Ambassador Natalie E. Brown | Independence Day Reception Remarks

Ambassador Natalie E. Brown | Independence Day Reception Remarks

July 6, 2023

Good evening and welcome to our celebration of the 247th anniversary of the independence of the United States of America!  We are delighted to receive you at the Embassy for this celebration.  I understand that we have not hosted a large event here since 2017, and the pandemic and the ongoing construction around us mean many of you have not recently been to this compound either.  So, it’s really nice to have you join us and the construction team assures me we don’t have to worry about cranes or scaffolding falling.

Every year on July 4, along with the parades, picnics, and fireworks, Americans take time to reflect on our shared values, which are enshrined in our founding documents, that “all men – and in today’s world, most of us recognize that this should and does mean all people– are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  We also take time to acknowledge where we have fallen short in realizing these aspirations and the ongoing work still needed “in order to form a more perfect union.”  With this in mind, when it came time to celebrate our birthday this year, we could not think of a better way to observe the occasion than to invite all of you – our partners who share these values, our partners who are so critical to our efforts to promote a healthier, more prosperous, more secure Uganda – to join us here at the Embassy.

Tonight, as we celebrate 247 years of independence, we continue to recognize 60 years of Ugandan independence and our 60 years of bilateral relations, and all that’s happened during this time.  Just a little over 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps.  A few years later, volunteers were on the ground in Uganda, and today, over 1,900 volunteers have lived and worked in Ugandan communities in health, education, agriculture, and economic development.  And the next cohort is due in just a few short months.

The U.S. Agency for International Development – USAID –began its work here immediately after independence and continues to this day, working in partnership with Ugandans to promote health, prosperity, education, and a strong civil society that holds its public institutions accountable.

Over the years, our work expanded, and currently the staff of 13 U.S. government departments and agencies lend their technical expertise and support to Ugandan communities.  These agencies also work with and through various local and international partners – all of you here tonight.

Sometimes our support is very visible, like the Tororo Girls School we helped establish in 1963 or the nearby Kibuli Secondary School which received some assistance for buildings in the 1970s.  To the casual observer, however, much of our investment is not immediately apparent; it may not always be evident that the source of support for many projects across many sectors is the American taxpayer.  This is because the U.S. government generally prefers to focus on providing the knowledge and tools to enable Ugandans to improve their own services, educate the future, and inspire the next generation.  One of my favorite examples of this is CDC’s Field Epidemiology Program (FETP) whose disease detectives were so instrumental in bringing the Ebola outbreak to an end.  We may not have built the building, but the people within very well may have received training or education from the American people.

This investment in capacity, this cooperation, is most evident in the many U.S. government academic, professional, and cultural exchange programs that Ugandans have participated in.  From former MP Joyce Mpanga [m-PAN-gah], the first Ugandan woman to hold a master’s degree, which she received as a Fulbright student from the University of Indiana in 1961, to the 12 new Fulbright scholars now preparing to depart for experiences in the United States, these programs have significantly bolstered the capacity of Ugandans and Ugandan institutions throughout the country.

When a Ugandan scholar, businessperson, health worker, or civil servant spends time learning and sharing with Americans, they build relationships that continue to blossom and often grow into longstanding partnerships.  For example, just the other week we hosted a group of undergraduates from Kennesaw State University in Georgia on an exchange program organized by their professor, a former Fulbright scholar at Makerere University.  As these American students enter the workforce, they will have real world experience of Uganda, the issues, challenges, and opportunities that will influence the work they do.  And many of the Ugandans who have participated in exchange programs, particularly the entrepreneurs, have seen their endeavors grow as a result.  There’s Gerald Katabazi of Volcano coffee who is not only exporting to the United States but opening an outlet there as well.  And graduates of the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE – because these women are awesome!) have competed for and won grants to expand their businesses.

2023 independence 4As a result of these exchanges when Ugandans share their values, experiences, and worldview with Americans, we also grow and evolve and experience the world differently.  When Ugandans visit the United States on U.S. government exchange programs, they see the good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly.  They see that what Americans often say is true: we are a work in progress.  We have differences among us; we do not always live up to the values laid out in our founding documents; we grow our economy while neglecting to find solutions for those who are not thriving within it.  Yet we have these debates out loud and in the open.  We read about it in our newspapers and hear it on radio, TV, or the internet.  We question our government and attempt to hold leaders to account.  And when we feel like that process is failing us, some of us – generally peacefully – shout it from the rooftops, in the streets, and in the courts.

For some, I know it’s controversial, but I’m glad to see similar debates happening here in Uganda, whether it’s about potholes and the infrastructure needed to sustain growth, access to quality healthcare so you have a citizenry able to do the work needed for growth, speaking out against torture and human rights abuses, exposing theft of resources destined for the most vulnerable, or fighting corruption which has the potential to undo all of the progress made over the past 60 years.

I applaud the media, civil society organizations, and engaged citizens who have attempted to hold individuals and institutions to account, often at personal risk.  Ugandans know that the “Pearl of Africa” can only truly be so when its government and its people live up to the promise of democracy.

No democracy is perfect.  We see this playing out every day in countries around the world.  I was recently in Washington for the annual ambassadors’ conference and President Biden told us we – all of us – are at a global inflection point, charting a new course forward with implications for generations to come.  He and Secretary Blinken called on American diplomats to focus on the international system and what it will look like and how it can better serve us all and especially the neediest, which is why the United States rejoined UNESCO last week.  And they stressed working in partnership on common concerns like hunger and climate, even where there are other areas where we may diverge.

Allow me to address the obvious area where we diverge: the Anti Homosexuality Act.  When I listen to the vitriol and hate leveled against LGBTQI+ persons, whether here in Uganda, or at home, it shocks me to the core.  Ugandans pride themselves on being a welcoming and loving people who embrace diversity.  Americans extol our identity as a melting pot.  We can certainly disagree about how we feel about others and how they live their lives, but I must admit, it is hard for me to see why we would differ about treating everyone with respect and dignity if their behavior is not hurting others.

I have heard the arguments about sexual assault of minors, and on this we agree.  Defilement – or to be blunt, rape – is a heinous crime, whether committed against a minor or a non-consenting adult.  And yet day after day I hear stories of teenage pregnancies; schoolgirls and boys propositioned and exploited through transactional sex in exchange for good marks on exams; male and sometimes female teachers, religious leaders, and even family members abusing young children – all very often with impunity.  My heart breaks for the vulnerable young people whose lives are forever affected by these crimes for which there is so often no justice.  And I worry about innocent Ugandans who, because they may love differently, are being demonized, evicted from their homes, and are fearful of seeking medical treatment because of this ill-conceived law.  The psychological, health, and economic repercussions of these acts affect this entire country now and will for years to come if nothing is done to address this very real issue.

If you read the social media comments on our policy position and the responses to our own public posts – which I’m told is something best to avoid – or hear commentary from some political actors the world over, you will hear criticism of the United States and calls for the U.S. to respect the sovereignty of a given country.  What you often do not hear are the private messages we receive from brave individuals and organizations fighting for the rights of marginalized people or people with opposing points of view.  They understand that the United States, despite its flaws and its own ongoing work to create a free society for all, will listen to their voices and those of their allies, and that we will speak for them when they cannot be heard.  They know that we know how much better, stronger, healthier, and more prosperous and dynamic a country is when it respects, supports, values, and hears all its people.

And we know from experience that this is possible.  When our founding fathers asserted “all men are created equal,” they meant men, specifically white men who owned property.  At the time of our nation’s founding, neither my gender nor my color was included in how many Americans interpreted this most critical line of our founding document.  And yet, the sentiment was there, and it is what has inspired many Americans of all walks of life to fight for an ideal, to work to perfect our union.  Despite ongoing and in some cases growing challenges to this ideal, many around the world still see the United States as a beacon of hope, and as we work to protect our rights at home, we will do the same abroad, working closely with partners like you motivated by the same values.

On the subject of partners, I want to acknowledge our many business partners whose support is essential tonight’s reception.  We very much appreciate all that you do promote trade and investment between the United States and Uganda, and commend your corporate social responsibility investments in Ugandan communities.  A special thanks also goes to the Makerere University jazz band.

Just a few more words about the ongoing construction that has been disruptive to us and many others.  It too represents strong partnership.  In addition to the Americans working on the buildings, we have a Turkish contractor, and employ over 500 Ugandan workers at all skill levels.  And the finished building behind me will include art by local artist Sanaa Gateja.  All of this is so our staff can work together more collaboratively and so we have more space for things like consular services, including visa interviews.

I also want to thank the U.S. Mission team who worked so hard for many months to organize this event.  It was a job on top of all of their other jobs and once again the team came together with unity of purpose and a strong work ethic.  And because I may not have the opportunity to do this publicly, I want to thank the entire U.S. Mission team for all that they do day in and day out in support of both the American and Ugandan people.  Many of you know my time in Uganda is scheduled to come to an end sometime this year – it’s the normal transition – and during my tenure, we’ve been through a lot:  COVID-19 lockdowns, vaccine delivery, terror attacks, the Sudan Ebola virus outbreak, natural disasters, and more.  In each instance, U.S. Mission staff, asked, “How can we help?” and then took action.  I have never worked with a more talented or dedicated team, and I thank you all.

To the people of Uganda and our dear guests here tonight, I thank you for the warm welcome and your friendship.  As we recognize 247 years of American Independence Day and honor 60 years of our partnership with the Ugandan people, I am proud to say that, across many different sectors in every corner of this beautiful country, Americans and Ugandans will continue to work to secure a brighter future, together.

With that, please raise your glass and join in saying, “Happy Birthday America!”