As the Foreign Office appoints its first black female British high commissioner, NneNne Iwuji-Eme shares her secrets for success in diplomacy – from stocking up on Shreddies to forming your very own “master alliance”.
Ms Iwuji-Eme will travel to Mozambique as British high commissioner in July.
High commissioners lead the diplomatic missions in Commonwealth countries – like an ambassador’s role in non-Commonwealth countries.
Accompanied by her nine-year-old son, it will be the British Nigerian’s first time in the African country that is set to become her home.
“It’s a country that’s always fascinated me. It’s a really exciting time to be going out there,” the civil servant told the BBC.
“Nobody really wakes up in the morning and thinks I’m going to be the first black woman to do this. I just wanted to go as far as I could in this job,” said Ms Iwuji-Eme, who speaks five languages including English, Igbo, Portuguese, Pidgin and French.
“This extra element is an incredible honour and privilege, but I’m hoping that in being the first it inspires others to pursue their dreams and that in 10 years from now, it’s not going to be making news.”
In her 16 years at the Foreign Office, Ms Iwuji-Eme’s roles have included being an economic adviser for Africa, an economist for Defra and, most recently, she was posted to Brazil as head of prosperity.
Born in Truro, Cornwall, she said she always knew she would work in a job where she could “travel or go to new places”.
“I’ve got an international background. Both my parents worked for the UN and from a very young age we were blessed to live in different countries,” she said.
And Ms Iwuji-Eme’s son – who is already trilingual – now joins the “adventure”.
“He’s going to experience things you can’t learn in a textbook. I want him to lap it all up.”
“Wherever my son is, I’m at home,” Ms Iwuji-Eme said, though she also makes sure to “invest time to speak to family and girlfriends”.
In a career that can change continents every three to four years, she says “creature comforts” can become even more important.
“I love my cereal and Shreddies are my thing I bulk-buy before leaving. I’ve got to have some in my cupboard. That and salted caramel Green and Blacks chocolate,” the self-described foodie said.
Having spent the last four years in Brazil, when she wasn’t shaping policy, Ms Iwuji-Eme was learning the Afro-Brazilian martial art of Capoeira.
“I love it. When I went to Brazil, that was on my bucket list to do. It was amazing to be in the land of Capoeira doing it,” she said.
Both she and her son plan to continue doing it in Mozambique.
‘Have a network of champions’
Ms Iwuji-Eme was able “to see some of the people shaping policy from a young age” – as international relations professionals were often in her living room due to her parents’ work.
Armed with her “two passions” – history and politics – Ms Iwuji-Eme went to boarding school in Suffolk before studying economics at University in Manchester.
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Not everyone will have a upbringing that lends itself so well to diplomacy, but her advice for others is to be resilient, adaptable and able not only to listen to others, but to like people too.
“Make sure you have a really good network of champions, especially for young women,” she added.
“These can be mentors and coaches – people you can go to who believe in you. I call them my master alliance. I still have them now – they include family and professional mentors too.”
Being clear about what you want from a job is also key, Ms Iwuji-Eme said.
As for her own appointment, alongside forging stronger diplomatic bonds, she hopes to inspire young talent, “regardless of race or background”.