Anthropologist Ellen P. Brown helped Exxon Mobil preserve African customs

Anthropologist Ellen P. Brown in a Chad village while working for Exxon Mobil in Africa.
Anthropologist Ellen P. Brown in a Chad village while working for Exxon Mobil in Africa. (Lucinda Revell)
By Timothy R. Smith
Sunday, June 27, 2010

For more than a decade, Ellen P. Brown worked as an anthropologist in Africa for Exxon Mobil, which was building a serpentine pipeline from southern Chad to the Cameroon coast.

The World Bank, one of Exxon's partners in building the pipeline, required the company to preserve Chad's distinct customs. For its adviser, Exxon hired Dr. Brown, who had spent several years in Chad with the Peace Corps and nongovernmental organizations and who knew several local languages.

"In 1995, Exxon officials heard of her and set their hearts on hiring her to run their community outreach efforts," wrote former Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby in his book "The World's Banker" (2004). "A Peace Corps veteran who spoke Chad's southern dialects? That ought to impress the Bank!"

Described by Mallaby as feisty, Dr. Brown approached her work with compassion and deference to local customs. She was fluent in French and the Sara Nar and Ngambay dialects and knew that she would sometimes have to attend animal sacrifices or eat food that would make most Americans cringe.

Dr. Brown, who died at 66 on June 11 of a brain hemorrhage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, visited villages as part of her work, observing how construction affected local lives. She always wore long pants and long-sleeve shirts, in respect to Chad's predominantly Muslim populace.

Whenever construction ran into a sacred tree grove, work stopped so the locals could sacrifice a chicken to placate the spirits said to live within the trunks and leaves. Afterward, the bird would be cooked in a stew and fed to the village. After the meal, the entire village would relocate to where they believed the spirits had migrated.

Dr. Brown would pay for the sacrificial animal and the villagers' relocation. According to her family, many people called her "Madam Sacrifice."

Her most important job was finding ways to compensate the residents. She had found that cash was useless, since the villages had no banks. Instead, payments usually took the form of usable goods, like bicycles, water pumps and sewing machines. Sugar and tea often sufficed as small change. Dr. Brown would distribute glossy catalogues of the goods offered in exchange for land or services.

In one instance, Exxon was planning to quarry stone for gravel. Dr. Brown discovered that widows sifted gravel from riverbeds to sell and recommended that the company buy from them.

Exxon employed villagers to construct the pipeline and work in the oil fields, paying an average of $225 per month, princely by Chad's standards. There was a downside to the influx of wealth. The cost of luxury goods, including chickens, increased, making them unaffordable for those who did not have oil jobs. Dr. Brown hired a handful of locals to check the price of chickens every week. When the price rose, she would buy extra chickens from neighboring villages.

Ellen Clifton Patterson was born in Boston on May 24, 1944, and grew up in New Haven, Conn., where her father was a chemistry professor at Yale University and her mother taught physics at Albertus Magnus College. She entered Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania as a history major but soon switched to anthropology, graduating in 1966.

After obtaining a master's degree from the University of Cambridge in England in 1967, she volunteered with the Peace Corps, which posted her in Chad, along with her husband, Jonathan C. Brown. She was a secondary school teacher and fell in love with the culture, believing she could make a difference in people's lives. In 1970, she received a doctorate in anthropology from Cambridge after doing fieldwork in Chad.

Her marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include three children, Jonathan A.C. Brown of Washington, Katharine Adams of Fort Bragg, N.C., and Lucinda Revell of Phnom Penh, Cambodia; two sisters; and a brother.

Dr. Brown remained in Chad into the 1980s, when she became a part-time lecturer at George Mason University and a consultant to nongovernmental organizations. She lived in Chevy Chase and was on her way home when she died.

In Chad for the majority of each year, Dr. Brown developed a rapport with the local citizens. One time, her sister recalled, she went to a village where the residents had cooked a chicken stew for her in a communal pot. In accordance with tradition, the head was severed and its feet stuffed in the beak. When the ladle produced the prized head, talons protruding, several people gasped at Dr. Brown's good fortune.

"You've got the best part!" they said.

She ate the delicacy, and the villagers feasted on the stew.

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