Life at 60: An ambassador’s perspective
Friday November 18 2022
Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon and the Crown Princess of Sweden, Victoria, will be in Kenya on November 21 for a joint royal visit at the invitation of the United Nations Development Programme. It is a big deal, as these things tend to be. This means that the office of Gunnar Andreas Holm is up to its teeth with preparations.
Gunnar Andreas Holm is the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, but also to Somalia and Seychelles, a man with many balls in the air. Gunnar is a Viking name that means ‘warrior.’ This might say everything there is to say about what needs to be said or it might say nothing.
Gunnar has been a diplomat most, if not all, his life. Before his current post, he was an ambassador to Ghana (2017-2021) and South Sudan (2016-2017) and a special envoy or counsellor to Southern Africa and west African countries. He loves literature and choir.
What were your desires as a young man?
Something exciting. [Chuckles] I wanted to be a trapper in Canada. You know, those who hunt and trap animals; beavers, and things.
I probably read too many books and thought that would be very exciting.
I never wanted to be a doctor like my father. I saw that was too much work; always on call, and never able to sit down, and there was always someone wanting him to come. But then later when I realised my trapping fantasy was not going to happen, I started getting interested in societies and the political science part of it. So I studied anthropology.
Where did the interest in societies come from?
I don’t know, it must have been from both my parents, especially my mother. She always had a library of books of all kinds of things but a lot from different parts of the world. So there was this interest in learning about things that were outside my little hometown.
I wondered what it looked like on the other side of the mountain. I read books and wondered how those people lived like that and how they did things that they did. I had an interesting childhood.
We had this log cabin up in the mountain where you learnt things. There was a latrine, we had to carry the water with the buckets, cut trees, chop the timber into firewood and carry it in and learn how to make fire.
Fishing with nets and catching the fish… Quite a lot of practical things and I must say practical things that I have used a lot later in life.
You’re good with your hands.
I’m very good at painting, not art, but walls. I consider myself good with the brush. (Chuckle) Because I’m quite meticulous.
Are you a good diplomat?
Sometimes I am. (Chuckle) I think I can establish links to people quite easily. And again, my background; I did my research and my fieldwork in Zambia as a young student in 1985, and lived in a small house in a small village, far away from Lusaka. That taught me a lot.
It taught me how life can be very different but also very good. You go there for the first time and it looks simple, it looks poor and strange, but the people are compassionate, talked to me and offered me comfort and friendship…I learned a lot.
In your career, you have always been posted in different African countries…
My first posting as a diplomat was in Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana, South Sudan, and Kenya.
Surely you must have ended up marrying an African woman.
Ah, you should think so but no. (Chuckle). Not only did I marry someone from my hometown but we went to high school together as well. True high school sweethearts. Yes. It’s been 42 years now.
That’s a long one.
Yeah, we were already married before I went to Lusaka. I was 21 years old. My parents looked at me and they said, what? (Chuckle).
What has sustained your marriage for so long?
Well, what I always say jokingly but also seriously, is you have to like doing the same things at the same time. We both love everything with mountains and hiking, and Kenya is fantastic for that, the Aberdare Range or Mt Kenya, exploring with the backpack, and with a tent and sleeping bags. We stay out and truly enjoy it.
You are 63 now, of course from 21 you have been changing, as your wife has. How did you make sure that you remain on one path and not drift away into the people you were changing into?
Doing things together. By being open, transparent, and truthful. Every 10 years, we say, ‘let’s try something else.’ In Ghana, we took up sailing. We love it. We set up a sailing club in Naivasha. Fantastic. We say, “Let’s try this one and let’s try this one as long as we both enjoy it.”
I have a feeling your life has been very intentional.
No. From the outside, it might seem so seeing as I grew up in a wealthy middle-class family in a small town and now I’m an ambassador and everything, but I am a strong firm believer in choices. Every choice has consequences and I have made mine, and so has my wife.
What does she do for herself?
She is a physiotherapist by education and she has been doing all kinds of things in the countries we have lived in from being a consultant in Denmark to being a representative of the award of the year, an anti-doping institution in Ethiopia, to the terminal treatment of the HIV/Aids patients in South Africa. Here in Kenya, she’s working with the Catholic Church for a centre for elderly people.
What part of your life do you feel like you need a bit of work?
I wouldn’t mind being able to speak more languages, but I’m too lazy. I also think I’ve been travelling more than I should, my carbon footprint is too big. But I will deal with that when I retire in Norway in a couple of years. I’ll try to reduce my footprint and do good for what I’ve left there in that atmosphere.
Describe that life when you retire and what you’re doing now to prepare for it.
First of all, I think that it’s important when you retire that you have interests. If you’ve only lived for your career for your life I think you’re going to find it very difficult. When you are done the system doesn’t remember you.
Fine, you were a nice guy but…[shrugs] so you have to prepare. We have a little apartment in Oslo, in the city centre, so we will walk everywhere. We don’t have a car. I will cycle or walk. We have a small shamba, 500 meters away from where we live, with a beautiful little house, where we can stay from April to October.
I want to focus on my little community. I have lived outside my hometown for too long and there is something about the roots and the things that I feel connected to even though I’ve truly enjoyed all the countries I lived in.
What are some of the key things that keep you rooted as a man?
My self-confidence. I’m quite safe where I am, who I am and where I come from. Very solid background from my parents, especially my mother. So you know, it takes quite a lot to knock me over. I hope I’m not too cocky.
Not at all. How did your mother inform who you have become?
It’s the way she brought us up, the way she dealt with people. My father too, but she was particularly clear on being true to yourself, being honest, and being nice. She was a very nice person.
And I think nice is somehow been forgotten. It’s outdated. But when you meet someone nice you feel it. And that doesn’t mean that you are weak or you don’t want to take your fight or anything like that.
Have you always been a confident person?
I think so. Yeah.
Earlier on you had referred to yourself as an old man in passing. You sure don’t look like an old man, but do you feel like an old man?
Yeah, some days are more than others. When you wake up in the morning and you know you are stiffer. (Chuckles). You need more rest. You’ve learned some things from life but life doesn’t always make all people wiser or smarter.
It does give you some experience that if you use that experience in the right way can contribute positively. When your children and grandchildren are growing up it puts your age in perspective. I have two children and two grandchildren.
What’s the difference between being a father and being a grandfather?
Being a grandfather is fantastic in that once something happens and the children are crying you can just leave. [Laughter] So you get the best parts. It’s not my problem. No, but I mean for me that eternal life is somehow to see that you live on through other people.
Obviously, at your age, you’ve learnt a lot, what’s the one thing you’d like to unlearn?
Suffering, war, killing and things like that that I have seen too much of. But that is difficult because you’ve learned from that as well. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need to experience that. But it’s been part of things that have shaped me as a human being as well.
Part of diplomacy is perhaps knowing what to say and how to say it in a way that might not antagonise people. Because you’ve done this for so long do you find that that’s become your default personality and it’s overshadowed the person you were before?
Could be. That’s a good question because if I bring that attitude, that language with my big brother, he would tell me very rapidly (Chuckles) “this is rubbish, what are you trying to say to me?’ If I tried to be a diplomat at home they would undress me very rapidly.
But I’m sure it has influenced me in many ways. I’ve lived in so many places, meeting so many different people from different backgrounds, and that’s what has shaped my way of dealing with people.
When do you feel most undressed as a person? Naked.
If you’ve been put on the spot and I’m unprepared. I think I was most undressed during conflict time in South Sudan. I was the ambassador but I was also a colleague of people who went through very difficult times.
And there is nothing you can do about it. So being in a situation where you realise, ‘I cannot help you the way you want me to help you.’ The powerlessness of it. Especially if people expect or hope that you can do something because of your position or your resources.
What has been your biggest calamity of life?
(Pause) That’s a difficult one. You know if I don’t come up with a good answer it sounds like I’ve never had one. [Laughs] I think I seldom regret the things I’ve done, I regret the things I haven’t done.
People I should have walked up to and said ‘sorry.’ People I should have walked up to and said, ‘I know that you had a difficult time but I was too busy with myself and I didn’t… When I realise I could have done more for other people, I could have listened better, I could have tried to contribute whatever little thing it might be.
[Pause] Calamities. Even when you lose family members, even if they have lived the full rich life, there’s always painful. So my mother passed away recently, at 96, and had lived a fantastic and full life but it’s still painful.
Same with my father, my mother and my father-in-law. You know it’s going to happen and yet when it happens it always comes as a surprise.
How often do you think about your death?
Of course, the older you get you realise that it’s drawing closer. At 63, I’m closer to that than to the other. But I’m not worried about that, I’ve lived a very good life. I’m not a religious person but I think we live on through our children, our grandchildren and our own stories.
Do you believe in God?
No. I don’t.
Where did that come from, this disbelief, so to speak?
I don’t know. It came from growing up but also through my experience, philosophy and reading. For me, I don’t need answers to where we come from or where we are going. I’m here. I’m with my friends and family. I try to do whatever I can. And for me that is plenty.
Is there anything you fear as a man?
Not so much as a man, but as a human being. I fear the effect of climate change. I see my grandchildren who have just started life, what kind of world will they grow up in? And that is why it is so important to do these things together to avert the climate crisis which we have started experiencing.
What’s your most beautiful possession?
It has been on the top of Mt Kenya, or the Aberdare, or in South Sudan sitting by the Nile when the sun sets, or when you realise the beauty despite war and conflict. It’s crisscrossing many of these countries on foot, the best way to learn and to see.
You come across a farmer, you say hello, and you learn a little bit about agriculture, and crops, and if you’re lucky they invite you in and you sit down then you share a meal. Those are my most precious possessions.
What drives you now?
To get a very successful visit of the Crown Prince to Kenya. To be able to run this station and embassy in a way that contributes to strengthening the bilateral relations. That we can leave an impact in Kenya.
Doing a good job together with my colleagues, being a good father, and a good grandfather. Enjoying life is also important. That always drives me.
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