African Connection links are now in the sidebar to the right, just below the My Travel section.

Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Life’s not all Daisies and Hotdogs

“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”
John Adams

There was understandable excitement in the village of Ola Nagele when water started flowing into the large, black tank sitting atop its newly constructed wooden base. People had a nearby source of clean water; true, they had to collect it in the ubiquitous 20-liter yellow jerry cans and haul it back to their meager homes, but the trip was now one of meters, not kilometers.

Connecting to the municipal water line with a large buffer tank was a low cost, low tech, locally appropriate solution to the village’s water problems. Much of the cost of the tank and piping was provided by village sponsors and donors through Global Hope Network International. But, as the water came from the municipal system in Isiolo Town, there was a charge and the bill had to be paid monthly for this solution to be sustainable. The village water committee’s decision was to have each person drawing water from the tank pay a small fee, just a few Kenyan shillings, an amount of about 5 cents. The committee would then arrange to pay the bill on behalf of the village each month.

And thus, it was settled. Or was it?

Not long after everything was in place, the base collapsed. The tank, which, if just half-full of water, would have weighed 5,500 pounds, crashed to the ground, splitting asunder as it came to the dramatic and disheartening end to its all-too-short useful life.

A setback for the village

The tank was, without doubt, destroyed. The villagers? Dismayed, dispirited, despondent, distressed, disenchanted, disillusioned? How could they not be? During my 2011 visit to the area, after this setback, I met Priscila, an intern with GHNI and collecting data for her thesis work. She summed up the difficult life people in the villages faced this way: “Life’s not all daisies and hotdogs.” No ma’am, it certainly is not.

But there’s this thing:
Visits to Africa have allowed me to experience a variety of mishaps, one of serious significance, others not so much except for the magnifying effect of being in Africa, where I am at home about as much as a tuxedo at a square dance. I try achieving an appearance not reflecting internal turmoil. It is easier to pull this off as my African companions invariably exude calm. About the only evidence that something has happened is their smooth, easy shift from what was engaging us before to attention to the calamity at hand. The calmness is only surpassed by their problem-solving abilities; by themselves or with the help of “bystanders,” people not connected with our mission but to help to set things straight. At times the “African Swiss army knife,” the ubiquitous mobile phone, is used to call in reinforcements.

Not being there, I cannot say for sure how things evolved, but the result tells me it was not much different for the calamity of the collapsing tank than for the lesser inconveniences I had seen incurred, attacked, and dealt with. First, GHNI and the water committee sought the cause of the collapse; it seemed the rather small, round poles used to support the base upon which the tank sat were too easily pushed into the soil; since not all the poles sank at the same rate, the based tilted until the tank, leaning beyond the point of no return, toppled to the ground.

It’s never good to have problems and for sure a big one in a place where every day is full of them. But, once done, it is best to extract as much benefit from them as you can. In this case, the village, GHNI and local experts in the town identified the problem, determined an appropriate solution and executed the new, robust design in the dry soil of Ola Nagele.
A strong concrete platform atop rebar reinforced pillars sitting on deep, sturdy footings
New base, new tank and a new day for Ola Nagele

 Once again, and this time for good, water flowed into the village. Life’s not ALL daisies and hotdogs. But there are those special days …

When I arrived in Ola Nagele in 2011, the new tank was serving the village well; so well, in fact, that work had started on laying pipe from it to the location of a second tank. Some had already been put down with about 200 yards to go to bring it to the site of the second tank.

It was sunny, hot, and dry in the village. We walked along the road, wispy clouds of dust marking our footfalls. It seemed even the parched soil could not muster the energy to rise much above our shoe tops. It does rain in Ola Nagel. Not so often, though, and it is not unusual for what rain that does fall to come in on a brief, intense storm. We experienced this during our visit. The ground turns to mud - until the sun comes out and quickly bakes it back into the more familiar hard, cracked surface. 

Road in Ola Nagele
Occasionally muddy, it is most often this hard, dry, sun baked surface

We arrived to find the water engineer, retained by GHNI to handle a few of the technical details, busily engaged in preparing piping in anticipation of completion of the remaining 200 yards of the shallow trench. In the pictures below he is making a joint by heating the end of a pipe section; when it gets soft, he gently inserts a short section of pipe, prepared just for this purpose, expanding the warmed plastic to just the right size for it to fit over end of pipe already in the trench. Low cost, low tech, locally appropriate …

Preparing pipes with a small fire and homemade “joint sizer”

There were several people at the site when we arrived, but only the water engineer was busy. After introductions, Wubshet provided us a brief review of the project to date and expectations for the day. A group of men were to be here to continue digging the trench though that had obviously not happened yet. Wubshet and Habiba had conversations with a few of the women from the village and we waited. Eventually, a group of eight to ten men carrying rough made and well used digging implements arrived, but stopped short of coming all the way to where Wubshet was waiting.

So, Wubshet walked across the short distance and engaged the men in what would turn out to be about a 30-minute discussion. When he came back to where we were waiting, he explained that the men had said they needed to be paid for the work. They would normally go into town to get work, they told him, and what they made in a day was what they would have for food for their families the next. I cannot imagine this was news to Wubshet, but he engaged them in a negotiation, starting off by reminding them that the materials and the water engineer had been provided for water for THEIR village; and, the village had an obligation to participate as they were able. The question of how long the project would take them came up and, eventually, all agreed it would be a two-day job.

With that settled, Wubshet offered to provide them with the equivalent of one-day’s pay for the two days’ work. The men agreed.

Now, as this was going on, one of the women from the village picked up a shovel and started to dig. I cannot say for sure, of course, but I do believe she was sending a message ...

Digging at the trench ... and sending a message?

Soon the men were hard at it, making good progress towards the target of a second tank making water more easily available to all parts of the village.

Hard work it is, digging in the hard, dry soil under a cloudless sky

 A good portion of the trench was dug before the end of my visit and some of that saw the piping laid and backfilled.
The water engineer laid in the pipe as the trench was dug.
Later, the men filled the trench to finish up

 During the months after I returned home, the project was completed with celebration of a second tank in the northern part of the village and a plan to keep the village in clean water. Ola Nagele had found the opportunity in the problem, making a big step forward in their journey to a sustainable, self-determined future.

Coming up next: Confidence, Dignity and Hope

Thursday, August 17, 2017

There is this Thing ...

“Water is life's . . . mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

“Water is life, and clean water means health.”
Audrey Hepburn

There is this thing, the “rule of threes:” You can live for 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Look into this and you’ll find that there are, of course, exceptions. But it does put into perspective the sense of urgency required when addressing insufficiencies in these vital elements of life.

The purpose of Global Hope Network International’s (GHNI) Transformational Community Development (TCD) program is to bring villages mired in extreme poverty to a state of sustainable self-sufficiency. There is structure to the approach. When a village is engaged, projects are planned in the areas of Water, Nutrition, Wellness, Education, and Income Generation. Project details are based on the current state of the village. But the village is ALWAYS expected to actively participate in planning and executing the projects, to engage in the coaching that is central to TCD, and carry out their roles to the best of their ability.

You might guess from the rule of threes that water is a big deal. And it is. But it might be even more important than you imagine. This is the first of three posts in which I share my experiences with TCD water projects in two villages in central Kenya.

It was a water project that introduced me to TCD in action during my first visit to central Kenya in 2011. Then, in 2014, I saw first-hand the issue of water in a new light; it broke my heart and steeled my commitment to provide whatever help I could to the TCD program.

One of the homes in the village of Bulesa Dima (2011)

Bulesa Dima was my introduction to the villages in the area around Isiolo Town in central Kenya. It is at once beautiful and terrible. Stunningly picturesque; hot and dry. OK to visit; hard to live in. I have had five opportunities for the former, but never the struggle of the latter.

After the stop there, we moved on to visit the four other TCD villages. Of particular interest to me was the time we would spend at Ola Nagele, then the newest village in the program and the one for which I had become one of one-hundred sponsors in 2010.

Ola Nagele is conveniently located just over 3 miles north of the center of Isiolo Town and just off the paved highway that runs to the Ethiopian border, 257 miles away. Convenient, because the people have access to the town with its markets and because there is a municipal water line running alongside of the highway. But nearby and accessible are not the same thing.

People in Ola Nagele, as did those in villages farther out in the rough bush, had to go out and find, collect and carry water every day. Here is how Wubshet and Habiba Mengesha, GHNI’s National Leaders in Kenya, described the early days as GHNI began to bring the village into the TCD program:

“When GHNI started their program in Ola Nagele, the main challenge which the community faced was water; no borehole or water stream nearby, but rather the people walk over 5 to 10 km in search of this precious commodity. The main Isiolo water pipe could not supply this village simply because the communities are poor and they could not afford the pipes to pull the water from the main pipe which passes by the main highway.”

It might have been fairly easy for GHNI to arrange a connection to the water line, but that is not the way the program works. Here is more from Wubshet and Habiba on how things progressed:

“… we established the (village water) committee and brainstorm on how to go about this problem in conjunction with Isiolo Water and Sewerage Ministry ...”

There is important information in this statement. All villages engaging in the TCD program appoint leaders and form committees for TCD focus areas. GHNI staff mentor the committees as they look for low cost, low tech, locally appropriate solutions to the problems they are charged with solving. Some of the most important contributions to the village occur in meetings with the GHNI staff.

Wubshet meeting with Ola Nagele leaders

Habiba discusses water project with the village elder

It was probably obvious that connecting to the municipal supply would be the easiest way to supply the village. So, discussions included the Isiolo Water and Sewerage Ministry. Through their active participation in the meetings, village leaders learned important skills in relating their situation to others who might be engaged in a solution.

What happened as a result of the meetings? Again, we hear from Wubshet and Habiba:

“...we bought pipes and community digged the trench over 2 km and we also built a tower tank in a central position where everybody could come and fetch the water at small fee for maintenance ...”

Building the base for the first water tank in Ola Nagele

Raising the tank onto the base

The village welcomed the flowing water as soon as it was let through the pipe from the municipal supply and further celebrated when the large storage tank was mounted on its base and connected to the piping ...

Water is flowing into Ola Nagele

The tank is connected and showering residents from its contents

The village could, for the first time, look forward to a nearby, ready supply of clean water. It was a good time for sure.

Coming up next: Life’s not all Daisies and Hot Dogs

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Soundtrack of My Life

I am working at my computer with this title playing from my iTunes collection:

Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre: II-Españoleta y fanfare de la caballería de napoles: Adagio; Allegretto, molto ritmico; Tempo de españoleta

It was listening to this in 1995 that prompted me to write what follows. Not much has changed, but at the end, I do have an update - another song that had an impact as I was just engaging in important things that now occupy much of my time...

Flight 84. Chicago to Frankfurt.
Flying through the night. Listening to music.
Selected for my enjoyment by American Airlines.
Background for my reading.

Suddenly, I become keenly aware of what is playing.
A haunting melody. Something I have not heard before.
Guitar. Oboe.
I was captivated. Moved to tears.
What was THAT all about?
Music with no association to my life.
Yet it moved me.
And so it began.
And the search for answers.
Realizing my life had a soundtrack -
Songs, melodies, tunes.

I am moved by music.
Literally and figuratively.
Energized. Calmed.
Moved to laughter. And tears.
The questions.
How to describe the music that affects me so?
Why do I like what I do?
Why does it do these things to me?
So I search for answers,
listen to the music.
The soundtrack of my life.

How can I describe this music, "My" music?
Complex. Rich. Deep.
Enveloping me in its grip.
Strings. Percussion.
Music with a beat.
The rhythm of my life?
I listen, walk, notice my pace matches the music’s beat.
In tune, in step. The pace of my heartbeat.
A physical connection.

Another word to describe.
Minor chords. Even off-key.
Music that creates an out-of-focus picture.
Ethereal. Not to be completely captured.
Tell me part of the story.
Use words in a foreign language.
Make me think.
Paint the background. Leave the details to my imagination. Let me finish the story.

Tusk and Coventry Carol  play on my iPod.
Tusk, pounding percussion - the USC marching band playing backup for Fleetwood Mac.
It lifts me off the ground!
Coventry Carol. Soft and mellow as you can get.
Why Tusk and Coventry Carol?
I cannot tell you why.
Except that they are part of the soundtrack of my life.

The Moldau by Smetana.
A musical picture of a river flowing through the Czech Republic.
Tumbling over rocks in the mountains.
Flowing past a wedding party in a small village.
Passing majestically through Prague.
I see it all as the music weaves its magic.

Alegria, Mummer's Dance.
Ghost Riders in the Sky. Atchafalaya Pipeline.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
The City of New Orleans. Orinoco Flow.
Mystery. The romance of travel. Hard times.
Foot stomping rhythm. And the list goes on.

Spiritual songs.
How Great Thou Art -
I know why I am moved.
Standing on a mountaintop in North Carolina.
Singing. How Great Thou Art. And He was. And is.

En la Cruz. A night that changed my life.
Raquel's young face lifted up. A smile. A song on her lips.
Her face shining in the light of a citronella candle.
I did not know then. I do now.
A most important part of my soundtrack.

Blessed Assurance. I'll Fly Away. Amazing Grace.
Wonderful messages in song.
Revealing part of the answer...He gave us music.
To use in His praise, to be sure.
And to add to our enjoyment of the life He gives us.

So it is.
My life with its soundtrack.
I am happy.
Music, part of why I am and part of how I show it.

Flight 84.
Chicago to Frankfurt.
The music?
Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre by Rodrigo.
It plays even now as I write these words,
Still moving me to tears.
Even now I do not know why.
Do I really want to know?
Or is this another mystery, part of the soundtrack?

The soundtrack of my life.
I do not really understand it.
But I know it is a gift.
From the Source of all music.

Thank you.

December, 2015 Update
Orange Blossom Special 
The Flying W Wranglers with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra.
Maybe my most favorite favorite piece.
Because it is lively and rich;
because it carries me back to Africa...

April 2006, just a few days before the first Uganda trip.
No onboard entertainment this time;
no Walkman with all of the mix tapes;
no portable CD player.
I have a brand new iPod
I can listen to Orange Blossom Special ...

Over and over again it plays;
Flying over the Atlantic; then Europe,
the Mediterranean, the Sahara,
and finally into Entebbe.

I was immersed in anticipation, questions,
pondering the unknown;
doing a new "something for the first time."

The anthem of that trip in particular
and Africa in general was, is and always will be
Orange Blossom Special 
by The Flying W Wranglers
with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra.

I do not really understand it.
But I know it is a gift.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I Bear-ly Made It

"Close don't count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
                     Frank Robinson (Time magazine, July 31, 1973)

Close doesn't usually cut it in bicycle touring either. You pretty much need to finish the route. That is, unless you stumble upon a place in which you'd rather spend the rest of your life.

The third day of each of the tours presented real challenges in the form of weather and difficult climbs. In each case, I made it. And I didn’t make it. Here are the accounts...

I Bear-ly Made It - CGY
Today I rode 31.4 miles from Red Lodge to the top of Beartooth Pass, putting in 5,640 feet of climbing on a day when the average temperature was 38 degrees F.

The route ended at Cooke City. My ride, just a little shy of that!
The gorilla bear in the room made its presence known as this was the day to go up and over Beartooth Pass on our way to Cooke City, Montana at the Silver Gate entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Remember the weather at the end of the ride from Absarokee to Red Lodge? Rain, wind hail. Well, for today the forecast on Beartooth pass was for cold and snow. SNOW. In AUGUST! 

The forecast was very precise - snow would start sometime between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Well, at least it narrowed the possibilities a little. CGY took the approach of hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. The first action in this vein was to announce that the morning departure, normally between 7:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. would this day be moved and shrunk to 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. giving a better chance for more riders to get over the summit before the weather. In addition to this, CGY called in more vehicles to patrol the route and provide SAG services as needed.

We departed in the dark and immediately began riding uphill into a moderate chilly headwind. Grades slowly increased from 2% to 6% over the first 10 miles as we rode through a spectacular landscape of steep mountainsides on both sides of the road. Here we went from the 5,500 foot elevation of Red Lodge to about 6,700 feet. The "acclimation" rides of the first two days certainly helped, but altitude was also going to play a role in today's ride.

At the 10 mile point, the road went left and we started the more serious part of the climbing ...

The rest stop was 22 miles into the climb and at an elevation of 9,300 feet. It was not yet 11 and it was beginning to snow in fits and starts. The skies were gray and low - well, lower than the surrounding peaks anyway, which were enshrouded in the mist. The CGY staff was asking everyone to get some food and hurry back onto the road. There were 10 miles and 1,600 feet of climbing to the summit and the weather would only get worse from now on.

I think the first picture below, the last I took this day, is near the 25 mile point. The next picture is at the same location, taken by the CGY photographer. Comparing this to the picture from earlier in the climb, you can see that I have now put on my heavier jacket and gloves. The temperature had been dropping as we climbed and here it was just at freezing.

Smiling? Perhaps not ...
I was tired and when one of the SAG vans stopped to pick up a few riders, I considered his offer of a ride up to the summit. But, I kept on. Three miles later, I was at the summit. The east summit. The clouds parted, possibly out of surprise that I had actually gotten this far, but this brief glimpse of blue sky was soon a memory as the gray and light snow returned. What was to come was a 1.5 mile descent followed by a 1.7 mile climb of 425 feet to the slightly higher elevation of the west summit.

I had made it. There was hot soup for lunch. I was fatigued and cold. The short descent between summits had revealed a stark reality - the real descent ahead was going to be cold, cutting-through-every-layer-I-had-on cold.

We were on a barren mountaintop with no facilities. The only shelter was a number of CGY cars, trucks and an RV, all already full of people getting warm and waiting for a ride to Cooke City. It started snowing in earnest and the CGY staff were saying the window for leaving was going to close soon. If anyone thought they were up to going to the next rest stop, nine miles down the slopes, then they could leave. That rest stop was at a store, out of the snow, and more convenient for the ride vehicles picking up riders and carrying then to Cooke City.

When I heard this, I thought I can at least do this next 9 miles. But after putting toe warmers in my shoes adding another layer over my hands and feet the following happened: (a) It started snowing even harder, wind-driven and limiting visibility. (b) I realized how fatigued I was. (c) I recalled what I knew about the descent - it was going to be steep, fast, technical and very cold. (d) I decided I would end my ride right here.

Not so many people made it all the way to Cooke City this day. And, as almost all of them would say, they deserved some congratulations, but also a reminder that it was maybe not worth it. Bill was one who made it. He said the descend was bordering on terrifying. Cold robbed his fingers of feeling and caused him to shiver enough to make controlling the bike difficult. Others who I talked to or overheard had the same story.

It was, as one rider put it, an epic day. He went on to explain that in this case, epic wasn't necessarily great, but a day that would provide stories for a long time to come...

I Bear-ly Made It - Piedmont
Today I rode 29.2 miles from Acqui to Alba, putting in 2,080 feet of climbing on a day when the average temperature was 61 degrees F.

The route from Acqui Terme to Alba
This ride was startlingly similar to the one over Beartooth pass considering it was so different. Or, perhaps it was extremely different for one that was so similar.

We started this ride in a dumping rain. After 2 miles on a busy road, we turned off onto a short climb; the average gradient was 19% with a section near the top registering 28%. This was thrown in just to get our attention I guess. Two and a half moles later we started on a longer climb averaging 8% again, with a good portion being in the 13 - 16% range. It had stopped raining however and I could finally put my glasses back on.

We eventually made a nice descent into the town of Canelli. We stopped for coffee and a navigation update in a shop that Bill and Julio had been at on a previous ride. The two pictures below are the only ones I took until we rode in to the hotel in Alba. It was that kind of a day.

On the descent into Canelli
Coffee and navigation in Canelli

About 6 miles out of Canelli we started climbing again, gaining 1350 feet in 3.7 miles, averaging 7% with the odd 15 - 19% thrown in for good measure. The first town we went through offered no open restaurants - Italy closes in the early afternoon - so we rode on, now heading downhill.

It was good to get into descent mode, but alas, it was short lived. We actually rolled across the top of a ridge, descending a little then having to regain the elevation on a series of short, steep climbs. After 8 miles of this, we came to the town of Manera. We found a tavern with a small dining area. However, were told upon entering that the kitchen had just shut down for the break. I think the proprietor saw our desperate need though and offered to prepare us something. It turned out to be a hearty pasta with tomato sauce. It did not do too much for us, only saved our lives! We were very appreciative of this kindness.

While eating I realized that I was feeling not too different from where I was at the top of Beartooth pass. Julio was actively looking for a path to Alba as we walked out the door and saw a sign showing we were only 8 miles from town. The tavern owner said it was all downhill.

After a brief consideration, I opted to ride with Julio and we set off on a very nice descent - the road was not busy, the surface was good and the curves and switchbacks were gently sweeping, allowing for a brakes-free run into town.

So it was that we pulled into the hotel, got settled and enjoyed a post-ride beer before Bill and John came in. They reported that the route they had finished was not nearly as challenging and father and son got to enjoy that part of the ride at their pace. Win - win.

We saw the sign to the hotel as we rode into Alba - good thing as the GPS route had us going into the center of the city!

Sitting at a small table relaxing after the ride, enjoying the nice lawn with its bowling surface