We often hear stories about hunger and health problems occurring in Africa. Not often enough do we read about what’s being done to improve the situation.
If conditions are going to improve on the continent, they’ll likely start to happen on a grass-roots level through programs like the ones conducted by Redding’s Chris Gaido.
Gaido, a project engineer for Caltrans, has been involved in Kenya since 1991, when he lived in the central part of the country (Nanyuki) as an engineer in the Peace Corps and later for a German non-governmental aid company called Miserior.
Since 2001, he’s traveled five times to the community of Oyani in the province of South Nyanza in the southwest corner of Kenya to work on water and crop sustainability projects.
“There aren’t many Swahili speaking engineers there,” says Gaido, whose dream is to see the area embrace watershed management and replicate the concept in neighboring communities. “If it can get a little traction on its own, maybe it can self-manifest. That’s the dream and the goal.”
The concept of improving water systems and crops in Kenya may seem far removed from the concerns of our lives in Northern California. However, many ideas cross over.
Sustainable agriculture is becoming a bigger concern everywhere across the globe. When the world begins to feed itself better, it’s fair to assume that a lot of tensions will ease.
In the past, foreign organizations have promoted the use of corn crops in Kenya, but the heavy water and nutrient requirements for corn make it a difficult crop to sustain in the country, Gaido explains. The theory of “intercropping” has also been introduced. However, when plants like beans are interspersed with corn as an element to mulch into the soil, it’s a tough sell to a hungry population. People would rather eat edible food instead of letting it rot into the ground, no matter how good it is for the soil.
In December, Gaido traveled to Oyani with fellow Caltrans civil engineer Salvador Torres and the two helped the community improve a key well by installing a solar pump system. They deepened the well and sealed it off from runoff and livestock contamination.
“From what they were doing before to what they’re doing after we left, it was a total 180-degree turnaround,” Torres said. “They had an open-pit well, which was susceptible to runoff contamination.”
Now the villagers use a faucet to draw water instead of dunking buckets. The water is much cleaner and safer. To say the least, the community was delighted with the upgrade. Prior to Gaido and Torres leaving, the community held a farewell celebration where elders spoke and everyone expressed their gratitude.
“It was a very warm and touching ceremony,” Torres said. “You really felt a sense of appreciation from them. They just did it out of their kindness and said we were going to be part of their memories and prayers long after we left.”
Though the Americans left their comfort zone to sleep in tents and battle bugs in Third World conditions, the rewards came from seeing how they had helped the people.
“The community wants to welcome you and they’re willing to open their homes and share anything they have,” Torres said. “It’s very different from what you experience over here. It’s not a front. They want to be your friends and want to know you and know about where you’re from.”
Despite the community’s welcoming spirit, cultural and tribal traditions can make even basic improvements like solar wells a difficult sell in Kenya. The community leaders were against the manipulation of certain wells they considered sacred. Gaido has learned to work within the tribal systems instead of trying to supplant them.
“They have social and historical constructs that are hard for us to understand,” he says. “Tribal law supercedes even national law.”
Although he’s received the occasional donation for his trips, Gaido primarily self-funds his work missions to Kenya. He traveled to Oyani in 2008 with Shasta Cascade Habitat for Humanity CEO Jim Koenigsaecker.
He spends much of his own money to travel and do the work, but dodges the spotlight being placed on him.
“I’ve made a lot of friends and I continue to go back,” he says. “I’d say it’s the antithesis of the Christian model, because my motivation is selfish. I know I’m going to receive multitudes more than any sacrifice I make. In fact, I don’t consider the trips sacrifices at all.”
Gaido loves the rawness and wildness of Kenya and the feeling of being “the observed” not the observer in the game parks there. When he and his wife Monique went to the country for their honeymoon, he recalls a time when she was brushing her teeth and suddenly realized she was being watched by a giraffe. In his Peace Corps days and thereafter, he relishes the memory of traveling with a budget of $2.50 a day.
Gaido picked Kenya after spending some “dark times” working in Los Angeles sprawl, he said.
“I picked the furthest point away from L.A. on the globe,” he says. “But when I arrived there, I discovered that it was the same person who was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairwell — me.”
Jim Dyar is a news, arts and entertainment journalist for A News Cafe and the former arts and entertainment editor for the Record Searchlight’s D.A.T.E. section. Jim is also a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.