Africa Calling

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Class of ’80 | Andrew Passen C’80 G’90 is sitting in his office in Lukasa, Zambia, grappling with the logistics of AIDS relief. He has already fielded at least 50 e-mails on the topic and presided over three meetings—and it’s only 2:30.

Passen is deputy chief of mission—essentially vice-ambassador—for the American Embassy in Zambia, and the beast he’s been wrangling all morning is known as PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief). This year under PEPFAR, the U.S. will spend between $170 and $190 million on programs that bolster the Zambian government’s efforts to combat AIDS. In a country where one in six people is infected, and where 750,000 children have lost one or both parents to AIDS, the fight against HIV/AIDS underlies everything else the embassy works on.

Passen is proud of what the program has accomplished. “Two years ago there were 5,000-10,000 people on ARVs,” he says, referring to the anti-retroviral drugs that keep the virus in check. “Now there are 75,000, thanks to what we do.” It’s one example from a project that includes scores of programs, ranging from training for health workers to developing and implementing a national monitoring and evaluation system.

For his part, however, Passen is quick to point out what he doesn’t do. “I’m a biologist by background, but I’m not acting as a health worker,” he says. “I don’t write the proposals.”

But his role is pivotal—he coordinates the six different agencies working out of the embassy to make sure that everything flows efficiently.

“What I do here is bring our mission together, and make sure that what CDC [the Centers for Disease Control] is doing is not duplicated by what USAID [the United States Agency for International Development] is doing.”

Passen relishes his life as a foreign-service officer—a career that has included 20 years of international postings in Africa, Europe, and Canada. Since he began, he hasn’t spent more than a month or two at a time in the U.S.

“Each time, the State Department says, ‘You really have to come home,’” he says with a grin, “but each time they send me abroad again, because that’s what I ask for.”

An unlikely outcome, perhaps, for a Philadelphia native who’d never been farther than Florida until he was 19.

“I never went anywhere as a kid,” he confesses. “I was 22 years old before I ever went on a plane.” That first plane ride was to Costa Rica, to do research with a field-ecology class.

But even before that trip, Passen knew that a life far from Philadelphia was waiting for him. “I cannot tell you why, but I always wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer,” he says. “When I left Penn, I didn’t interview for any other jobs.”

He was soon teaching science classes in rural Swaziland, the tiny nation wedged between South Africa and Mozambique.

“I lived in a mud hut with a thatch roof on a homestead with no electricity,” he recalls. “I read my books by candlelight at night.” He also took the foreign-service exam, since even after extending his Peace Corps service for an additional third year, Passen knew he hadn’t had enough of living and working abroad.

With less than a year left on this posting, Passen and his wife are starting to think about the next one. He can’t be sure where the State Department will send them—all he can do is send a list of his preferences. And after discussing it with his ever-adaptable family, he’s asking for yet another posting in sub-Saharan Africa. It will be his eighth posting, and, if he gets his way, his sixth in Africa.

“Africa got in my blood,” he says. After nearly 15 years on the continent, he’s realistic about its problems, which he sees on a daily basis. In Zambia, where too many people can’t regularly feed their families, experts are already beginning to worry about this year’s rains.

But he also wants to make a point that people who never travel to the region might miss. Citing a “depressing” newspaper article on child labor in Zambia, Passen agrees that that issue is an important one. But, he adds: “It’s not the whole story. The entire country isn’t like that. There needs to be balance.”

He’s seen that other side, time and again, in the course of his travels on the continent. The mechanic in Mali who left dinner at home with his family to fix a puncture on a $300 tire—and then refused to accept any more than his normal $3 fee. The families on remote homesteads who took him in on nights when he couldn’t go any farther and there was no hotel. He is repeatedly amazed by the “incredible kindness and generosity of people,” most of whom are of very humble means.

Passen cheerfully concedes that many people choose a different path, and that their lives are interesting, exciting, and successful. But his voice betrays his conviction that nothing could be as interesting or exciting as what he does.

“My favorite part of my day is coming into work,” he says. “There isn’t any day that’s exactly the same or even similar to any other day.”

—Naomi Schwarz C’03 G’03

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