From Shy Lady To High Commissioner
With such an infectious smile, one would hardly belief that Jamaican Diva and High Commissioner Aloun Ndombet-Assamba is rather shy. With several years of high profile opportunities under her belt, she still finds it a challenge each time she takes center stage. Jamaican Divas spoke with Her Excellency about her transition into her new role as Jamaica’s representative, her fashion sense and lessons she has learned along the way.
What reason(s) influenced your decision to accept the post of High Commissioner to London?
The Prime Minister asked me to do it. It’s very hard to say no to your Prime Minister, because it is a great honor to be asked to be an ambassador. And probably even greater honor to be asked to be the High Commissioner to the court of St. James. I didn’t think I wanted to say no to my Prime Minister. It was also an opportunity to get involve.
What exactly is the role of a High Commissioner?
The High Commissioner is the representative of Jamaica to the United Kingdom. It means that I look after Jamaica’s interests; Jamaica’s bilateral interests meaning our relationship with the government of the UK. Also, our multilateral interests with those organizations that are based here in the UK; for example with the Common Wealth and with a number of other organizations that Jamaica is involved in – the International Coffee Organization, the International Maritime Organization, the International Cocoa Organization, Sugar Organizations. All of those organizations, we have representatives who will come up to London from time to time to have meetings but, I am the first point of contact with those organizations.
In addition to the diplomatic responsibilities I also have responsibility for the diaspora and the diaspora development here in the UK. We have over 250 Jamaican organizations and communities that we serve. There are probably six hundred thousand or so Jamaicans of four generations; first generation people who came in the 1950s and people who’ve been coming since then and have had children and those children have had children. Once you’re a Jamaican and you can prove that your parents, your grandparents, your lineage is Jamaican, you’re entitled to be a Jamaican citizen. And that’s one of the things that we’re pushing now, for persons who might be born here to take up their Jamaican citizenship. We provide consular services to the Jamaicans who need to get their passport renewed, for whom we might need to do some referrals. You’d be amazed at the kinds of challenges persons have and they come to the High Commission to get referral, advice, and direction on how to proceed.
For those of us who do not live in Europe, as High Commissioner what other countries do you serve?
I am Ambassador to 6 other countries; the Scandinavian countries: Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark as well as to Cyprus and Ireland. And I do the same thing, represent Jamaica’s interest. However, in those countries where I am not physically in resident we have honorary councils who are there on the ground day to day. These are voluntary persons who have been appointed to be honorary councils to represent Jamaica’s interests as needs be. And they now make reference to me whenever anything comes up that they need to deal with.
Did you find the Jamaican community welcoming?
Definitely so! Very, very welcoming! They are a good group of people, who have events continuously and they expect me to be at these events or if not me another member of my team. I have a Deputy High Commissioner and I have officers – a Consular Officer, a Political Officer and we have a community relations person. We make sure that we, as much as is possible go to the events.
How easy was your transition to London and into your new role?
It was very easy; before I came here the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prepared me. I had meetings with persons and organizations. I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I was briefed by the officers there who deal with International relations and organizations. My head was full and I had papers to use, to read before I came, I knew exactly what I was coming to do. Then, I got here and as I said the community was very welcoming and did as much as possible to help me. l also have excellent officers in the High Commission who have different areas that they are responsible for and they prepare me very well.
Of course getting used to the cold was a different thing, I came in the summer and it didn’t get cold overnight you ease into the cold. The first year I came it snowed. I was used to the snow as I went to the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. When people ask me how are you taking the cold I say, I’m used to blizzards this is not really bad. It took a little getting used to the rain and the wet though. The transition was easy and having been a Member of Parliament you get to deal with so many things, that experience has served me well.
What was it like meeting the queen?
I had met the Queen before. She came to Jamaica when I was a Senator. I had met her and several members of the Royal Family. I met Prince Phillip in 1986 when I was on a program that he had put together in Australia. When I visit other countries I present my credentials to their leader; the King of Sweden, the Queen of Denmark, the President of Ireland. However, in the UK because Jamaica is called a Realm country this means the Queen is still our head – I am the High Commissioner from the Queen to the Queen. I do not present credentials, I have an audience with the Queen and that went very well. She is a very personable lady and she makes you feel comfortable. Of course by the time I sat with her she was properly briefed about who I was, what my experience was, and she knew I had a son. We talked about my son; we talked about my mom being still alive those kinds of things we talked about, not about politics, nothing at all about politics. It was a very comfortable meeting because she puts you at ease. A meeting that would normally have taken 15 minutes went for about three quarters of an hour; we talked about so many things.
What do you love most about being High Commissioner?
What do I love most about being High Commissioner? I like interacting with the people I meet. Both on the diplomatic side as well as on the diaspora side. I get to know a lot of people. I’ve also had a chance to get to know the English countryside because I traverse from Scotland down to the southernmost tip. I’m in Wales, I’m in England, I’m in Scotland, I like the countryside. I’ve gone to the seaside. I like getting around. Getting used to London is very exciting, there are many things to do here. There are lots of restaurants I’ve seen the food change from in the 70s and 80s when I would visit, to become a more cosmopolitan place. Of course, it’s really multicultural now. Where I live in the high street, this would be like a main street in a town, I can go to an Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese or further down the road a restaurant selling Jamaican food. I have the Jazz Café close by, I have the Camden Locke and the Camden Markets. Where I live is a very exciting place, just at the end of my road is a big restaurant. There are many things to do here, you can’t be bored.
I also work very hard, I work 7 days a week. Every once in a while I might get a Sunday day off or a Sunday morning off or a Sunday afternoon off but I work every day of the week. During the week Monday to Friday I also have diplomatic receptions starting at 6 or 8 o’clock; sometimes I even have diplomatic receptions at 1o’clock so it’s a full day. I am fully occupied. I go to my bed and sleep in the nights to be able to wake up the next morning to start it all over again. `
Given your high profile position, which normally calls for a conservative business like attire, how do you express your fashion style?
I do not take on this conservative business-like attire at all. I hardly wear suits. I only wear suits when the occasion really is of such that I have to wear a suit. Although it might seem as if London is a formal place it isn’t really. I can express myself by the clothes I wear – I wear dresses, I wear skirts, and I wear pants. I don’t feel that I have to wear a suit. When I went to see the queen I wore a dress with a jacket. When I present my credentials some of the places I have to wear long evening gowns therefore I have a collection of evening gowns. When I went to present my credentials in Ireland and in Finland I wore a suit. My wardrobe is fit for different occasions. Sometimes I’m in my office for the entire day, but I still have to wear something that if I’m called to go to a meeting at Lancaster House or to a meeting at Marlboro House where the Commonwealth is, or something urgent comes up I must be able to go. I can express myself in many ways when I need to wear a hat- I wear a hat. I wear sweaters now called cardigans, or shrugs or a scarf, or a wrap; I always have something. I can express myself by adding on things.
What has become of your Law practice in Jamaica?
God is so good. I had an office in Kingston and when I opened an office in St. Ann’s Bay a young lady I taught mediation at law school came to me and said she wanted me to give her a job. I said I really don’t have a job but come and let’s see how we can work together. We worked together for almost 2 years before I came here. I left the practice with her and she is carrying it on. She is in our St Ann’s Bay office. I operated both offices for a while, even while I was here but eventually I closed my Kingston office. Now, everything is operated out of the St. Ann’s Bay office.
Do you miss “back a Yaad”?
Of course I miss Jamaica, but the good thing about the way the world has gone now, is that communication is so much easier; one doesn’t even have to write a letter anymore. I talk to people via e-mail, on Facebook, through Messenger and Skype. I have spoken to my two brothers already for the day and my sister has been calling. When we are finished with this interview I’ll talk to her. I talk to people, it’s just that I am not physically seeing them.
What is the one thing that very few people know about you?
That I am shy; I know people are not going to believe that, but I am. I have been forced into situations where I have to come out of my shell; and where I have to steel myself when I go into a room to say, ok now let me go talk to people but it’s something that I have to work at.
What life lessons do you wish to share with our readers?
Never say no, never say never, never say you will never do something. Be open to new experiences, be open to meeting new people and be honest about whatever it is you are doing.