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By MC1 Cameron C. Edy
U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Traci Alvarez is U.S. Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) Maritime Law Enforcement Chief, and is serving as the exercise Cutlass Express U.S. Coast Guard coordinator. The following is an excerpt of a conversation about her experience working within Africa, and her experience working with African partners. This story has been edited to improve readability and context.
“Up until AFRICOM, I’d never been involved in anything Africa related. My previous commanding officer, when I was executive officer, had been an AFRICOM Sailor. He explained the mission, and what they were doing over here, and I thought it was a great opportunity to experience something different – and give my family an overseas experience. After Cutlass Express 2023 finishes, this will be my seventh time coming down to Africa for a U.S. AFRICOM mission. I started off in North Africa the first year, but now East Africa is my section.
But the mission here was one of the major reasons I chose to come here. I deal mostly with African maritime law enforcement program (AMLEP) exercises with AFRICOM, which includes a lot of U.S. Navy exercises. But, a lot of these African partner nations, their navies to a lot of African coast guard missions, so I felt, and still feel, that it was important for us to have additional Coast Guard support to meet that need. For instance, I was approached by the Kenyans to provide search and rescue, charting, boat plans, things like that, because the Kenyan coast guard is relatively new, compared to their navy.
I’ve been here, working with African partner nations for two years now, and some of the biggest challenges are the least frustrating I’ve experienced. Sometimes when we do trainings and conduct these exercises, there’s a nervousness to engage face-to-face, and there’s a bit of a language barrier, but that comes with nuance. When I’m meeting or speaking with someone about Coast Guard techniques, and we get to a comfort level where we’re talking about similar experiences, they tend to be really receptive to the ideas and way forward I’m talking about. More importantly, they enjoy it – like any kind of conversation, it’s about making someone feel comfortable with the trainers and training that’s being given.
The language barrier is difficult, but honestly that’s perspective. First, to be fair, I don’t speak any other languages, maybe some broken Spanish. But we need to recognize that these partners are speaking their second or, most of the time, their third language. You need to sit down and understand what they’re saying instead of just assuming they don’t understand. Like during a training, rather than standing at the podium, I will walk over and make eye contact, and really actively listen and engage with them. In many ways, even this comes back to why I love the mission, and why I came out here. This isn’t me coming out here with my ideas and my plans. It’s a partnership, working with people to make something better, together.
So those are the challenges, but everything else has been a blessing. Everywhere I’ve been on this continent, the people are so great and so nice, and I think very appreciative for some of the efforts and work we do out here. Also, the places I’ve been have been some of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. You know, I think some people have this misconception of what Africa is, and as I’ve traveled throughout Africa, it’s taught me a lot, and the main part is how everyone I’ve met have been great – they literally want to do great things.
As a woman, it’s been an honor to work alongside African partners and female service members during the exercises and share my story with them - that’s always special. For some of these nations, it’s new to have women in leadership, so I hope I can bring some insight, because at the end of the day I’m a woman, just like they are.
After this, in July, I’ll be transferring to the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, and part of me is kind of heartbroken about it. But I’ll be bringing something with me. I think it’s important that we recognize that Africa is critical to us. The resources it holds are a constant draw to foreign parties – building up Africa, so that it can protect and best use those resources, is something I really believe in. Personally, I hope this isn’t the last time I’m on the continent. The people are amazing, and it’s definitely a goal to travel back to the continent with my family, and introduce them to all the amazing people and places I’ve met and seen. But strategically, I understand the importance of our impact here. I want to be the partner of choice, and I think that we are.
Sometimes, I think it gets lost that a lot of these countries are more capable than they get credit for – whether it’s the training we do, or the operations we conduct in tandem - they’re eager, they’re capable, and if they’re not capable, they want to learn. I’ve never not been impressed by Africa, and it’s been a great two years."