ACT News


Valerie Browning - the angel of the African desert comes home to the excess of a Christmas in Australia

Even the most dedicated shopper can be turned off by the commercialism of Christmas, so it must be maddening for this small, desert-worn woman – used to working with people who have nothing – to be among so much excess in the middle of Sydney.

Former Armidale nurse Valerie Browning first volunteered to work in Ethiopia in1973 and for the last nearly three decades has lived with the nomadic Afar people, helping to provide them with the most basic of needs including ensuring that women have a safe birth and their child is born alive and healthy.

Valerie is back in Australia to visit her 24-year-old daughter Aisha, who is studying social work in Sydney, and to help promote the Barbara May Foundation, named in honour of her mother, which helps support her projects in Africa.

Its board includes two of her brothers, obstetrician David Browning and retired Anglican bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, George Browning.

After attending a board meeting in the CBD and wandering down the Pitt Street Mall, she is at once horrified and emboldened by the Christmas buying frenzy. If nothing else, it proves to her she is in the right place at the right time when she is working in the remote, blighted regions of the Horn of Africa.

"I've been over there for 26 years now, you've been having Christmas for 26 years and basically you're going to continue doing that," she said, with some resignation.


"I was in Woolies the other day and people were buying absolute trash. It glitters, it does something for one day, two days, three days and that's it. This is commercialism. In the end it's probably just a bunch of rubbish made in China. Here we go, we've just burnt up a bit more plastic and eaten a bit more palm oil and rubbishy stuff, so you've got all the problems you've got.

"You're overweight, people are depressed because they haven't got enough. They want more. It's crazy. I'm sorry for you – I've got my return ticket."

Similarly, when back in Australia, she has no patience for the arguments over whether to vaccinate or not when she lives in a region where children routinely die from measles.

"It's ridiculous. It's like, 'Is there climate change or is there not?' Let's get real. These are luxury debates you're talking about. It's nothing to do with reality. If measles is around, you have to vaccinate. If your child, your family is un-vaccinated, you are the cause of the outbreak and some other child may go blind, may die. It is a community responsibility to have the vaccination," she said.

"At the moment our organisation is vaccinating very, very hard. We just cleared three districts with vaccinations. And now we're in another three districts right now and we'll keep going because if you leave them, then measles is a killer, whooping cough is a killer."

At the age of 65, Valerie is feisty and no-nonsense. She and her husband Ishmael, an Afar clan elder, also have two adopted sons – Rammid, 14, and Nabil, two – the younger boy abandoned at their home when he was just eight days old.

She has brought Nabil on her visit to Australia and is not fazed by raising a toddler in her sixties.

"It's actually very good for you," she said. "It's very, very calming if you're under stress to sit on the floor and play with a two-year-old."

George Browning, now 73 and retired to Batemans Bay on the South Coast, marvels at the energy of his younger sister – "you wonder how on earth she maintains it. She says she can sleep on a barbed wire fence".

"It's very hard to imagine a person who has led a more self-less life than herself, having gone there almost by accident, on a dare from one of her friends," he said.

"One of the most impressive things is her holistic outlook. She went there as a nurse and that had flowed into education and environmental issues, because of the terrible drought they've been having. Her thought is there's no point in being healthy and educated if you can't feed yourself."

The foundation's namesake, their mother Barbara May, became an orphan at the age of three, her parents struck down within a fortnight of each other in the great flu epidemic in England. Barbara eventually became a mother to eight children, all of whom were instilled with the need to go out in the world and do good. The family migrated to Australia when Valerie was 10, her father an apple grower in Uralla, near Armidale in the New England region of NSW.

"Our parents gave us an extremely strong awareness of giving and sharing," Valerie said.

" And one of the most major things I learnt from my mother, actually, she said, 'The most important thing is not to be happy in your life but to be content', to be at home with the environment you're in.

"And you've got all these spoilt brats roaming the planet, saying, 'I've got to have this, I've got to have that'. I don't know how Mother Earth can continue like this, really seriously."

Valerie travelled back and forth between Australia and Africa after first answering a call for volunteers during the drought and famine of 1973 before settling there permanently in 1989 when she married Ishmael.

George Browning says theirs is a perfect union, despite their differences.

"Mostly we hear of the conflict between religions and yet Ishmael is a devout Muslim and Valerie is a devout Christian and they live a very harmonious and beautiful life together," he said.

The Barbara May Foundation funds the work in Africa of Valerie and her nephew, Dr Andrew Browning, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, to help prevent the hundreds of maternal deaths occurring there every day and the high incidence of birth injury, usually the devastating obstetric fistula, suffered sometimes after days of excruciating labour. A donation of just $50 can pay for a woman to have a caesarean birth in hospital. Valerie's hope next year is to also address the high rates of newborn deaths, which she concedes will be difficult.

"We're providing maternal care to highly, highly remote areas. Ninety-three per cent of Afar women do not receive maternal care unless we help them. They give birth in their home and unless we help them, they're totally ignored."

They have built maternity hospitals, trained community birth attendants to work in villages and created maternity waiting areas along main roads equipped to perform emergency deliveries, all with the assistance of the foundation.

"This is the generosity of incredible people who seriously don't want to see mothers die in childbirth, who seriously don't want to see women crippled because they've given birth to a baby and that's absolutely inspiring and wonderful," Valerie said.

But with failed rains this year in Ethiopia and millions of people requiring emergency food assistance, Valerie says it is also "very, very tragic and sad" that governments such as Australia's are cutting back on aid, particularly programs which attempt to make communities self-sufficient.

She was particularly scathing of a decision by the government not to continue funding the Australia Africa Community Engagement Scheme, a $90 million, five-year program with 10 Australian non-government organisations and their African partners delivered in 11 African countries.

The scheme attempted to reduce poverty in Africa through community-based projects in agriculture, water and sanitation and maternal and child health.

A report three years into the scheme said there was "strong evidence of increased agricultural productivity; increased resilience through diversified sources of income; and improved access to maternal and child health and water, sanitation and hygiene services".

Valerie said the scheme was due to wind up in mid-2016 but there had always been the hope it would be extended for another five years – a hope dashed by former prime minister Tony Abbott and his moves to reduce foreign aid.

"It's crazy and quite unacceptable that the Australian government should have reduced international aid, it's madness," she said.

"We've got one of the strongest economies on the planet and basically Australia has the lowest level of giving to the development of other countries."

A spokeswoman for DFAT confirmed the Australia Africa Community Engagement Scheme would end on June 30 next year.

"In the current budget environment, the Australian government is unable to commit to fund a second phase of AACES. The future focus of the aid program to Africa will be to continue to support human capacity building through the Australia Awards, enhance agricultural productivity, provide appropriate humanitarian assistance and improve gender equality," she said.

Valerie, meanwhile, will be returning to the desert soon and says she has fulfilled her mother's desire to be content, but never complacent. Her work is a privilege, she says.

"I'm very content where I am in Afar. I wouldn't be brave enough to come back and live in Australia. If I did it would have to be different to the way other people live and they wouldn't like it," she said.

"You say you've got democratic behaviour. You're under the rule of consumerism. It's holding you tightly. You're not free at all."

To make a donation to the Barbara May Foundation, go to


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