In Nigeria, Eagle River diplomat finds common ground
Born in Russia, raised in Southcentral Alaska, Maria Davydenko now lives in West Africa, where she holds an unlikely distinction: The former Chugiak-Eagle River resident is one of five Alaskans representing the U.S. Foreign Service in Nigeria.
“It’s statistically improbable that all five us are here at the same time, but maybe there’s something about Nigeria that draws Alaskans,” she said, speaking by phone from Lagos May 11.
Along with Davydenko, Alaskans Joel Kopp, Meghan Moore, Michael Carney and Donald Alderman all serve in the West African nation.
Davydenko followed a winding path to Nigeria. Her family immigrated to Alaska from Russia when she was five, she said. They settled first in the Mat-Su Valley, then Chugiak-Eagle River. Davydenko graduated from Polaris K-12 and went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
A naturalized U.S. citizen, she said she’s always gravitated toward finding connections between cultures. The U.S. Foreign Service gave her the opportunity to explore the issues and places most people only read about, she said. She joined about five years ago.
Before she traveled to Lagos, Davydenko spent several years in Mumbai, India, where she worked as a visa officer and said she saw her own personal story reflected in her work. In Nigeria, her job as a political officer involves interacting with government officials and other groups to help facilitate resolutions to sometimes-difficult situations.
“I think a huge part of this job is just listening – active listening — trying to understand where people are coming from,” Davydenko said.
She practices active listening across the Niger Delta, a densely populated region along the country’s southern coast.
“It’s a really interesting place because it’s quite remote,” she said. “In fact, in some ways in reminds me of Alaska.”
Despite the 7,500-mile geographical distance between Alaska and Nigeria, the similarities run deep, Davydenko said. Like in the Last Frontier, the oil sector plays a prominent economic role on the Delta. The area is home to diverse indigenous groups. People live off the grid.
But tensions between local communities and government entities have led to attacks on pipelines in the area, Davydenko said. As part of her diplomatic mission, she seeks to understand concerns and make connections.
“Our role is to amplify voices and make sure people get heard,” she said.
If you ask her, Alaskans are especially good at the job. And the Foreign Service is usually always recruiting, said Frank Sellin, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.
Applicants to the Foreign Service don’t need an advanced degree, he said. People join up from all walks of life. Foreign Service Officers include former doctors and dairy farmers.
To pursue a career with the Foreign Service, Davydenko encourages people to keep up on current events. Read vociferously. Stay curious.
After about 10 months in Nigeria, Davydenko still has more than a year to go. Typical assignments range from two to four years. While traveling keeps her young, she said, it also helps shape a new perspective on home.
“I think we really have something great going on,” Davydenko said. “The more time I spend abroad, the more I realize how unique Alaska is.”
Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]