Three ladies give their view from the other side of diplomatic life
WHILE the work of foreign ambassadors serving in the Kingdom is widely reported, the behind-the-scenes activities and achievements of their spouses are sometimes overlooked. The reality is that many of these partners not only help their husbands, or in some cases wives, with official duties but are also involved in all kinds of extremely useful activities such as charities and NGOs. Some even run businesses.
To find out more, The BigChill recently interviewed the wives of three ambassadors currently serving in Thailand at the magnificent residence of the Danish envoy.
Joy E. Okafor is the wife of His Excellency Chudi Okafor, ambassador of Nigeria to Thailand. Mr Okafor was appointed ambassador to Thailand and Myanmar in November 2011.
“I was born in eastern part of Nigeria, where the Ibo ethnic group lives,” said Mrs Okafor. “I grew up and was schooled in Nigeria. My mother was a business woman and my father a government official working for the Ministry of Environment. When my husband was posted in the United States, I returned to Nigeria for further study and obtained an associate’s degree in early childhood education.
“I met my husband through his younger sister, who was my friend in high school. We’ve been married for 30 years and have four kids, three boys and a girl. My daughter is here with us studying at The Regent’s School. Two of my boys are at school in the United States and one is working in Melbourne.
“My husband started his ambassadorial term in July 2012. I came to Thailand for the first time when my husband was posted as a diplomat at the Nigerian embassy in Kuala Lumpur in the early 1990s. During that time we often vacationed in Hat Yai and Songkhla.
“As wife of an ambassador, my job is mainly to support him. I also attend various social events with my husband, and host events and otherwise take care of our residence in the Pattanakarn Road area of Bangkok. This still allows me time to do humanitarian and charity work,” said Mrs Okafor, who recently was chairperson for the 48th Diplomatic Red Cross Bazaar held at Siam Paragon. She also helps organize bazaars and charity events with a number of embassies, with proceeds going to less privileged groups in Thailand.
“I am active in SHOM – Spouses of Heads of Missions in Bangkok. We meet every month to keep updated. We organize extracurricular activities like sightseeing in Bangkok and other areas we want to explore. Our regular monthly meetings are held at ambassadors’ residences on a rotational basis.
“I am a Christian, associated with Christ Church on Sathorn Road. Once or twice a month I take a care of children in Sunday School activities.
“In the course of my husband’s duties, I accompany him on ceremonial visits and various functions. When we have delegations from Nigeria, I entertain the guests.
“Whenever he goes to another country on official business I always travel with him. We are husband and wife so we shouldn’t be separated. We have visited quite a few countries where my husband has served in various governmental positions. We were in Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, in the Russian Federation, in the south of the United States, and now Thailand. This is his first ambassadorial posting.
“When my husband visits other provinces in Thailand I go with him, and when he is on an official visit I accompany him as well when appropriate. I sometimes travel to other provinces without my husband.
“Every good husband asks for his wife’s advice, and mine is not an exception. There are certain things he wants my input on, and we put our heads together and reason, because as they say, two heads are better than one.”
Mrs Okafor is happy to be in Thailand. “I like Thai people. They are very friendly, hospitable and I love their smiles. The climate is the same as at home and the food is similar as well. We also like spicy food, but it depends on the area you are coming from in Nigeria.
“What I don’t like in Bangkok is the traffic,” Mrs Okafor said, prompting smiles of agreement from the other women present. “The traffic is usually very heavy and so is the noise, which can be stressful at times. But this is the case in every big city, including the Nigerian capital Lagos. I love a place that is quiet and serene, like here at the residence of the Danish ambassador. Our residence is also very quiet.”
Mrs Okafor said her most memorable experience in Thailand thus far was when a Nigerian woman, Dr Uche Veronica Amazigo, received the 2012 Prince Mahidol Award in the field of public health from her Royal Highness Princes Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
“The reception following the award was really very special. The second best day was in November 2013 when the Nigerian first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, visited Thailand to attend the ITU Telecom World 2013 event. She propagates a vision for youth. During her visit she was received at Government House by the Thai Prime Minister.”
Asked to compare Thailand to other countries she has visited, Mrs Okafor said: “I won’t go into things like standard of living and so on, but I will say that Thailand measures up well in certain areas such as infrastructure and commercial development. I love the shops here. Also, in terms of people to people relationships, Thai people are very welcoming. They make you feel comfortable. The way we’ve been received, especially by the Thai Foreign Ministry, is quite encouraging. There’s always something going on and there are a lot of activities geared toward women, which is very good.
“Life in Bangkok is not dull. However, communication is a little bit of a hindrance for those of us who can’t speak Thai. For example, most of the shopping attendants cannot communicate well in English. I have tried to learn the Thai language but it is rather difficult for me, especially the writing.
“As for my hobbies, I like strolling in the evenings and listening to music, especially gospel music. It suits my spirit.”
Astrid Amaya is the wife of His Excellency Andelfo Garcia, ambassador of Colombia to Thailand. She is the chairwoman of a family company called AOTA which creates marketing campaigns for corporations, countries or cities with the use of interactive art. The company motto is: Marketing Through Art.
“Since my son Alejandro Garcia-Amaya took over the company as CEO, our vision and international projects have expanded. The art campaigns we create for clients have the objectives to engage, enchant, and empower audiences; allowing our clients to create unique experiences in their property spaces.”
“I feel very strongly about empowering women in any form. This is one of the ways we can do it, by highlighting the works of distinguished female artists. We are working on very exciting projects, for instance, we are creating an interactive art campaign for the builders of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in Dubai. We are placing interactive artworks that enhance the visitor experience in high traffic areas.
“There is an incredible amount of high-end property development projects such as luxury malls, hotels, hospitals, residential and commercial properties that have inaugurated or will be inaugurating in the next couple of years in Asia. The industry leaders want to convert their property spaces into memorable experiences and we are dedicated to fill that need. This is why we are going to open a Bangkok office.
“I got married to my high school sweetheart,” she said. “I was born in New York. My parents were both Colombians but lived in the States for 25 years. That’s why my sisters and I were born in New York. Our parents returned to Colombia when we were in elementary school because they thought that primary education back home was better than in America. So I spent my childhood in Colombia. When I finished schooling I returned to New York (for university) and went back to Colombia to get married. We have been happily married for 40 years.
“We have three sons. The oldest one has a technology start-up in Silicon Valley and lives in San Francisco. The second is in finance and living in New York. My youngest also has a background in finance.
“My husband’s first posting was at the United Nations in New York. Next we went to Madrid, and then to London. He’s an international lawyer. He has been working on cases before the International Court of Justice at The Hague for Colombia. Maybe after serving his term here, he will go back to being a lawyer.
“Our family came to Thailand for the first time about ten years ago for a vacation. We had planned to go down south but couldn’t make because of the tsunami disaster. We came back again for vacation about seven years ago. I arrived here for the third time in 2014 to join my husband, who took up his ambassadorial post six months earlier in 2013.
“It is an honorable responsibility to represent a nation and a people. As the wife of an Ambassador, I’m eager to learn the culture of others as well as to share our culture and traditions with others. I am also chairwoman of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) International Bazaar. The YWCA’s purpose is to develop the leadership and collective power of women and girls around the world to achieve justice, peace, health, human dignity, freedom and sustainable environment for all people. The funds received from our Annual Bazaar Fundraiser are dedicated to projects that support our mission. Every year we receive the support and participation of more embassies and companies.
“I have always supported my husband. He helps me and I help him. I enjoy very much meeting new people and opening doors to leaders who are providing positive impact in their communities.”
Like Mrs Okafor, she is struggling with the Thai language. “I can speak Spanish and English and understand but cannot speak French and Portuguese.”
She likes a great many things about Thailand, first of all the people. “They are friendly and warm, the same as Colombians. That’s why we like it here so much. You can make friends very easy. You meet somebody and invite them to your home, which is not common in every country. If I say I am from Colombia, the people here will always talk about football, emeralds, coffee and the singer Shakira. They always tell me Shakira is a great ambassador for Colombia.
“We were happy that Miss Colombia was chosen as Miss Universe in the world pageant that took place in the US on January 25. It was nice because in the past we have come in second or third many times. We were at a dinner here where many people were congratulating us. We were surprised.
“There are a diverse variety of fruits and vegetables in Thailand, which I love. In Colombia we also eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. I don’t like spicy foods so much but I am starting to acquire a taste for them. What I don’t like is the traffic,” said Mrs Amaya.
She described travel as her “number one hobby,” adding that she often travels outside Bangkok both for work and pleasure. “I love to travel and I will take any opportunity to visit small communities in Thailand.
“We also like to watch movies at home, especially old ones. We have a good collection and are always buying more. Our friends will bring us movies they think we would like. Bangkok is a paradise for movie lovers. When we go out on Saturdays we come back with 10 or 15.
“There are many activities that make life interesting here. Every month, I host a dinner for 14 Thai Women Leaders at our residence. Every time it is different women who are leaders in their fields. I started the dinners when I arrived here. We have had 12 dinners so far and I have met very interesting women in politics, business and other fields.”
Mrs Amaya also listed exercise as a hobby. “I have a love/hate relationship with the gym, but it keeps my energy up.”
Ratanawadee H. Winther, wife of His Excellency Mikael Hemniti Winther, ambassador of Denmark to Thailand, was born in Korat. Following her father, the family moved to Udonthani when Ratanawadee was young. “I and my siblings had a very happy childhood there,” Mrs Ratanawadee said with a smile. “My father was a police officer. One of my brothers is now a police General in the Royal Thai Police.
“I went to high school in the United States and came back to Thailand to get my first degree at Thammasat University. Then I left for Canada where I lived and studied further for many years.” Mrs Ratanawadee holds Canadian and Thai citizenship, and also has a Danish diplomatic passport.
“I have been a working woman throughout my life; no matter where I went I managed to find a job. In Thailand I am the chairperson of Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF), a non-profit NGO advocating road safety. My foundation is trying to decrease the number of deaths and injuries on the road, especially of children. We have campaigns working with state organizations and corporate businesses in Thailand.
“We advocate the use of motorcycle helmets by children, and go to schools and sponsor extra-curricular activities and promote a culture of safety for children. I used to be country director but now look more at direction and policy and am sort of the ‘face’ of the foundation.
“AIPF is a global organization, so I can be involved after I leave Thailand. I am now working to promote road safety in many developing countries. I am going to a meeting in Morocco with a global world safety network,” said Mrs Ratanawadee, who can speak Thai, English, Danish and some Vietnamese. “I was in Vietnam for four years and I still go there often. We [AIPF] have a lot of activities there.
“We have launched a huge project in Thailand with many state agencies and organizations at the national level, with funding from international organizations. It’s called ‘7 percent,’ because it’s estimated that only seven percent of children in Thailand wear helmets.
“Our school program in the 7 percent project runs over one school year. Before we go to a school, we will assess the rate of helmet wearing of the children in the school. For example, in Bangkok we have at this moment six pilot schools. According to our assessments only five percent of children wear helmets when going to school. This is a really low percentage. The reason why we focus on helmets is because wearing them is a very easy way to protect life and prevent serious head injuries.
“If you want to decrease the death and injury rate, wearing helmets is a very effective measure. Thailand has laws requiring the use of helmets safety, but they often aren’t followed outside the capital and many parents don’t provide children with helmets because it is hard to find ones that fit their small heads.”
Mrs Ratanawadee also said that Thailand’s helmet safety standards are quite good, but some brands don’t meet the mark. “If you buy a helmet from a reputable shop or department store it will pass the legal requirements, and they are not that expensive. A good helmet costs 300-400 baht. If you want a really nice one it goes up to 1,000 baht, which is affordable, especially for those who ride expensive bikes.
“Bicycle riding is in fashion at the moment. Thai people are very trendy and overall it is quite a good development. However, to ride a bicycle in Bangkok is very dangerous. There aren’t many bicycle lanes here, like there are in Denmark.
“People who ride bicycles here are often in the upper social and economic brackets. If they can convince policy makers to improve infrastructure for the safety of riders it would be a good thing. On the plus side there are a lot of cyclists in the city who wear helmets.
“I enjoy arranging various activities and events to help others, and I have an advantage over others in doing so because I am Thai. But I do it quietly and behind the scenes. I don’t want to have my face in the press all the time. The media are interested in me because I am Thai,” said Mrs Ratanawadee.
“I want to say that to be the wife of an ambassador gives a position of privilege. You have a good life, but also if you really know the country it gives you the opportunity to really make a difference. If I were not the spouse of an ambassador, maybe my campaign with AIPF wouldn’t be so successful and people wouldn’t be as interested. Now if I am on TV or in the papers, people will ask about it. This gives an opportunity to put the privilege and influence to use. This matters a lot to me. My work isn’t intended to create problems, it is to help!”
Asked about her travel habits, Mrs Ratanawadee replied: “Mikael travels to Cambodia very often but I usually stay here because I am very busy. My day is very full, so it is difficult to find time to go with him. We are in daily telephone contact when he is not in Thailand, however. He likes that.
“I try to go to diplomatic functions if I can, including the National Day receptions.” Mrs Ratanawadee is in the SHOM Committee as activities coordinator.
She and her husband love to watch movies both at theaters and at their residence. She talked proudly of her husband’s last assignment. “Before we came to Thailand, Mikael was ambassador in Iraq. He did a very good job there. He had a very strong mandate and he did everything his government required under very difficult circumstances.
“I didn’t stay with my husband during his service in Iraq. It was a non-family posting. I couldn’t go there but Mikael received permission from the Danish government for me to visit him. This was in 2009 and at that time there was a lot of trouble. I visited him there for one week. He had at the embassy a team of 25 elite Danish soldiers as bodyguards. When he went out of the Green Zone where the embassy was located he was guarded by four solders, but for meetings like with the Iraqi foreign ministry he had about 11 heavily armed bodyguards with him.
“I stayed in Baghdad for three or four days and then we flew to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan. It was really different there. It was the trip of a lifetime. I don’t think that I will experience something like that again ever in my life.”
Mrs Ratanawadee said that despite living more outside Thailand than inside, she has a strong national identity. “I think that I am a better Buddhist and a better Thai when I am outside the country because I feel a strong sense of self. This was especially true in Canada, where they promote what they call the ‘Canadian Mosaic.’ They don’t try to erase your cultural identity. They want to promote it, so you feel proud of your origin and your background.
“What I would like to see change in Thailand is wealth inequality. From what I can see the gap between the rich and poor is wider even than before. This is what I don’t like! I think we have to take care of the less fortunate and the less advantaged.”
She also wants to help change the mindset of wealthier Thais as far as public transportation is concerned. “You have to make people feel that, for example, riding buses or the BTS or MRT is ok. We have to go that way, instead of everyone driving private vehicles. There are a lot of things we have to think about to change the behavior and attitudes of Thai people. People might say, ‘yes, it would be good to do it like that,’ but moving from thinking to doing is another thing. For example, everyone agrees it is better and safer to wear motorcycle helmets, but in practice many people won’t wear them and they don’t put them on their kids.”
Mrs Ratanawadee was pleased to announce that her husband had gotten a one year extension to his posting in Thailand. “In fact, this is our fifth year in Thailand. We will be leaving in August 2016. We have no idea where his next assignment will be, but we would like to go to Copenhagen. But more likely it will be to another country,” she said.