An Interview with Ellen Bienstock-Masi, the outgoing US Embassy Cultural Attache`

KP How long have you been with the US Embassy in Kenya
I arrived in Kenya in July 2008, so it has been just about three years.

Ellen with one of the kids
from Voiceless Children Org.

KP What was your role as the Cultural attache`
My role was to foster mutual understanding between Kenyans and Americans through a variety of programs and activities. The Cultural Affairs Section of the embassy manages over 23 professional and academic in addition to supporting and managing cultural programs throughout Kenya.

KP How has the experience been for you?
My experience in Kenya has been amazing. I feel very fortunate to have traveled far and wide within the country and reached communities that we have not reached before. My job very often allows me to see the benefits of my work in an immediate way. For example, late last year and early this year we sent ten Samburu secondary school girls and boys to the U.S. for a three-week leadership program. The group not only came back full of new perspectives, confidence, and pride in their culture and their country, but they also started a beading project that is supporting more children in their communities to attend school.

Having arrived when the Post Election Violence tragedy was still quite raw, I was privileged to see and be a part of a cultural community that took responsibility for the role culture can play in promoting peace and reconciliation. 
I have grown both personally and professionally in Kenya. The warmth, good will, and optimism of the Kenyan people is infectious!

KP  The US Embassy has been supporting various cultural activities e.g the Black History Month, the Daniel Pearl day, which others and could you tell us a bit about them?
Our cultural programs are driven in different ways. Sometimes an opportunity is given to us through the U.S. Department of State and we put a bid in for the U.S. Embassy in Kenya to bring the program here. For example, in April 2009 we brought hip hop artist Dynamax here to work with young hip hop artists in Nairobi and Kisumu.

Sometimes we see or hear of a need for support for or interest in a particular area and we seek out an American artist who can meet that need. For the past two years we saw an opportunity to support the film industry in Kenya through the Kenya Film Commission and the Kenya International Film Festival (KIFF). In 2009 and 2010 we brought the American Documentary Showcase along with a filmmakers and film specialists to Kenya. The films were screened and workshops given in Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa. Also in 2009 we helped KIFF bring renowned actor John Carlo Esposito to be their special guest.

And very often we are approached by Kenyan entities and artists who seek our support for cultural programs they are initiating. When those projects promote mutual understanding between our two countries and people, we look for ways to support them. It gives us great pleasure when organizations like Paa Ya Paa come to us and request our support in an event like Black History Month, which is a commemoration that the U.S. is committed to celebrating each year. This past year Paa Ya Paa and the “Friends of Paa Ya Paa” met with us to discuss ways to celebrate Black History from an American and Kenyan perspective.

 The program resulted in hundreds of secondary school students watching films related to key figures or key messages about the struggles, success, and pride of the black community in the U.S., which were followed by lively discussions about lessons to be learned and Kenyans’ sense of pride as black people. The even culminated with a celebration of dance, music, and poetry around the theme.

Daniel Pearl World Music Days is an annual event that began before my arrival in Kenya. The Daniel Pearl Foundation dedicated itself to celebrating the life of American journalist Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped and killed in early 2002. In October that year, the U.S. Embassy worked with Paa ya Paa on the First Daniel Pearl World Music Days, which was an effort by the Foundation to promote peace through the arts that Pearl loved so much.

 During my time here, the annual event has become one of my favorite recurring programs. The art, poetry, music, and dance that are created from the suggestion that this day of peace provokes are so moving. It is inspiring to see Kenyans connect with Daniel Pearl while they think about the challenges they face themselves in Kenya.

KP  Where is the next stop for you?
After spending a year in Washington, DC – USA where I will be taking some training and also working in the Africa Bureau for Public Diplomacy, I will head to Kinshasa, DRC to head the Public Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy there.

KP A few words to art enthusiasts in Kenya?
Keep up the inspiring work! Don’t be afraid to share your ideas and your enthusiasm with others…others may copy your idea, but they will never copy your spirit. Sharing and collaboration only enhances the end product. Dream big! The president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts came to Kenya because he was so inspired by the arts managers who have gone to Washington from here for his arts management program.

 Sundance Theatre and Sundance Films have chosen to do programs in Kenya because they have seen such great work and great potential coming from here. Take advantage of opportunities as they come if you are an artist. Support local Kenyan artists if you are an enthusiast of the Arts. With your support, it will only keep getting better.

Thank you so much for sharing with K.P blog readers, we wish you all the best in your new posting

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