Interview with new Peace Corps/Ethiopia Country Director Brannon Brewer
by Janet Lee (Emdeber, 1974–76)
The Herald: Please give us a brief overview of your background, including prior Peace Corps Director assignments, other international posts, and where you served as a Volunteer?
Brewer: My background has been varied and spanned a number of locations. I worked as staff to a couple of U.S. House Members when I was younger, and had a business in the States. But my true career was really set in motion when I joined Peace Corps as a Small Business Volunteer in Moldova in 1997. For all the wonderful people I came to know, and the experiences I would never trade, it was still a rather bleak place to be following the fall of the Soviet Union. I did, however, meet my wife, Sophia, while we were both serving. So Moldova started both my overseas career and my family at the same time. Sophia now serves as a USAID Health Officer in Addis.
But back to the question, I found the overseas experience somewhat addictive, and we soon moved to Romania for several years, and children started entering the picture for us. I then became the country director for an NGO in Addis, where we spent about three and a half years between 2007 and 2010. But for me, NGO work didn’t have the same satisfaction as my PCV days, so I joined Peace Corps as a country director and I served in Guyana and then Liberia. Ebola was ravaging the people and country, and we evacuated the PCVs from Liberia, though not a single Volunteer wanted to leave their friends, students and communities. It was a hard time on many levels. But Peace Corps offered me the opportunity to join the team in Ethiopia, and I gladly jumped at the chance! Sophia and I now have three kids, and our youngest was actually born in Addis the last time we were here. It seems we were meant to be back.
The Herald: How have your experiences differed from country to country? What has been a unifying theme?
Brewer: Every country is so different, and that’s really the whole draw of living abroad. We all as people share certain things in common, yet it is the things that are unique and special about each culture and society that should be recognized and celebrated. It troubles me if people talk about entire regions of the world in broad strokes that ignore their particular qualities. It’s commonly done when referring to “Africans” as if it’s one big country, but it’s also done for South America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and so forth. Until you live within a culture, learn it’s traditions, values, and ways of life, then it’s very difficult to understand and appreciate the differences. And no one gains that insight and appreciation like a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The Herald: I believe Ethiopia has one of the largest contingents of Volunteers in Africa. What makes it so popular? What role does the Ethiopian government (at all levels) play in its success?
Brewer: Even though Peace Corps was re-established only in 2007, it is among the largest posts in terms of Volunteer numbers. Ethiopia has such a rich history that it is an attractive post even for those who have never travelled abroad. We have roughly 225 Volunteers and Trainees right now working in our three projects of Health, Environment and Secondary Education, and I anticipate we will average about 260 by the end of 2015. Peace Corps has programs in the countries where the needs match well with the strengths of the agency and the qualifications of generally younger Volunteers, though many of the most effective are those who join with an entire career of experience to draw from. Working as complements to the government of Ethiopia, Volunteers are able to engage in activities that improve the opportunities in life for others, improve their quality of life, and to help communities realize their aspirations. Ethiopia has a current population of about 90 million, so there are plenty of communities that can benefit from hosting a dedicated, resourceful, and technically qualified Volunteer.
The Herald: There is obviously no typical Volunteer. What are the demographics of the recent groups? Youngest to oldest, male and female. What are their assignments? Where are they stationed? Rural or urban?
Brewer: There is no typical Volunteer, as we all come from every demographic, but I believe there are shared characteristics that every Volunteer has in common. I find that enthusiasm, perseverance, resourcefulness and creativity are some of the most important qualities. Volunteers care for people and earn personal fulfillment and gratification from benefitting someone other than themselves. I’ve heard some say that the current generation of younger Volunteers lacks the sense of service, work ethic, etc. of previous generations of Volunteers, but I don’t find that at all the case. Those who join Peace Corps today are made of the same fabric, and join for the same reasons, as those who first answered the call of President Kennedy. Yes, it’s a different world, but the adventurous, can-do spirit of service, is still found in those that commit themselves to our three goals.
The average age of our Volunteers is 25, and being 70 percent female — numbers that basically match the agency ratios. The projects have largely been urban based, but we are in the process of shifting sites to more rural environments where an average kebele community may consist of only a couple of thousand people. These are the environments where PCVs can thrive, where they can work directly with the people, and develop personal relationships.
The Herald: My group trained in Harrar and Dire Dawa, areas that have been forbidden to current Volunteers until recently. Volunteers in my day were pulled from the north after the Derg took over and travel was forbidden up north. Recently Volunteers have been stationed as far north as Axum. What considerations are taken to ban or open up a site to Volunteers? Have you had an opportunity to do many site visits? How does your office communicate with Volunteers in remote areas?
Brewer: Volunteers are allowed to visit Dire Dawa and Harrar, though not the areas surrounding those specific towns. Peace Corps places PCVs in only the four regions of Tigray, Oromia, Amhara, and SNNP. These are the regions with the highest population densities and offer conditions where PCVs can live and work with the greatest assurance of physical well-being. Ethiopia is in a rough neighborhood within the Horn of Africa, and most border areas present concerns. Our post has a safety and security team that assesses each site, and we share information with numerous organizations and agencies, including the U.S. Embassy, to continually evaluate the safety of our program areas.
The Herald: What is your vision for the future of Peace Corps/Ethiopia?
Brewer: I want to see a post where Volunteers and staff share common goals, and are all moving in the same direction and for the same purpose. I want to see projects that fill a niche in the development of Ethiopia, and that result in clear impact on a broad scale. I want Peace Corps to be well known for the contribution our Volunteers offer through their service, and I do not want us to be the best kept secret in Ethiopia. I want Volunteers who are so well prepared to participate in their communities that they don’t want to leave after two years. I want them to thrive, to excel, and to find the fulfillment and satisfaction that makes them appreciating the opportunity they had for the rest of their lives. Likewise, I want all Ethiopians who have ever known a Volunteer to remember fondly the time they spent together, and to realize the opportunities in life that they would not have had had they not benefitted from the Volunteers’ service in their communities. All of this is why we are here.