Valerie Browning

From women’s hospital nurse to wife of an AFAR clan leader, this devoted aid worker believes “life without risk is no life at all.”

About Maalika

“I don’t see any point in life for my own comfort, any more,” says Valerie

Australian nurse Valerie Browning AM has lived among the Afar nomads for more than 31 years and has worked tirelessly to improve their lives.

In 1973, Valerie Browning volunteered to go to Ethiopia to help the victims of a devastating famine. The continent and its people would become the guiding force of her life. Valerie and her husband Ismael have waged an incredible struggle along with APDA (Afar Pastrolist Development Organisation) an organisation they helped founder to bring health and education to people who would otherwise have nothing.

In 1989, with her Afar husband, Ismael Ali Gardo, she set up the Afar Pastoral Development Association (APDA). APDA works hard to improve literacy for the Afar people, promote maternal and child health, eradicate harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and tackle the growing problem of HIV and AIDS with support from funds raised by the Barbara May Foundation. To date, APDA has trained more than 1,000 local health and education workers, and village birth attendants.

“When we started, they were two per cent literate, they had no vaccinations, there was certainly no maternal health care – there was no healthcare, in fact,” recalls Ms Browning.

While there remain many challenges – Ms Valerie recounts how she was recently involved in helped to get water to some 61,000 people in grave danger of dying of thirst while the massive reduction in the Afar herd of goats in 2012 thanks to drought remains a major concern, the changes that have taken place since the formation of APDA have been significant.

The literacy rate has grown to about 15 per cent among women and 26 per cent among men as access to education has increased and healthcare, including childhood vaccination programs, has been taken to even the most remote areas (the vaccines have at times been carried inside ice-filled insulated containers sitting on the backs of camels) while maternal health has been improved through measures such as the establishment of a small hospital for emergency obstetrics.

In addition, a banking system has been developed, new roads built and, importantly, access to limited water resources improved. APDA even recently launched its own FM radio station. Having the community spearhead the development has been a critical part of APDA’s approach from its inception, investing in training local people – whether as healthcare workers, teachers or community development workers – so they can become what Maalika calls the “agents of change”.

Maalika is the program coordinator for the entire APDA program that now consists of 6 working sectors: primary health + hospital; Afar literacy and education; women’s empowerment; community economic development; emergency relief and water access; land-use and animal husbandry. The role I have always played in APDA is that I have the vision for what could be possible and what needs to be done and suggest what strategy to use.



Valerie was awarded an Order of Australia in 1999 for service to international humanitarian aid through promoting health and literacy programs in the horn of Africa. Valerie was also awarded Rotary International’s The One Award in 2012 which recognises an individual whose extraordinary service activities exemplify the Rotary ideal of Service Above Self.

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I have been in APDA from its inception because I am married to Ismael.  I was the foreign wife whom the Afar elders asked to start a humanitarian organization initially to rescue Afar from being burnt out in the civil war. The organization went first from north east Ethiopia into Djibouti and eventually, realizing that Afar in Ethiopia had NO assistance – no literacy; vaccination; clean water; no market etc – then the organization stayed on in Ethiopia.

As a person, daily I visit my faith in a God who controls and plans this world – mine is the role of a follower. Then, I am surrounded by innovation; compassion of the APDA team to the community – those employed as well as those not employed – as an organization, our shared objective holds us together – I have seen amazing things happen from zero to something amazing in all fields of social and economic development. The challenge we face is the innate corruption of our government and the other Non Government Organisations (NGO) around us; their lies about their achievement with people living in remote areas.

I have had to continually look at myself to detect my attitude and that I am ‘on line’. I believe that the problem the community has should be owned by the community and therefore they also own the solution – their innate right to control their development. In the end, no matter how patronizing another NGO/ government group/ ‘experts’ are, this cannot be taken to heart and has to be fought off to be able to reach a solution. I am but a cog in the chain and in the end, the whole issue is bigger than I.

The greatest challenge is to be recognized by governing powers for what they are: pastoralists living an itinerant life that the ecology of their environment is preserved by their moving from place to place. The Ethiopian government has brought in a policy to settle Afar people. Recently in Melbourne the Ethiopian Embassy team told 3 resident Afar that the government will irrigate the Afar Region ‘scientifically’ – I asked them if you irrigate rocks, what do they grow? Their (Afar) very identity is in crisis and they have every danger of becoming extinct.

With difficulty and pain in my heart. I love my family and friends but the western way is so individualistic it blocks out people like Afar.

Their traditional culture and governance is totally enthralling – they are in their pure sense not selfish; not liars and very fond of ecology and the environment – their means of people – governance is very interesting as they need settlement from disturbance immediately.Toggle Content

People can support by first knowing the actual situation in Afar rather than what the NGOs and government want to say about Afar. Secondly, they can physically support. For example they can sponsor a child to continue education to grade12 or support a project of their choice or APDA in general. Visiting is a good thing as it gives direct contact.