NAIROBI, Kenya - I just returned from traveling with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to visit their projects in various parts of Kenya, and I have fallen hard in love with this beautiful country. One thing that struck me as I admired the lush vegetation along the way is that poverty should not be an issue for Kenya - and its people should not suffer from food insecurity. However, thousands of Kenyans have no idea where their next meal will come from - and WFP is currently providing food assistance to 1.8 million people here.
During my travels I came across some wonderful programs. One of the most inspiring is a project that works with people affected by HIV/AIDs: AMPATH (Academic Model Providing Access to Health Care) is a partnership between Indiana University's School of Medicine and Kenya's Moi University School of Medicine. Taking a holistic approach, AMPATH goes far beyond providing "just" healthcare - strengthening livelihoods and also working with the local community to take away some of the shame and stigma associated with HIV/AIDs.
Because of the important role that nutrition plays in management of the disease, AMPATH has partnered with WFP to provide food assistance to HIV-positive people and their families. AMPATH programs also seek to strengthen their food and economic security by developing demonstration farms to teach subsistence farmers to boost agricultural output using relevant and sustainable farming techniques. This has enabled them to grow enough food for their families and to have surpluses - which they in turn are now selling to WFP. Where once they were receiving food assistance from WFP, they have now become WFP's suppliers ..... Amazing! These people may be dependent on their medication, but they are certainly not dependent on aid.
This brings me to one of the important aspects of assistance: that it should not be permanent. Instead, it should be structured to help people move from assistance to being able to depend on themselves. And I have seen how this principle is written into many of WFP projects in Kenya. One of these programs is the Purchase for Progress program, popularly referred to as P4P. Through P4P, WFP is using its purchasing power to promote agricultural development and improve market access for small-holder farmers. It is through P4P that WFP is buying food commodities from the people at AMPATH, thus providing not only a market for surpluses, but also encouraging farmers to grow more food.
On Thursday, I went to Isiolo district in the arid heart of Kenya. There, in a small village known as Gambella, I found women of various ethnic groups working - and dancing - together. I was invited to dance and I could not resist; if I had known how much dancing I was going to do in Kenya, I would have taken a few dancing classes before my visit!
What was striking, apart from the dancing, was that the various tribes the women belonged to have a history of hostility; yet today, they have been brought together by a need to improve their lives through a WFP program known as Food for Assets (FFA). FFA works with vulnerable communities by providing food in exchange for the work they put in to develop food security projects. The women at Gambella were working together on a project to harvest rainwater, which would otherwise have run off - taking precious fertile soil with it. Now, they are using the water they have harvested for their livestock and for irrigation, thereby improving their food security.
I also saw this disregard for division along tribal lines at the local school that I visited where children from various communities have been united by the school meal provided by WFP. Here, the children are learning harmoniously - with no obvious tribal distinction among them. The school meal, which is supported by the United States government's McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, provides a safety net for hungry children so they get at least one nutritious meal a day; it also encourages them to enroll and remain in school for a better future.
Having seen WFP and other US-supported projects throughout the week, I thought that I would leave the country with just fond memories of Kenya. I was wrong and was in for a pleasant surprise when the Masai community honored me by appointing me a community elder. I am told that this is a very dignified and honored position because in the conservative Masai community, the elders are the decision-makers and are consulted before any important decision is made. I will, however, have to depend on the other elders who know the culture of the Masai to avoid giving misleading counsel!