Eric P. Whitaker describes his childhood in DeKalb as normal. He actually grew up in a house on Normal Road.
His mother was getting her degree at Northern Illinois University and his father worked at Ideal Industries. Living so close to the university and interacting with students from around the world, he describes the DeKalb of his childhood as “a small town with a college campus and an international setting.”
Being introduced to students of different nationalities at NIU may have been the catalyst of Whitaker's love of travel and appreciation for different cultures.
Whitaker serves as the acting deputy assistant secretary of East Africa, Sudan and South Sudan Affairs for the U.S. Department of State. He heads a large office in Washington, D.C., that covers 11 African nations.
As a Foreign Service officer, Whitaker served in positions in Korea, Sudan, Uganda, Croatia, Ethiopia, Mali and Mozambique.
While in town after visiting with African groups in Chicago, Wisconsin and at NIU as part of the Hometown Diplomats and Domestic Outreach programs, Whitaker met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton.
Milton: Did you grow up in the area?
Whitaker: I grew up in DeKalb but moved to North Aurora when I was 11. I’ve always thought of myself as a son of the heartland, I even detasseled corn in the summer when I was younger. After high school, I attended the University of Illinois, where I received my bachelor’s in general biology and my master’s in community health education. My friends said that joining the Peace Corps would be a good way to apply my skills, so I decided to try it.
Milton: What did you do in the Peace Corps?
Whitaker: I was in the Peace Corps from 1980 to 1982 in the Philippines. I lived in a bamboo hut on the edge of the ocean. I taught high school and we worked on environmental sanitation, teaching hands-on practical skills, nutrition, insect and rodent control and improving open, dug holes used as wells. While in the Philippines, I met my wife [Jonita] and came in contact with embassy staff. I thought that it was great that they could represent their country and were paid to do it.
Milton: What did you do after the Peace Corps?
Whitaker: After returning to the United States, I received a Master of Public Administration degree and minored in International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1983, we went to California. At that time, the economy was booming. We went in person, called lines and read the Sunday paper for jobs, and both my wife and I were quickly hired. I was the assistant to the city manager of Lodi. I decided to take the foreign service test for the state department. By that time, both of my kids [Ginger and Jordan] were born. We decided to pack up and move 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., with the thought that we could always go back if it didn’t work out.
Milton: What did you do in Washington, D.C.?
Whitaker: I went to Washington, D.C. for training. After training is what we call “Flag Day,” where you are given the flag of the country where you’ve been assigned. I was assigned to Seoul, South Korea, in 1990.While at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, I handled visa interviews, replaced passports, visited Americans imprisoned and held American Town Halls, where Americans could be briefed with our services, security and that they would know who we are, what we do and how to contact us.
Milton: Where were you assigned after Korea?
Whitaker: My wife and I were assigned to Khartoum, Sudan, together. That is where the Blue and White Niles meet. Osama Bin Laden lived in the area, although we didn’t know that at the time. We were evacuated. My wife and kids were sent to Ethiopia, and I was sent to Uganda to do refugee affairs work. After some time, in 1993, I joined my family in Ethiopia. Then my wife and I bid together to go to Mali.
Milton: Did you return to the United States?
Whitaker: After nearly a decade, we came back to the United States. I received a Master of Public Policy degree at the Wilson School at Princeton University and was a Weinberg Fellow. I had a two-year tour of duty in Washington, D.C., as a trade policy officer for Africa and the Middle East. My kids were older and were going to college. I was recruited to spend one year in Baghdad.
Milton: What did you do in Baghdad?
Whitaker: I was the embedded provincial reconstruction team leader. We were helping develop the east side of Baghdad. We traveled in Humvees and had to wear a helmet, Kevlar jacket and protective eyewear. We had to worry about mortar shells, rifle shots from snipers afar and IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We were at the front end at a very dangerous time, from 2007 to 2008. As team leader, I met with three districts and helped them develop their public works systems, improved roads and rebuilt fences. When we heard the siren, which we called the Big Voice, we had to get inside or under a bunker and lay flat. Explosives leave a crater behind and shrapnel would fly in every direction.
Milton: What are some of your more memorable assignments?
Whitaker: While in Baghdad, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with us. In 2008, I was one of the guests of the first lady during the State of the Union Address and was able to pose for a picture with them. … I’ve traveled to Victoria Falls, Capetown, saw the pyramids, the two Niles meeting and ancient churches in Ethiopia. While in Maasai Mora in Kenya, I looked at the horizon. I thought it was a freight train, a long black line in the distance. It was a herd of wildebeests migrating. I’ve been to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. I’ve been to Timbuktu and felt the dusty winter breeze and the incredible heat of Baghdad. I’ve been to the hottest city in the world, where the temperature can reach 130 degrees [Fahrenheit].
Milton: What advice would you give to those interested in your work and Africa?
Whitaker: The Foreign Service and State Departments offer great opportunities for people to get involved. If you are curious about the outside world, follow current events. Participate in the cultural concerts and events NIU has to offer. Visit countries in Africa and U.S. Embassies. There are U.S. governmental workers around the world trying to improve trade, health and security, forming better partnerships between our countries. I am proud to represent our country abroad. It really is an honor.