle author of the human rights report. We got a lot of praise on the report because it accurately reflected what was happening there. Our relationships with Rwandans also expanded and improved.

How did you collect the information for the human rights report?
It's about building relationships with people. You have to know the context. People are very sensitive to their history; they want you to understand where they're coming from; and they want you to listen. So our job was to listen to them. Every and all Rwandan officials would tell us about what happened in their country, so it was important to be aware of how they perceived the build-up to the genocide, the genocide, and their role in resolving the conflict. We spent a lot of time listening and talking with non-traditional sources.

What do you mean by non-traditional sources?
A women's association, for instance, is a non-traditional source. You'd get in your car and drive five hours to talk with them to get a fuller picture of what's happening and how the government is perceived. In the case of Rwanda, they were pursuing a decentralization policy, letting regional governments do more of the work. If we listened only to the central government, we would think that decentralization was working perfectly and had already been accomplished. But we went out to other places asking people what was happening with their taxes, if their schools were better, if their roads were improved, if they had electricity, etc. I had the good fortune of being involved in ways that most diplomats aren't -- through church. We were the only non-Rwandans in this church. And my husband worked for an African company with 300 Rwandan guards and got a whole different perspective. So I think I was uniquely positioned to offer insight into what was happening in a way that someone who sits at a desk all day can't.

Have there been any instances when inspiration from the Bible affected your career?
Every step I've taken in my career, I've taken because I have this sense from the Bible that our purpose is to serve. There are two things I always think about. The first is "freely ye have received, freely give" (Matt. 10:8). So I feel I have an obligation, in a sense, with the position I've been given and the knowledge I have, to give back. I also think about Jesus cleaning the disciples' feet. He said, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you" (John 13:14, 15). This is the kind of inspiration that drives my choices. The expectation is that Jesus has confronted everything that we could confront and has given us the guidance we need to deal with anything that comes our way. I see this all the time. I was particularly inspired by the church that was there. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus basically tells us that God provides everything for us: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?" (Matt. 6:28-30). The church members were heeding Jesus' call to trust God for everything, even their basic provisions in life. They were depending on that statement in a very honest and pure way. There aren't a lot of opportunities, and not a lot of money pours into Rwanda. But these people loved their life and lived in very joyous and giving ways. You saw the charity that Jesus demanded; and the forgiveness was clearly abundant in Rwanda.

How did you see forgiveness in Rwanda, and why is it important in their lives?
Probably the largest profession for ex-patriots was missionary work from all churches who were there to answer the call for forgiveness, to help people see that God loved them and didn't see them as evil, guilty, or beyond salvation. It made an enormous difference in people's lives. The burden of the genocide was like a shadow cast over everyone, even if your crime was small (your neighbors were killed and you had stolen their goats). It was as if everyone were guilty. There are still thousands of people in prison. So there's a great need for the release of that guilt and the need to build community so that people can work together again and be an example to help reconciliation. Jesus talks about that -- not casting the first stone at the adulterous woman and telling her to "go, and sin no more" (John 8:3-11). That story is perfect for Rwanda.

What about the thousands of people in prison? Who are they?
There are about 80,000 people in prison for genocide-related crimes. They've separated them into 3 categories: Category 1 are the masterminds, the people who planned the killing; Category 2 are those who participated in violent crimes but didn't plan the genocide; those who killed or witnessed killing but didn't report them or try to stop them; Category 3 are those who participated in opportunistic crimes like looting. So there are literally thousands of people who the community and the government want to face some sort of justice. But that's a huge percentage of the population. So they could either serve time or do community service. The question would then be how to reintegrate them into their communities. Would the widow accept the man who killed her husband back into her community? How do you move forward? How do you teach children without implanting seeds of distrust in them?

How are they going to reintegrate people into their communities?
The most dangerous thing to do would be to do it quickly. The legal piece needs to be done quickly so that innocent people don't sit in prison. There have been people in prison for ten years now. The reintegration requires a lot of honesty and truth. They're trying to follow the South African "truth and reconciliation" model. On a very fundamental level, it means forgiving and creating an identity that has nothing to do with what economic class or ethnic group you belong to; it means creating a national identity, an identity where every human being is valued, regardless of who your father is. The history of South Africa is as inspirational as it could be. The black community was repressed in the most horrifying ways -- from exclusion of education and economic opportunities to hard labor and prison for decades. Essentially what Nelson Mandela said was that the white man who oppressed them was as much a victim of the institution of apartheid as the black man who was oppressed, and the only way we can move forward is to forgive the white oppressor for the role he played. It's had an unbelievable impact on South Africa's ability to move forward. Such an attitude is the recognition of the inherent goodness of people -- the ability to separate the true individual from whatever he or she participated in in 1994, not to make the man and the crime the same thing. It's looking at the true identity of people. It's just not personalizing things. Jesus healed because he didn't personalize the disease or the evil. He saw that whatever was wrong with the person was not really that person; it was a lie about that person. Recognizing that heals, and it's happening in South Africa, and it needs to keep happening in Rwanda.

Did you have any challenges in Rwanda?
Language was one. Rwanda is one of two countries in Africa where the local population speaks one language. Most places have 40-400 tribal languages. As a result, Rwanda is uniquely able to keep some information private. Communicating with them is difficult because you can never really tell what the discussion is about. You hear an entire discussion in Kinyarwanda (the exact language from the family of Bantu languages) and then get only a summary translation of what they chose to tell you. You lose the color. Kinyarwanda is a functional language, so it doesn't have adjectives or words for abstract ideas, such as love. In order to explain things, they have to create images. This makes it hard for people who aren't Rwandan. I could get an exact translation, but because the imagery doesn't mean anything to me, the meaning is lost for me. Here's an example: The opposition candidate in the 2003 presidential elections had as his symbol a tree, the kind of tree we would call a Christmas tree. He was always making references to this tree. It meant nothing to me until I learned the context and meaning. In Rwanda, when a family first buys land, they plant this kind of tree; it essentially is the title to that piece of land; it shows the boundaries. There's been a lot of migration in that area, mostly due to conflict. So, people can flee conflict; come back 30 years later; say, "This is my tree, so this is my family's land;" and can claim it. The opposition candidate had been in exile and was using the symbol of the tree to say that he was coming home to claim his land.

How did you overcome the language barrier?
As sincerely as possible, I tried to express a desire to understand them. That led me in a lot of different directions: finding a translator who I trusted and understood; double checking information when it was very important that I got it right; trying to appreciate the ambiguity of a language that is very different from what I'm used to; being flexible myself. I also found it helpful to let others know how I best understood things, how it was best to get information to me if they wanted it to be clear and understandable to me. They wanted to communicate. So if I was having a problem, they were probably having a problem. I put myself in their shoes and figured out how I could help them.

What other challenges did you confront?
Rwanda probably has the most efficient military in Africa. They were first to offer troops to the peace-keeping mission in the Sudan in Darfur, and they still have 3000 troops there. They contribute significantly to peace in Africa, and they have also expressed interest in other missions. They're also trying to make a change from solving problems in a military way (which is their first response -- sending in the police) to finding political solutions. We're trying to help them with this, and it will evolve as the country's youth matures into leadership positions. But their current government is run primarily by ex-military men, with only men in leadership positions; so it was a little difficult for someone like me -- a woman who has had no military experience and who looked rather young.

How did you deal with their perception of you as a young woman with no military experience?
It's about humility. If the Rwandan officials or leaders were having difficulty dealing with me, it was because they perceived me as an incompetent interlocutor (the person with whom you're in a discussion). If they saw me that way, I had to recognize that their concept of me was about them and not me. They could outgrow it by interacting with me -- by seeing me as a trustworthy, competent, youthful colleague. And I responded to them quickly and accurately in a thoughtful and kind manner. This would allow them to change their perceptions, which is important. Humility also was important when there were things I didn't know. Instead of pretending to know, I was willing to ask for help, accept it when it came, and not get down on myself when I made mistakes.

What would you say to people interested in getting into the Foreign Service?
To be successful, you have to be willing to be nonjudgmental, which is a good Bible ideal. There are lots of ways and paths for things to progress, whether through states or people or businesses. You have to be open to the idea that your immediate thought might not be the only path forward.

You're going to Iraq next. What will your responsibilities be?
I'll be working in the Consular section, which is where they issue visas and perform emergency and non-emergency services for Americans traveling or living abroad.

We wish you the best in Iraq. Thanks for all the work you're doing.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of the Department of State or the United States government.

For those who are interested, Maya provides a brief and helpful explanation of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Rwanda was a colony of the Belgian government after WWI. One of the policies of the Belgian government was to divide the two major ethnic groups -- the Tutsis and the Hutus -- politically. They institutionalized the distinction. Only Tutsis had access to education and jobs; and they were the minority, only 15 percent of the population. At the point of independence when the Belgians left, the Hutus took power and reversed all of the discrimination, which took place from 1959-1962. Over the next three decades, there was periodic violence, the Hutus against the Tutsis; so the Tutsis were leaving the country. In the early '90s, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were living in exile and wanted to return, but the government in power didn't want them to return. In 1991, a rebel Tutsi army began an insurgency. There was a peace agreement in '93, which called for power sharing between the Hutus and the Tutsis. But the Hutus didn't want this and started planning a genocide. On April 7, 1994, the president's plane was shot down (we're not sure by whom as we have reports that indicate that the Tutsis were responsible but also have knowledge that the president was a moderate Hutu probably getting pushed around by radical Hutus), and the genocide began. It lasted 100 days, during which approximately 800,000 people were killed -- primarily Tutsis and moderate Hutus, anyone calling for peace. That rate of killing is higher than at the highest rate of killing during the Holocaust. And unlike the Holocaust, where people were mass murdered in gas chambers, this genocide was done through individual killing. Someone walked up to someone else and killed him or her. So this was a very different type of violence. It was stopped in July by the Tutsi rebel army who now run the government. As mentioned in the interview, the genocide still plays a very critical role in everything the Rwandans do.

About Maya H. Dietz

I grew up in Central New York, before attending Williams College in Massachusetts, where I majored in Political Science, but whole-heartedly embraced the idea of a liberal arts education. I joined Teach for America after graduating and taught for two years as a high school mathematics teacher in rural North Carolina. A desire to affect systemic change, not only in the rural and poorer areas of the U.S., but also throughout the world, sent me back to graduate school. I pursued a dual-masters program at the University of Washington, earning a Masters in Public Administration and a Masters in International Studies. During graduate school, I worked for a Seattle-based non-profit managing USAID-funded training program and consulted for a NGO based in Vietnam. Just three weeks after graduating, I joined the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. My first posting was as a Political Officer in Rwanda, where I covered internal political developments, including the human rights portfolio. I am currently serving as a consular officer in Baghdad, Iraq, providing visa and American citizen services.