The month before it had been Botswana. Before that, Senegal. Next Barbara Fitzsimmons Hughes '67 was preparing for a trip to Nigeria. While there, she would talk with Nigerian government officials about initiating a peacekeepers' training program for soldiers in that West African country.
Barbara Fitzsimmons Hughes ‰67
Photo by Fred Field
The negotiation was part of her job as coordinator of the U.S. State Department's ACOTA program, an acronym for African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance, which trains African military officers to be peacekeepers. It is a skill, Hughes said, that isn't natural for most soldiers. "We're kind of taking them out of that war fighter [mentality], trying to change the mindset so they can be peacekeepers,— she said in her Washington, D.C., office, against the backdrop of a colorful Kente cloth from Ghana.
Once Hughes's six-person team sets up the program in a participating country, members hire American military personnel and contractors to conduct six weeks of training. The soldiers learn negotiation tactics, practice dealing with refugees, and discuss human rights issues. So far, soldiers in 15 African countries have been trained by ACOTA.
"The most rewarding thing is, when we go out, we truly get huge 'thank yous' from the soldiers that we're training,— Hughes said. "Generals will pull us aside and say, 'This training is the best thing that we've had in years and we really appreciate America doing this for us.'
"The reason it's been as successful as it has, and I think it's been extremely successful, is that it requires a real honest-to-gosh buy-in by the foreign military. They have to bring resources to the table. This isn't just us handing them something.—
A government major at Colby, Hughes earned her master's degree in international relations, then joined the Foreign Service so she could travel with her then-husband, who was also in the State Department program. The two served in Mexico, Moscow, Paris, Belgium, and Zimbabwe—often with their two children, one of whom (Guy Hughes '99) went on to graduate from Colby. "It makes families tighter,— she said of her family's travels. "They're much more dependent on each other, because friends move on.—
Hughes joined ACOTA more than three years ago because it "blissfully— incorporated many of her skills and experience, she said, including her familiarity with Africa and her ability to speak French. She left the organization in July and this fall was looking forward to a new challenge.
"Once you get started with the kind of work we do in the Foreign Service, it's hard to ever go away from it, because it's active. It's a lot of variety, a lot of change. It's never dull,— she said. "If it is dull, you can always say, 'This is dull, I'm going to do something else within the system.'—
Where else would she like to travel? "Oh, visiting? That's different,— Hughes said. "I'd like to see Asia.—