Maarten Brouwer: A career diplomat’s long walk to freedom

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

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

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

A student of economics (Free University, Amsterdam), he joined 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 fine.

Sad isn’t the emotion that describes the end of this tenure. Fulfilled, maybe. Grateful, perhaps. Glad definitely. He’s looking forward to the “freedom” and not waking up too early, reading books in a cafe without looking at his watch, and not always doing what he’s told for a change.

Have you learned anything interesting about Africa?

One of the things that I reflected on recently is Ubuntu, a real African value: I am because you are. That very strong call for togetherness is changing, in the same way it has changed in Europe and many African countries. Things change through generations. You see the change in rural areas and urban centres. You see changes in the relationships between men and women, the younger and the elderly. I guess the pressures of life are more in urban centres.

What are you most afraid of for Africans and the continent?

The loss of this togetherness. Look around Africa. There are more conflicts now than there were 40 years ago when I started. Also, the aggressiveness in those conflicts is outstanding. Look at what happened in Ethiopia, what’s happening in Sudan, what’s happening in the DRC, the western part of Niger, Burkina, Mali, that area. There is a ruthlessness, a disrespect for human life. But that also applies to the war in Ukraine, orchestrated by Russia, and with conflicts in other countries, let’s say Haiti. I’m a bit afraid that those fractures in societies can become exploited by different forces. Africa should stand 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 the fact that solutions will always present themselves and that they must come from within; they cannot be enforced. You also learn to be patient and to continue engaging 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 want unique to a particular group of people or do most people want the same things?

[Pause] A very difficult question. [Long Pause] Everybody wants to belong to a group. And it’s their 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 bigger group of change. You want to be part of a business community, a governance structure, or an academic group, but it has to be a bigger group. If you are in a rural community, often your extended family is already the group, and you don’t think of the next level. So that’s where changes are. But wanting to belong to others is very important. When groups exclude people, they fall back to a 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 a child was I? Interesting. (Pause]. I was an active boy and loved to play. I was often not in the most popular group at school, but neither was I left behind. 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: big city life. I have always wanted to do something in the development world, and after university, there was a programme for youth to engage in that field in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So I applied for that, but they said I was too old for that, so I said, OK, then how do I become a diplomat? So, I applied a few times until I was accepted.

I'm sure you've met many people. But who's the most interesting person you've met? Top of mind.

Wow, that is a very difficult question. [Pause] I have forgotten his name, but it was an Indian scholar. He was at a programme at the World Bank, and I had a long discussion with him. He was a director at the poverty section. We had a great discussion about development in India.

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

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

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

[Chuckles] Oh yes, luckily. I have three children, a daughter and two sons. They've grown up, and all have children now. My daughter has two children, and then the middle son just got twins, two girls. My youngest son also has girl twins and so we now have six young grandchildren. And I have always been together with my wife.

Have you enjoyed being a family man?

Yes, definitely. We’ve always given priority to the children. Of course, there are times when you have to work hard, work life is competing, and you have to make choices there. I’ve always paid for their studies, whatever it took. That’s my core value, something that my parents taught me. It doesn’t matter how much money we have, but you will achieve the highest level of education you can for yourself because it will give you the best chance in life, they’d tell me. All my children finished their studies, which I’m proud of.

How old are you now?

I’m now 66, but by the end of the month, I will be 67, which is the Netherlands' retirement age.

Is there something else you have always wanted to do that now you are free to pursue?

Well, the thing I’m looking forward to most is freedom. To not do things because I need to or because someone wants me to do them but because I want to do them. I look forward to finding things to do myself, but it’s a new phase in my life, so I just wanted to discover some of what it takes. Every phase in life takes something different, and now I’m faced with this new phase, which I need to reflect on a bit. I intend to do a lot of reading in the meantime. Go out more. With my experience, I hope to also to engage in some new job, a short-term one that will not require me to wake up at 6:30 am every morning.

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

[Laughs] Well, I will give you an answer that you may feel is diplomatic but is not. That is how I really feel. Every country that I lived in fit into a period of my life.

So, when I was in Tanzania, we were a young family, and we had young children. We enjoyed being there at that time. It was a very difficult period for Tanzania economically. The country was beautiful. You could travel. It’s all very grandiose; the Ngorongoro crater, Serengeti, is tenfold what Tsavo East is. So it’s all big, big, but beautiful. We enjoyed going on safaris and living close to the ocean.

Sudan was different; there was a war going on. It is a desert, and it’s there that I started to love the desert. You may think, how weird is that? But the desert is much more than just a big pile of sand. There are the dunes and the continuous changing of light during the day. Then, just that silence is beautiful. Our children were school-going age. The international community was small, and you couldn’t go out into the country as much, so that 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 with the country. I felt like a fisherman in the ocean.

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

What did your wife get up to during all these postings? 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 picked up her old job again. In Mali, the same thing. When we came to Kenya it was during Covid-19 pandemic. She was teaching online courses. She has continued to teach virtually for the last three years.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.