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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Road to Kijito

It is a rough road that leads
to the heights of greatness.

                              Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Five hours of sleep seemed, when I awoke, to be enough. That observation would prove to be a little less than accurate later, but it was a beautiful morning and, there was coffee available in the breakfast room! I was up and ready to go.

Going to breakfast at the peaceful guesthouse in Nairobi

Dining room at the guesthouse

There would be three other team members arriving tonight: Heather, Chris and Tony. Tomorrow, we would collect Jennifer and Kieran from a hotel in downtown Nairobi and head north to Isiolo. But today, it was just me, Jeff and Wubshet. A visit to Kijito was the primary item on the agenda and after breakfast, we headed north towards the town of Thika.

At the end of today's road trip, I would find familiar ground, a unique and impressive individual and the foundations of possible future involvement in the work around Isiolo.

A major Chinese road building project has resulted in much improved conditions for driving north out of Nairobi. There is an exit ramp into geopolitics here, but I won't take it. Instead, let's travel on to the area of Thika where we get off of the paved, multi-lane highway and quickly onto a rough, dirt road in the direction of Kijito.

The road has some very picturesque stretches lined with trees blooming with brilliant red and pink flowers. We go over an earthen dam, then, as we get closer, through a security gate. Before we get to our destination, we navigate two ROUNDABOUTS! On this dirt road in an area in which if there were more than two cars moving at any one time would surprise me. The colonial effect in effect, I think.

The drive in to Kijito ... Flowering trees on the side of the road

... Crossing the dam

Kijito is not a village. Rather, it is a business run by Mike Harries. What do they do here in rural Kenya? They make windmills or, more to the point, windpumps. We are here to talk about a few issues that need cleaning up at the site in Gambella, the most recent graduate of GHNI's TCD program. A borehole drilled some time ago was topped more recently with one of Kijito's larger windmills which drives a down-hole pump. We would meet with Art, the well driller, for discussions which led to a plan to get a larger pump into the well and therefore set us up for the next stage in the project.

There were some sticky issues and I was quite impressed with way in which the discussions were handled. All parties stood on principles of their faith and a common desire to help people with great needs in the most appropriate ways. It was refreshing.

Wubshet, Jeff, Mike and Art discussing the well and pump at Gambella

While we were waiting for Art to arrive, Mike told us his story. Disclaimer: I listened attentively, but recall the state of "sleep deprivation induced stupor" mentioned in the Road to Kenya post. It wasn't quite that dramatic this morning, but, you get the picture. So, a few of the facts may be not quite right. However, we can't let that get in the way of a really amazing story...

Mike's grandfather went to South Africa in the late 1800's and moved to Kenya in 1904, setting foot there first at the port city of Mombasa. He was looking for a place to settle and LITERALLY walked around the country before finally settling on 5,000 acres in this area near Thika. No big deal, right? After all it is only 315 miles from Mombasa to Nairobi. Did you pick up on that comment that he WALKED!?

Bobs (that is spelled correctly), Mike's father, was born in Kenya as was Mike. Now I think Mike is a citizen of the UK, but has spent virtually his entire life in Africa. He earned a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge but came back to the farm after completing his studies. You can read more about the history and background of the operations at the Kijito / Bobs Harries Engineering, Ltd website.

Mike talked about a few of his experiences, which include him being an advisor to the president of Kenya. He also spent some time in the U.S., consulting with police departments in three states about their chaplaincy programs. But perhaps the most interesting story, considering our purpose in Kenya, was one worthy of the old BBC television program, Connections.

In addition to the above mentioned activities, Mike, a pilot, spent some time flying eye doctors around the country in order to provide much needed care for people otherwise disconnected from any source of medical aid. During his trips, he saw many cases of trachoma. This is a bacterial infection of the eyes and is often transmitted by flies in areas without good hygienic practices. Children with this problem have runny eyes which, if not kept clean, attract swarms of the disease carrying flies. Lack of clean water was one factor in the chain and Mike decided he needed to get involved.

There was a windmill design project that (I assume) about this time was looking for investment partners to finish work on a low cost, effect device and Mike was one of five businesses that joined. In the end, his was the only one that stayed on; he eventually made a large investment in development to bring a useful design into production, the business of Kijito.

Another branch of the story involves the family farming business. The family actually introduced pineapples to Kenya at the farm; coffee is also grown here. Mike told us that after he returned from Cambridge, he was engaged in the farming. However, while the coffee business was good, he found it unsatisfying in that it was the same process, repeated over and over every season. Plant – tend – harvest – etc. Whatever you do to grow coffee. I don't know. Mike wanted something where he could be more creative and certainly something that could be used to serve the people in the area. Hence, his interest in the windmill opportunity.

Kijito now has over 500 windmills in East Africa, most in Kenya. Mike gave us a tour of the factory and this officially became an engineer's trip! Following are some highlights of the tour in photos...

In the Kijito Factory... Left: Facing a flange; Top right: A Kijito technician machining a brass part for a water pump; Bottom right: A machine designed and built at Kijito for rolling a stiffening groove in windmill blades

Left: A brass down-hole pump; Top right: Wubshet examines the flame cutting station; Bottom right: The five sizes of windmill blades, color coded by length

So the end of the rough road with the roundabouts brought us to place that has risen up to offer much to the people in the water-poor regions of East Africa. Their engineering is not aligned with my areas of expertise ( analytical fluid- and thermodynamics) but because of my long association with the more mechanically oriented design engineers at Trane, I could appreciate the progress made in arriving at the windmills and pumps manufactured by Kijito. They are elegantly simple and, by all reports, reliable and effective. Plans for the one in Gambella offer the possibility that it will serve an even more important role than just the pumping of water. More about this as we proceed down the road...

You can learn more about Kijito using the link in the text above. You can also Like Kijito on Facebook; they are there as Kijito Windpower Limited.

We drove back to the guesthouse. I was able to unwind, but Jeff and Wubshet still had work to do. They would be back at the Nairobi airport to meet three more of the team flying in on separate flights. I stayed at the guesthouse since the car we had hired would not accommodate all of us and the luggage. I was only just a little disappointed!

It was dinner at the guesthouse tonight – tilapia. But this is not the tilapia we are more accustomed to. Most noticeably, we are offered the entire fish for our dining enjoyment. It was cooked in a way that rendered it pretty dry, but this provided a functional benefit we here in the U.S. do not often consider. The fish had been scored deeply and I found, after struggling to get a piece off with a knife and fork, that the scoring provided the option to break off french-fry like pieces with your hands. One real advantage to this approach is that you get pieces that are mostly bone free; and, if there are a few bones, you can feel them before putting them into your mouth. Brilliant!

Tilapia, African style!

Much later, Jeff and Wubshet returned with Chris and Tony. But no Heather. And in this, there is a lesson. When it comes to international travel, your passport is effectively expired 6 months before the date printed on the photo page! Heather had gone to the airport with her e-ticket confirmed. However, she was told that she would not be allowed to travel because her passport expiration date was only about 4 weeks out. No exceptions, no recourse. Bummer! But now you know – keep a close watch on the dates as you plan your next international trip.

Coming next: The Road to Isiolo

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Road to Kenya

I'm leaving, on a jet plane...
                  Leaving on a Jet Plane, Peter, Paul and Mary

Before we get too deep into looking at the road as metaphor, remember that most of our journeys include some literal legs. In other words, we actually have to get out of our recliners and go. Now, that shouldn't be too hard to convince us to do if we accept what Cunard Lines was so fond of telling us...

That's been your experience, right? No? Oh well...

Getting to a small town in central Kenya from a small city in the U.S. upper midwest is a bit of a challenge. But let's face it, the fact that this even can be accomplished at all borders on magic.

Step-by-step, the process was as follows:

(1) Get up at 7:00 a.m. Have breakfast with Shirley. Drive to the airport in La Crosse. Fly to Chicago. Wait. Eat a light mid-afternoon meal. Wait. Take bus across the taxiways to the international departures gates. Wait. Have some coffee.

Small plane, short flight to start; Sushi in the Admirals Club at O'Hare; The wasabi earned separate billing for being HOT!!!! I might never need an antihistamine again.

(2) Fly to London; eat two meals in flight; take a bus to terminal 5. Wait. Have coffee and a croissant. Take the underground train link to the satellite departure gates. Get a bottle of water for the long flight. Wait.

(3) Fly to Nairobi; eat two meals in flight; take a bus to international arrivals.

The engines on the BA 777 were big. But not big enough to get us the last 100 feet; Waiting at the gate at LHR to take us to NBO; African chicken stew to get us acclimated to life in another continent; Night arrival at NBO - the KLM flight seems to have made it to a jet bridge.

(4) In a sleep deprivation stupor, muddle through immigration, baggage claim and customs. Exchange a little money for first day cash reserves. Meet Jeff and Wubshet in the arrivals hall. Drive to the guest house. Crash at 1:00 a.m.

Four easy steps - that's all there is to it. For the most part, things went smoothly. Layovers in Chicago and London were 5 hours and 4 hours, respectively. There really were not so many options and I do tend to favor longer layovers as a cushion for delays. There might be two or three opportunities per hour to get from Chicago to New York. But realistically, you have only one chance per day to get from La Crosse to Nairobi.

The one exception to the problem-free trip was in the last 100 feet of the journey. I am not making this up – our plane stopped at the terminal in Nairobi and the pilot shut down the engines. People got up and started the process of gathering all the belongings they had accumulated over the entire course of their lives (OK, maybe I exaggerate. But only a little) to prepare for deplaning. But, the pilot announced that we had not reached our actual parking spot. Further, instead of using the engines, which were each the size of a small house, to get us there, we would wait for a tug. I have no clue...

About 20 minutes later we were in the proper location. Then, we waited for another 15 minutes for buses that would take us to the arrival hall. Perhaps our arrival caught them by surprise, what it having been only 8 hours since our on-time departure from Heathrow.

But they did show up - a diverse collection of bus styles, sizes and appellations. I got in a relatively tricked-out vehicle with a sign on the side saying "Kenyan Youth Organization." Apparently the airport brought in busses from all available sources as they are still dealing with the disruption caused by the substantial fire in the international arrivals area last August.

Jeff and Wubshet from GHNI (Colorado and Isiolo, respectively) waited through it all. It was good to see them there on the other side. On the ride to the guest house, we talked briefly about the next day's activities, which would mostly involve a visit to Kijito.

So, I got into my small but comfortable dormitory style room, took a shower in the bath down the hall (only one chameleon in the shower stall) and settled in for a good night's sleep – a mere 30 hours and 7 meals after I had gotten up in La Crosse.

Netted in for the night; Visitor in the shower

Up next: The Road to Kijito where we get on with the work of Transformational Community Development

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hard Roads

With GHNI in Kenya, March 2014

The long white line meets the equator…

“There are roads
in this life that we all travel
there are scars and there are battles
where we roam...”
                                         Roads, Chris Mann

In song and poetry, our life’s path is often equated to a road we travel. A simple, everyday experience – traveling on highways and byways where we live – becomes a framework on which to anchor the abstract aspects of our lives and our reactions to events.

While I doubt there will be a country song written about the events I will share with you in the next week or so, I will use the road metaphor to introduce you to my travels, literal and otherwise, to the northern district of Kenya. In two trips to this ecologically inhospitable place, I have visited five villages in the area around the town of Isiolo: Bulesa Dima, Shambani, Ola Nagele, and Gambella in 2011 and again in 2014; and, in this latest trip, the village of Attir.

To say that the people in these villages have hard lives does not do justice to the difficulties with which they must deal on a daily basis.

Water is scarce. Rainfall totals are moderate and most of what falls comes in short “rainy” seasons. The average is 2 inches per month. But, rainfall from June through September in total is only about one inch. April and November bring some relief with a bit over 5 inches of rain each. However, there are also periodic droughts making the situation considerably worse than even the relatively low average rainfall amounts hint at.

The tribes in the area, in particular Turkana, Borana and Somali, are disenfranchised, living on the edge. They are generally pastoralists, shepherding herds of goats, cattle and camels around the area, seeking elusive grazing areas and water supplies. Increasingly, however, villages are settled and attention turns to farming. This is what we see in the villages we visit.

I use the term “we” to make the connection to Global Hope Network International (GHNI). This amazing (in my opinion) organization has created a program called Transformational Community Development (TCD) to help disenfranchised peoples meet their most pressing needs in ways that they can sustain after they "graduate." To find out more about the program itself, click here.

I was reading a novel on the long flight to Nairobi and came across this quote which I think captures a key concept for setting up the development process for success: "It's not about what is best. It's about who gets to decide what is best." It seems pretty clear what the big problems are in the villages we visit. And, it is easy to imagine that we could cut right to the chase – drill a well, build a school, supply a wellness center, and so forth. That's the "we (outsiders) get to decide what is best" approach.

A quiet moment in the garden at the guest house in Isiolo gave me a chance to experience how this might play out. Two women were tidying up in this cool, green oasis in semi-arid northern Kenya. They were sweeping the sidewalks; nothing so unusual about this, except they were using short bundles of straw that required them to bend as you can see in the picture. I have seen this method of reaching the ground – locked knees, bent over at the waist – in Uganda and Kenya in sweeping and in tending the fields in farms and gardens. It looks uncomfortable and I think, "I could fix this problem in a heartbeat. Brooms with handles. I'll just buy a hundred and gift them to these hard working ladies. Brilliant!"

And there you go – I would have decided what was best. No consideration of just why the women go about their tasks in this way. I doubt it is because they never thought of long handled brooms. So I let the moment pass, dropping the idea of providing aid in the form of my view of a material solution to their "problem."

One of the hallmarks of TCD is the way in which the cooperation between villages and GHNI is planned. Very early in the course of engaging a village, there will be a meeting with the village leaders where they will explain the situation they are in and offer their input into what are the pressing needs and what the priorities are. There is give and take, of course. Discussion of options is OK and there is serious discussion on the expectations for both GHNI's part and the role that the village is expected to play – a large one, actually, a key factor in sustainability.

This is my unofficial view of the GHNI program. It should be clear that I am impressed with what they have learned from working with villages around the world over the years. I would guess there have been a few mistakes made. The program does have some built in flexibility though and I am sure it is still evolving with every new village. But the important thing is this: it works. One of the Isiolo area villages I visited in 2011 has since graduated and the situation for the people there is greatly improved. GHNI has been invited to be an advisor to the United Nations in this area.

In future posts, I will talk about the roads we traveled during our visit, both literally and metaphorically. During the week, I visited Kijito (not a village, at least in the traditional sense), Attir, Shambani, Bulesa Dima, Ola Nagle and the most recent graduate from the TCD program, Gambella. We were bounced around in the Land Cruiser and pummeled by sights from villages where almost every bit of people's energy is devoted to barely meeting the most basic needs of life.

In spite of these harsh realities, I can also say I was humbled by the graciousness with which we were treated, impressed by the toughness of the people, which matched that of the environment, hopeful that the changing attitudes in the villages would lead to long term improvement and encouraged by the obvious strength of the TCD program.

Up next, the account of the trip from La Crosse to Nairobi.