From Indiana to Maseru: Ambassador Brewer has carved her own niche

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Silence Charumbira

TO most Basotho and others all over the world, the state of Indiana in the United States (US) is synonymous with its famous musical exports, the Jacksons who include the late legendary King of Pop, Michael Jackson and his younger sister, Janet.

More than 40 years after its release, Michael’s Thriller album is still the biggest ever selling album with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide.

A lesser known fact is that Indiana is also home to Maria Brewer, the new US Ambassador to Lesotho.

By her own admission in her first newspaper interview since succeeding former Ambassador Rebecca Gonzales, Ms Brewer this week said she did not know any of the Jacksons on a personal level.

“They were already world superstars by the time I was born in the early 1970s and they were already out of Indiana,” Ms Brewer said of Michael (born in 1958) and Janet (born in 1966).

Nonetheless, Ms Brewer has other things in common with her fellow, more prominent Indiana natives.

Much like them, she has gone on to blaze her own trail on the world stage. She has carved out a niche as a successful diplomat, having worked in the US State Department holding various positions in Asia and Africa for the past 26 years.

In a career spanning more than two decades, the self-confessed “nerd” has had stints in far-flung countries such as Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and now Lesotho.

One thing that she shares with the Jacksons is that they are both from minority backgrounds.

While the Jacksons are largely of African descent, Ms Brewer is descended from a family of immigrants from different countries.

“I have an interesting story on both sides of my family. My grandparents were immigrants to the United States. My grandmother and mother were born in Mexico. My paternal grandparents emigrated from what is now the Slovak Republic in Europe during the early 1900s. So, on both sides of my family, I have this immigrant story, which I think is typically American.

“My folks were not wealthy. They were working people who came to the US, and both came to Northern Virginia, to work in the steel mills, which were one of the big industries in that part of the US. And so there was a vibrant immigrant population. Even in quiet Indiana where we ended up, there were a lot of immigrants who were working at the steel mills. And so, I am the product of this immigrant story, which is typically American,” Ms Brewer adds.

Despite all the positive stories about how hard work can enable an individual to realise the “American Dream” of great wealth and self-actualisation, and notwithstanding that the US is a melting pot of various cultures and races, the US still experiences its fair share of intolerance.

Despite the huge strides that have been made towards achieving an egalitarian society since the heady days of the 1960s civil rights movements led by the likes of Martin Luther King, there are still pockets of prejudice as evidenced by the racial tensions that flare up from time to time.

Despite the achievements of many people of colour, there are still some stereotypes of the archetypal government official as one with blue eyes and perhaps blonde hair.

Ms Brewer alluded to this when she said, “I think sometimes when people see me, they aren’t expecting me to be the US ambassador”.

“They have in their minds, the kind of diplomat they’ve seen in the movies- someone who doesn’t look like I do.

“But part of my message, as I represent the US, is to let people know that Americans don’t all look like one model. We are a melting pot; we have immigrants from literally all over the world that have come to America and have made it their home. They have joined that American mosaic; that American quilt. And so, I think having immigrants on both sides of my family truly reflects that American heritage. And that is the story we need to show the world.”

Ms Brewer has gone on to forge a successful career in the diplomatic service which has generally been male-dominated.

“I have been with the Department of State for almost 26 years. I’ve traveled all over the world- in Africa, as well as in South and Central Asia. My first posting when I joined the Foreign Service back in 1996, was to Lagos, Nigeria. Afterwards I went to Freetown, Sierra Leone. At the time Sierra Leone was in the throes of a civil war and I was privileged to be part of the US Embassy team that was trying to help them achieve peace. I was able to go to the Lome Peace Accord signing in Togo, which really helped them move along the path to peace.

“After that, I spent several years in Washington DC and thereafter in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. But I always thought of Africa. I had worked in Washington DC on Africa issues in the State Department. When the chance presented itself, I went back to Nigeria, as the number two in the embassy. I was there for three years. After that, I returned to Sierra Leone as the US Ambassador, almost 20 years after I had first been posted there. So, it’s been a wonderful full circle. But this is my first time working in southern Africa, I had visited the region but not Lesotho,” Ms Brewer said.

She noted that the US has made tremendous strides in women empowerment as evidenced by the rise of the likes of the late Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton to the powerful post of secretary state. More recently, the US has had its first vice president, the current incumbent, Kamala Harris.

While these are huge milestones, more still needs to be done, Ms Brewer opines.

“I have to say that the US has had a number of milestones, including that we now have a female vice president- a woman of African and South Asian descent. We are definitely making strides but I think there’s still room to achieve more. Statistics have shown that women make up 51 percent of the global population. So, there should also be 51 percent representation of women in leadership.

“There is a famous story of former Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who once said all nine Supreme Court judges should be women because for 200 years there had been males. So for the next 200 years it has to be women. I thought that was an interesting way of looking at things because for so long, the model has been mostly males in leadership and just a few women.

“This is something that all nations, including the US and Lesotho could take to heart. I don’t see how societies, including the US, can achieve (success) when half of that society is being held back. For true success, all members of society, women and men, should be encouraged to take leadership roles. Having a section (women) disempowered is like trying to do things with one hand tied behind your back; it’s going to be much harder. When you have both hands (men and women) working together, you’re likely to be more successful,” Ms Brewer said.

With the lucrative second compact of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) due to be signed next month, Ms Brewer is confident its implementation will improve the livelihoods of Basotho women and youths.

“We’re looking to support the agricultural sector to make it a true business that will transform livelihoods, particularly those of women and youths. These groups of people often engage in agriculture at a subsistence level. We want them to go beyond that to make it a truly successful business venture.

“We will continue to support human rights. We will support women, particularly the campaigns against gender-based violence. We will support initiatives that will allow that half of the population (women) to continue to advance and grow. We will be continuing to support anti-trafficking in persons efforts. It is modern slavery and it is evil. Everyone should be opposed to it.”

Like everyone else who has been following political events in Lesotho, Ms Brewer is eagerly awaiting the elections which are due in October this year.

“We will be observing the elections. As they draw closer, you will increasingly hear me talk about free, fair, transparent, but most of all violence-free elections that reflect the will of the people of Lesotho. The US government has no opinion on who should win, but rather that the process is fair and free of violence.”

Away from the demands of international diplomacy, Ms Brewer is a family person who spends as much time as possible with her husband and 13 year-old daughter who have joined her in Lesotho.

She has also started taking Sesotho lessons because she understands the importance of being able to communicate with everyone not just the politicians and well-heeled individuals who are fluent in English.

For someone from a country with a rich sporting and musical heritage, Ms Brewer surprisingly does not have time for athletics, basketball, tennis and the music that have placed the US in a global leadership position in all these disciplines.

She does however, have time for books and films, particularly of the science fiction genre.

The only exception is the romantic Bridgerton Season 2 series which she has just finished watching on Netflix.

Whenever the opportunity has presented itself, Ms Brewer has seized it with both hands to explore the Mountain Kingdom which is quite unlike the “flat as a pancake” Indiana.

There are breathtakingly beautiful “unparalleled vistas and captivating mountains and valleys” to be viewed in Lesotho.

Yet she still finds similarities between her native and the country that will be her home for the next few years.

“Indiana is interesting because, like Lesotho, we grow corn. And here I know maize is one of the staple crops. So, we have that in common and when I drive past fields of maize, I’m reminded of my childhood in Indiana,” she says with that wistful look of one ruminating on a pleasant memory.

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