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Out of Africa

November 29, 2012

Dr. Barry Bacon poses with Jane Rogo, who leads the widow's group at the orphanage.

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Colville physician Dr. Barry Bacon’s travelogue/report from the African continent and his ongoing work there.

Day 1: Sept. 27, 2012

My dear wife Shelley seemed a little cranky to me the past couple of days. I now know that she was missing me already. She doesn’t like being alone at night. I understand that. I don’t like it either. I would rather take her along with me. Next time?
The concern I had for this trip was that originally I was planning to help out in South Sudan. I wanted to check out the situation there before bringing my dear wife into Juba, so I planned this trip without her.
However, things changed during the month of July, so the Americans who were working on medical education in Juba decided it was best to pull out. The situation had deteriorated again, and education couldn’t take place. You need a certain level of security and infrastructure function in order to make education happen. If people can’t get to the hospital because of lack of security or lack of functioning transportation, it’s best to regroup and move to where you can do some effective teaching. This was the decision of those on the ground in South Sudan.
They have moved to western Kenya, a place near Kisumu, north of Lake Victoria at a small hospital called Sagam. This is a starting point, with hopes of connecting with other potential sites in order to develop a family medicine training program. I’ll be helping to teach during the month of October, and then connect with a couple of development projects in early November.
The development projects are of special interest because they involve improving health on a very basic level. One project is in Gekongo, a small village near Kisii.
A pastor by the name of David Oenga found my name and contact information on the internet. He read the Colville Statesman-Examiner, our local newspaper, over the internet. He found an article on our work in Rwanda and decided to be bold and contact me. He was apologetic for making a contact unsolicited, but hoped that I would be willing to help his community. His dream was to improve the health of Gekongo by providing safer water for the people. Many in his community suffer from diarrhea disease, and a number die each year, particularly children. He’s asking me if I would be willing to help with their project. I gently told him that I was interested, but had no money, since I am committed to some other projects. He and his congregation started fasting and praying, and have continued to do so ever since. I hate that. They are so hopeful, expecting that perhaps I can pull off the impossible. They also want to raise fish. I like their project, and I like their gentle tenacity.
I’ll take you along to meet these people. We’ll visit the village of Gekongo and see if we can get things started. Better yet, if we can develop an income-generating project, we can improve local food options and decrease disease while employing a few.
I wrote to David and told him that I would be happy if the church leads out in this project, but I asked them to pray, so that we could understand what God dreams for this community. I told him that it is possible that we can build a sense of community through this project, especially if we include the most vulnerable in his community. I asked him to form a leadership committee made up of all of the tribes in the area and including women. They were to choose people who are unselfish and willing to share the resource of clean water. We will place gutters on roofs, collect the rainwater (which is plentiful in this area) in cisterns, and share the water between 3-4 households. If each person pays a few shillings for a jeri can of water, they can set aside a fund so that the systems can be maintained. That’s the Gekongo project.

Striving for peace between tribes

The other project is among the Pokot and Turkana tribes in the north. Many of you may realize that there has been tremendous drought in northern and eastern Kenya, spreading to Somalia, etc. This region wide two-year drought has really stressed the people and livestock in this area. I began receiving correspondence from some contacts I had met in 1996 while Shelley and I were still in Rwanda, in late 2011. There were requests for assistance for water development. The issues were that people had fled the area because of unrest, Turkanas and Pokots were raiding each other’s herds, schools and clinics had closed, and people were going without food and had little hope. Could I help?
I explained that I know little about cattle rustling prevention, and I am committed to helping teach in Rwanda. These people didn’t give up. I promised them that I would at least ask some friends in the U.S. for help. I visited three churches and told the Pokot’s story. I wasn’t able to raise any money for them by that method. I apologized and explained that I couldn’t help. They thanked me and persisted in gently pressing their case.
I told them I didn’t know how I could help them since my attempts at raising goats have been a complete failure. They didn’t give up. Probably moved by desperation. It kind of got to me. They thanked me for always being a friend to the Pokot people. That was hard to hear. I tried to imagine myself in their shoes. If you are starving, hurting, watching your children suffer, you might be willing to take chances, maybe even annoy people, maybe even be thought of as a fool. There’s a chance the person you are soliciting will write you off as a pest. But there’s a chance that maybe they will help. It’s a chance you are willing to take.
There are thousands of causes in the world worth helping on. There aren’t many more basic than clean water, food, primary education, and primary healthcare. This was a chance to help rebuild a community.
Then something happened that opened a door.
I had planned to work in Africa four months each year. But when I returned to the U. S. at the end of 2011, I realized that my patients weren’t terribly happy with me and my partners weren’t either. It wasn’t working, and likely wouldn’t work unless I had two other physicians ready to trade off with me, one of us overseas at any given time and two in the U.S. I decided that I could only commit to a month each year for a few more years, and then I hoped to step down out of my practice and commit a larger portion of my time to teaching in Africa. I realized that if I used the money I had planned to set aside to finance the Rwanda trips, I could actually help the Pokots.
I asked my contacts to do a couple of things. I told them that if I was going to invest in their community, I would need a commitment to peace between the tribes. No more fighting, no more stealing each other’s goats and camels to trade for AK47’s across the Sudanese border. Otherwise all of the attempts at development would be wasted, and the healthy livestock I helped them to raise by building better water supply systems would be lost to violence. They agreed to my terms. I asked them to create a leadership team with representatives from each tribe, and women on the leadership team. They agreed. I asked them to discuss the challenges they are facing as a community and determine their priorities. I would commit to working with them for five years. We would help with financial support, technical consultation and accountability; they would work on leadership, setting the priorities, committing to peace. Together, we would work toward rebuilding their community, reconciling their community. They decided that water was their first priority, followed by training of two nurses to restart their local clinic, which is now closed. They would choose one candidate from each tribe as a means of reconciliation, local young men who would return to their homes and help them to think and live differently. Samuel and Steven are their names. I asked them to think of a name for the dam we would rebuild to improve the water supply as the first phase of our project. They wrote that they are calling it the Unity Dam.

Beginning a journey together

I am a bit of a skeptic by nature. I doubt the goodness in the heart of each of us, fearing that it can be easily overwhelmed by our selfishness and greed. I fear that this project is too good to be true. I doubt that we can really pull it off. I doubt my own ability to make it happen. I fear that I am being duped. But there is something that keeps drawing me in. Maybe it’s inspiration. I would like to think so. Maybe it’s a chance for the adventure of a lifetime, a chance to know and understand God’s heart for these, some of the poorest people on the planet. Maybe it’s that there is this chance that has fallen into my lap to do something so profoundly wonderful that I just can’t walk away from it.
The risk that it might all flop is overwhelmed by the possibility that we could accomplish more than I can imagine. There is the chance that the lives of 8000 people in this community will be better. Then, we will pass it on. The expectation is that after we have learned together what works and what doesn’t, we will teach our neighbors, so that the region can thrive. Otherwise, if some have and others don’t, we have created more instability, jealousy. It makes more sense to make this community the beginning; they will be the teachers, the consultants for the next communities.
So, we will begin the journey together. We will work through their laundry list of assorted wishes for water, gardens, orchards, primary education and healthcare, a fish project, trees for firewood and lumber, income generation, a restaurant, a reunited community.
We will dream God’s dreams. Crazy. I can hardly wait.
As a down payment to pacify my nagging doubts, Samuel sent me some pictures. Pictures of trucks and loaders cleaning out the dam, pictures of a completed reservoir, of water beginning to fill the barren desert pan, of a sign that reads “Patipat Dam for Peace”. It’s a promising start. Enough to keep hope alive.
Sept. 28
There is nothing glamorous about traveling halfway around the globe in a commercial jet. Babies yelling. Sweaty, sticky, tired, time zone changes. The guy ahead of me stuck his carry-on under his own seat, so I couldn’t put mine where it belonged. The guy behind me didn’t want me to recline my seat because he wanted to use his laptop. There’s never enough to drink. The guy beside me thought “The Simpson’s” was a political commentary. Maybe it is. The Kisumu flight lady doesn’t want me to check in yet. Glad to be here safely. I’ll watch the luggage wrap guy put saran wrap on bundles of luggage for a while until I get on the last leg of the journey today.
I’m reading a book called “Last Hunger Season” by Paul Thurow, the story of four farmers in western Kenya near where I will be teaching who are working their way out of poverty. They are part of an organization called “One Acre Fund”, an agricultural development project for small farmers. The project has activity in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, and worked with about 75,000 farmers last year. Their specialty is in helping farmers to grow improved varieties of corn with fertilizer so that their yields are considerably higher, but also to use some measures like crop rotation, diversification, and safe storage of crops, sustainability.
I plan to meet with these people while working near Kisumu so that I can get some ideas from them. Likely they have worked through some of the issues that we will be facing near Nginyang with the Pokots. The author speaks of some drought resistant crops, which we could really use where we will be working. We will need to use trees with the gardens in order to cool the ground temperature and slow the evaporation of moisture from the soil; otherwise the seedlings will burn up. We will likely use some citrus varieties but also some leguminous varieties in order to enrich the soil. The Pokots have quite a few livestock, which will be to our advantage, since mulching with manure, leaves and food scraps will be important. If we get the fish project going, that will be another source of fertilizer. I just need to learn as much as I can from people who have already figured out some of the issues. We need a drought resistant bean variety for crop rotation and soil enrichment with nitrogen.

Why do some areas of Kenya have a surplus of food such that they can’t sell their crops, while others are starving?

One-Acre Fund also sells some solar lights for around 1700 shillings, which is around $20. That would be a great investment for a community study site, or for students at the school who need to extend their study hours and would like to save kerosene.
The book points out some other conundrums in the African situation. Why do some areas of Kenya have a surplus of food such that they can’t sell their crops, while others are starving? Why is there no effective in-country distribution of crops from high productivity to famine and drought areas? Why are prices low in the surplus areas so that farmers are reluctant to sell? Why are crops being imported from donor countries to feed the hungry when in-country crops are available and cost one-fourth as much to purchase and supply to the drought areas compared to donations from the U.S.? These are issues worth considering, but no clear answers are offered.

Continued next week…

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