Editor’s note: Author Vella Mbenna will be reading excerpts from her book “Muddy Roads Blue Skies,” tonight at 6 p.m. at the Hinesville Public Library.
Sometimes the life that you imagine in your daydreams doesn’t always match the life you are currently living. Maybe you are far away from living the life you thought you would have; perhaps you were on the right path but a few bad decisions got you off track. Or maybe you are a young person struggling to find a way to manifest the big dreams you hold inside of you. Vella Mbenna can relate.
Mbenna was born and raised in Holmestown, a community in Midway, Georgia. Although she grew up underprivileged it didn’t stop her from dreaming. As a young girl Mbenna dreamed that one day she would travel the world. She imagined herself having an important job that caused her to fly on planes and have an assistant. Although she wasn’t sure how the dream would come to be she was sure she would get there. After graduating from Georgia Southern University, Mbenna made various attempts to move away from Holmestown and build the life she wanted to live. But each time, she returned to Holmestown broken emotionally, financially and as a single mom.
In spite of her setbacks Mbenna eventually became a U.S diplomat. She retired in 2015 fully accomplished, with a personal rank of FS-01, and satisfied. When I asked Mbenna how a small town woman like herself ended up as a diplomat she said it was coincidental. “I went to the library in Fort Stewart and I went to the register and just started applying for jobs. I wanted to go across the water. So I applied for about 60 positions for government jobs not knowing that one was going to be the Foreign Service. Actually, I didn’t know what the Foreign Service was. But I knew that one of those jobs would take me out of my immediate situation. And one of them kept sending me letters asking for more information about me. It took about two years. I actually thought that I would be working in Washington D.C. I didn’t really know until I was relocated to Washington and we were talking about our assignments. Come to find out that they were overseas assignments. And that’s how I landed in the Foreign Service. But if I didn’t have that passion to work abroad and to travel I would not have gotten to that point.”
Once she was interviewed and went through the proper training, Mbenna was thrust into a whole new world. New languages, new foods, new people. She lived in some of the plushest and exotic places one could imagine. France, Germany, Tunisia, Guatemala, Tanzania. The list goes on. It was everything she ever wanted yet it still came with its negative experiences.
During her time in the Foreign Service Mbenna endured racism, sexism, insubordination and the like. Unfortunately some of those instances caused her to miss great opportunities to excel even faster than she did in the Foreign Service. When asked why she thought it was worth staying she said, “Coming from the south, I was surprised. Later I realized no matter what title folks have or where they are in the world, the tendency to engage in those undesirable acts are present and sometimes come to fore. I thought I had escaped such a mentality. I wanted to give up but soon realized that the FS strength is in its diverse population of employees, who sometime bring with them what they learned growing up. Knowing that this would persist for a very long time, no matter where I worked, I decided to stay in the government because it was exciting, I was living my dream, and most of all, I would be more compensated for my work in the Foreign Service than in a local job back in my hometown. Also, later as I grew in ranks, I volunteered to become an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Counselor. With this collateral duty, I was able to be a part of the solution to mitigate as much of it as possible.”
Through it all her values that were instilled in her youth guided her. Principles such as faith and having resilience not only helped her rise above it but made her a better person. Even though Mbenna is retired she still works for the Department of State as a manger. As mentioned earlier she was a volunteer for the Department of State EEO office. When she retired she received an award for the volunteer work she had done. On the day she was to receive the award the director of the office asked if she wanted a job working in the Office of Civil Rights. “I’m glad to still be a part of the solution to keep acts of prejudice at a minimum and educate those who do not even know they are doing it,” she said.
After living this exciting - sometimes frustrating - life Mbenna has written a book titled “Muddy Roads Blue Skies.” She is ready to share her experiences, lessons and most importantly her values. “I have been keeping a journal that started in my youth while sitting under a big oak tree in my mother’s yard. I started travelling with my son when he was young. As he grew older he realized how important and exciting the job was. He told me to write a book about it. I said, ‘I don’t know,’ but he said, ‘Mom you’ve got to. Some people will never know what is outside of the United States and reading about your experiences will be good for them.’ He was right. I decided to do it. The many life experiences, some good some not so good, I have had in my travels could help someone along the way.”
“I feel that with the world being global now I encourage a lot of young people to not just stay in Liberty County, Georgia or in the United States,” she continued. “If they desire to go abroad –there’s something for everyone to do abroad- do it! I wanted young people to know its ok they’re not going to get swallowed up. They will have issues just like they have issues in the States. But if they have a solid foundation or even if they didn’t come from a solid foundation they can build one. They can start being successful and travelling at any point in their life. In particular, I wanted folks in my hometown to know that if a small town and underprivileged girl that they knew can get out there to travel and work beyond the borders of the USA and survive, so can they.” When asked why Mbenna’s story is such a big deal, Rachel, Mbenna’s sister and friend, said that the story is impressive how she made a change in her life.
Since Mbenna has had such a fulfilling career she might be the perfect candidate to give others advice on choosing a career they love. According to her you must have one thing: passion. “You have to have a passion for it. A lot of young adults, and I remember it vividly in college, used to say, ‘I’m going to get a job that makes a lot of money,’ or, ‘I’m going to be the President or VP of a company,’ and, ‘I will show folks that I can make it big.’ While all those are good aspirations, I never heard, ‘I love the field I chose and will go after it with everything I have within me.’ That is passion! That is how I felt. The second thing is don't be afraid of failure. There will be failures along the way. I do not believe there is anyone who became successful without a few failures. I had many failures and for all of them I wanted to rescind in shame. I did rescind, but just to recharge and try again until I got it right!"
Mbenna’s book is available in soft and hard cover, audio version, and ebook on amazon.com, via her website, and major online bookstores like Barnes and Nobles.