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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.

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