U.S. Embassy officers don't wear capes or silly tights, but on more than one occasion, they've come to Steve Nelson's rescue.
In March 2012, the Indiana missionary was living in Bamako, Mali, when gun-toting rebels attacked the West African country in an attempted military coup. The American tracked the perilous situation through text messages released by the U.S. Embassy. For five days, he abided by the official order to "shelter in place." During a lull in the fighting, he drove to safety, crossing the border into Senegal.
More than a decade earlier, Nelson had also leaned on the State Department's foreign corps. For a week, he and his wife had hunkered down in a dormitory in Kinshasa while national military forces rampaged against Mobutu Sese Seko, the corrupt president of then-Zaire. They'd escaped through an embassy-crafted evacuation plan that involved an armed convoy, a ferry ride to the French Congo and a flight to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Compared with past experiences, the duo's latest interaction with a U.S. embassy was like an afternoon picnic with no angry armies of ants. To obtain permanent residency in Senegal, they needed a consular officer in Dakar to notarize their documents. Sign, stamp and go.
"It's important to stay in touch with the embassy," Nelson said from behind a glass divider in an embassy private room. "We need their help, and they're there for us."
The United States has planted nearly 300 embassies and consulates on international soil, in destinations tropical (Suva, Fiji) and urban (Sao Paulo), peaceful (Bern, Switzerland) and volatile (Cairo), touristy (Florence) and not (Sanaa, Yemen). The embassies' top priority is to aid Americans traveling abroad, although staff members also work on visa and immigration issues and fraud investigations. But Uncle Sam's kids come first.
"We're here to serve Americans," said Chris Smith, vice consul in Dakar. "We operate as their agents."
True, but the assistance comes with an asterisk. For example, the officers can't renew your driver's license or recommend a 24-hour pharmacy where you can pick up your psychiatric meds. (All real requests.) They also can't spring you from jail or foot any bills, although they can provide a list of lawyers, press for fair prison conditions and equitable treatment, and advise family members on how to transfer funds to an impaired traveler.
"There's a misperception that we'll pay for their flight home," Smith said. "A 19-year-old came in and wanted a free ticket."
Rest assured, the can-do list is relatively long. Among the services: adding pages to a passport, replacing a lost or stolen one, issuing a Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA), helping family members track down a missing loved one, providing support to an ailing or destitute American (finding local medical services or lodging, for example), making arrangements for the remains of a deceased individual and, when terror strikes, helping to extricate Americans from danger.
"At parties, everyone wants to talk to us," Smith said, "because we have the most interesting stories."
Here's a teaser, care of Karen Gustafson de Andrade, consular section chief at the Dakar embassy.
"I spent Mother's Day in a penitentiary in Port-au-Prince," she said, recalling a visit with an American who had been incarcerated for smuggling contraband into Haiti.
Eager to hear the tales -- "Argo," the prequel? -- and see the embassy staff in action, I recently observed a day in the life of the consular office in Dakar. At security, I relinquished my passport and smartphone and joined my fellow Americans on a patch of stars and stripes etched onto the westernmost tip of Africa.
• • •
"Any problems with the visa?" Smith asked the Nelsons during their morning appointment in mid-January.
"Just long lines," Steve answered from his side of the partition in the 64-seat waiting room.
"Did you sign up for STEP?" the officer inquired.
Pardon the interruption, but can we pause the conversation for a moment? We need to discuss STEP.
The State Department encourages -- more like begs -- U.S. citizens to register for its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which delivers e-updates on a specific destination's dangers, policy changes, etc., as well as notifications of worldwide alerts. Each embassy also posts "Emergency Messages for U.S. Citizens" on its website, recommended reading during all stages of your trip.
The information can help you save time ("New Visa Requirements for Entry Into Senegal," for example), stay safe ("Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Crime on the Corniche") and, on a Wednesday morning in January, understand the reason behind the burning tires, armed police and pack of students demonstrating outside a university in Dakar ("Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Student Protest").
The Jan. 17 message exposing the dangers on the corniche arrived a tad too late for Matthew Christian, a Fulbright scholar teaching in Dakar. While jogging on the oceanfront path the week before, he'd felt a man grab him from behind. The thug had threatened him with a gun (authenticity uncertain) and stolen his cellphone. Fortunately, Christian had escaped unharmed.
"I reported it to the embassy," he said, "and they would've sent out an alert."
For the most part, the embassies handle the same variety pack of issues, but the frequency of certain situations differs. Gustafson de Andrade, who has worked in Rio, Sao Paulo, Paris and Port-au-Prince (officers typically rotate every two to three years), said that in well-touristed cities, the most common incidents involve theft and sick or missing Americans.
"Child abduction and welfare and whereabouts cases are the most challenging," she said, "but can be the most fulfilling."
During a midday break on the cafeteria patio overlooking the Atlantic, the vice consul recalled an episode in Rio involving an underage girl who ran away with her Brazilian boyfriend. After her parents contacted the U.S. Embassy, a Brazilian judge ordered the teen returned to the States. The consular staff located the minor in the house of her sweetheart's relative, much to the girl's dismay and her parents' gratitude.
All whereabouts cases don't share the same homeward-bound ending, though. If the "missing" individual is an adult, Gustafson de Andrade said, "all you can say is, 'Call your mother.'"
• • •
The embassy in Dakar is one of the largest in Africa, after the ones in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, and serves Senegal plus its southern neighbor, Guinea-Bissau. Last March, the staff moved into new digs on a 10-acre site in the upscale Almadies neighborhood. The $181 million campus incorporates environmentally sound construction and features, earning it recognition as one of the greenest buildings on the continent. The most impressive detail for this dehydrated American: the filtered water that flows like a mountain spring from fountains and faucets.
"It's one of the few places in Africa where you can drink from the faucet," Smith said.
The American Citizens Services corps (one chief, two U.S. consular assistants, one local employee) typically focuses on routine duties, such as replacing passports, notarizing documents and issuing passports for American children living in Senegal or born in the country to an American parent(s). On a warm and sunny Wednesday, the appointment book listed five CRBA cases, four renewals, an add-pages and four notaries, including the Midwestern couple -- a medium-size workload. (Note: The embassy requires visitors to schedule an appointment in advance but accepts walk-ins in emergencies.)
Douglas Steinberg, a Cleveland native who works for Helen Keller International in Senegal, needed to expand his passport's girth. The outing took less than a half-hour, much speedier than his anticipated wait of an hour. Steinberg said that he and a British citizen once conducted a race between the two countries' consular services. The United States won.
During three decades in Africa, Steinberg has relied on the embassies mainly for passport services, with one exception: About 20 years ago, a colleague committed suicide in Bamako. "The embassy helped with protocol," he said, "and found a funeral home."
Of all the subjects in the staff's docket, the ones involving deaths fill the staff's hearts with the most sadness and grief. The cases are more than just part of the job; they're personal.
Moussa Sy, a Senegalese consular assistant with a booming personality, turned solemn when he dipped into the recent past to retrieve a story about a U.S. veteran living in Senegal. About five years ago, the Dakar embassy learned of a man suffering from heart problems. The staff encouraged him to return to the States for medical treatment, but he refused. When he passed away, his family requested a cremation, but local law bans the practice. The body remained at the morgue for a month; frequent electricity outages complicated matters.
"It was for me a very difficult case, because I had to take the body," Sy said. "He didn't have nobody."
Sy took responsibility for the vet's funeral. He located a pastor in a country that is 95 percent Muslim, found a plot at a cemetery outside Dakar and assembled a small crowd of well-wishers.
"We gave him a decent ceremony," he said quietly. "We put a little U.S. flag at the grave. It stayed there for two years."
• • •
At 10 a.m., a few hours into the workday, Sy received a call from a mother with a sick child. The parent, who is Mauritanian, needed an emergency passport for her 7-year-old daughter, who is American and required health care in the States.
Around lunchtime, Sy and Smith journeyed to a city hospital to meet the girl and her mother. They needed to confirm the child's citizenship (her father is American) and consult with the African mother about getting a tourist visa if she wanted to accompany her daughter to the States. They would confer with the doctor about the youngster's condition (cerebral malaria, plus circulatory ailments) and whether she was healthy enough to endure a long trip. They would also suggest a travel itinerary, including an ambulance transfer to the Dakar airport, wheelchair assistance to the gate and a flight itinerary with minimal inconveniences.
"Basically, we're there to help them make a cogent plan," Smith said.
A few hours later, the pair returned to the office to await a phone call from the father, who hoped to fly to Senegal and escort his daughter back to the Midwest. Once they heard from him, they could move forward and process a new passport by Friday for a Monday departure to the States.
"At the end of the meeting, the mother was happy," said Smith, clearly relieved. "Hopefully, she'll go home to sleep."