Maarten Brouwer: the long road to freedom for a career diplomat

Maarten Brouwer: the long road to freedom for a career diplomat

Maarten Brouwer, the outgoing ambassador of the Netherlands to Kenya, left the building and possibly even the country. He packed 40 years of career into a handful of suitcases and hopped on a midnight plane back home. Of the 40 years of diplomacy, four were spent in Kenya; the rest worked in Khartoum (Sudan), Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania) and Bamako (Mali). Even when he wasn’t working in Africa, when he was at headquarters in The Hague, he always seemed to be working for Africa.

Student of Economics (Free University, Amsterdam), he entered the world of diplomacy in 1988 when he started his first job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. He had seen Africa at its most vulnerable (droughts, wars, political upheavals, poverty), but also at its best, when it was bright and hopeful, and it seemed like everything would be okay.

Sad is not the emotion that describes the end of this mandate. Accomplished, perhaps. Grateful, perhaps. I’m definitely glad. He looks forward to “freedom” and not getting up too early, reading books in a cafe without looking at the clock, and, for a change, not always doing what he is told.

Have you learned something interesting about Africa?

One of the things I reflected on recently is Ubuntu, a true African value: I am because you are. That strong call for togetherness is changing, just as it has changed in Europe and many African countries. Things change through generations. The change is seen in rural areas and urban centers. Changes are seen in the relationships between men and women, the youngest and the oldest. I guess the pressures of life are greater in urban centers.

What do you fear most about Africans and the continent?

The loss of this union. Look around Africa. There are more conflicts now than 40 years ago, when I started. Furthermore, the aggressiveness in these conflicts is outstanding. Look at what happened in Ethiopia, what is happening in Sudan, what is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the western part of Niger, Burkina, Mali, that area. There is cruelty, a lack of respect for human life. But that also applies to the war in Ukraine, orchestrated by Russia, and to conflicts in other countries, say Haiti. I’m a little afraid that these fractures in societies can be exploited by different forces. Africa should fend for itself.

After doing this for so long, how does it change you?

You see problems as situations that must have a solution. I have also learned to accept that solutions will always present themselves and that they must come from within; They cannot be enforced. You also learn to be patient and continue participating in conversations. Diplomacy has taught me that there are no quick solutions.

Has diplomacy given you any unique insights into human nature? What do human beings want? And is that desire exclusive to a particular group of people or do most people want the same things?

(Pause) A very difficult question. (Long pause) Everyone wants to belong to a group. And it’s your level of imagination and how big that group can be that often changes. So if you live here in Nairobi, you want to be part of a much larger group of change. You want to be part of a business community, a government structure, or an academic group, but it has to be a larger group. If you are in a rural community, often your extended family is already the group and you don’t think about the next level. So that’s where the changes are. But wanting to belong to others is very important. When groups exclude people, they fall back into survival mode. What a government wants is no longer important at that point and the use of violence is often a possibility.

What kind of child were you?

(Laughs) What kind of kid was I? Interesting. (Pause). I was an active child and I loved to play. Many times I wasn’t in the most popular group at school, but they didn’t leave me behind either. I spent the first five years of my life in the northern part of the Netherlands, in Friesland, a rural community. Then my parents moved to Amsterdam, where I spent my school time: life in the big city. I always wanted to do something in the world of development and, after university, there was a program for young people to get involved in that field at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So I applied for that, but they told me I was too old for that, so I said, Well, then how can I become a diplomat? So I applied several times until I was accepted.

I’m sure you’ve met a lot of people. But who is the most interesting person you have ever met? The most important.

Wow, that’s a very difficult question. (Pause) I have forgotten his name, but he was an Indian scholar. He was in a program at the World Bank and I had a long conversation with him. He was director of the poverty section. We had a great discussion about development in India.

The outgoing ambassador of the Netherlands to Kenya, Maarten Brouwer, during the interview on May 15, 2024 at the embassy in Nairobi.

Photo author: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

Did you ever have time in your busy schedule to have children?

(Laughs) Oh, yes, luckily. I have three children, a daughter and two sons. They have grown up and now they all have children. My daughter has two sons and the middle son just had twins, two girls. My youngest son also has twin girls, so we now have six young grandchildren. And I have always been with my wife.

Have you enjoyed being a family man?

Yes, definitely. We have always prioritized children. Of course, there are times when you have to work hard, work life competes and decisions have to be made in that regard. I have always paid for his studies, whatever the cost. That is my core value, something my parents taught me. It doesn’t matter how much money we have, but you will achieve the highest level of education you can because it will give you the best opportunity in life, they told me. All my children finished their studies, which makes me proud.

How old are you now?

I am now 66 years old, but at the end of the month I will be 67, which is the retirement age in the Netherlands.

Is there something else you’ve always wanted to do that you’re now free to do?

Well, what I hope for most is freedom. Not doing things because I need them or because someone wants me to do them but because I want to do them. I’m hoping to find things to do myself, but it’s a new phase of my life so I just wanted to figure out some of what it takes. Each stage of life entails something different, and now I am facing this new stage, which I need to reflect on a little. In the meantime, I intend to read a lot. Get out more. With my experience, I hope to also be able to pursue some new job, a short-term one that doesn’t require me to wake up at 6:30 am every morning.

In which African country did you have the most fun? It’s okay not to say Kenya; We won’t feel sore about it.

(Laughter) Well, I’ll give you an answer that may seem diplomatic to you, but it’s not. That’s how I really feel. Each country I lived in fit a period of my life.

So when I was in Tanzania, we were a young family and we had small children. We enjoyed being there at that time. It was a very difficult period economically for Tanzania. The country was beautiful. You could travel. It’s all very grand; Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, is ten times larger than Tsavo East. So everything is big, big, but beautiful. We enjoy going on safaris and living near the ocean.

Sudan was different; there was a war going on. It’s a desert, and that’s where I started to love the desert. You might think, how weird is that? But the desert is much more than a big pile of sand. There are the dunes and the continuous change of light during the day. So, just that silence is beautiful. Our children were of school age. The international community was small and you couldn’t get out into the country as much, so it was a good time to spend quality time with family.

Even though there was a lot of suffering in Mali, I still felt a connection to the country. I felt like a fisherman in the ocean.

We liked the accessibility of Kenya and the ability for families to fly to visit. The climate is ideal, the best compared to other countries. I enjoyed each country and each had its charm, but I was most drawn to East Africa.

What did your wife do during all these destinations? How was she fulfilling her aspirations?

That’s an excellent question. My wife is a teacher. She taught mathematics at a university in the Netherlands. She got a job at the University of Dar es Salaam when we were in Tanzania. In Sudan, she taught at an American school. After returning to the Netherlands, she resumed her old job. The same thing happens in Mali. When we arrived in Kenya it was during the Covid-19 pandemic. She was teaching online courses. She has continued teaching virtually for the past three years.