THE BLOG
08/31/2015 11:39 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

Revisiting Kenya

The president's "tough love" visit to his father's homeland underscores some of the persistent challenges that remain for my onetime home.

President Obama's recent visit to Kenya put his ancestral home into the international spotlight, bringing scrutiny to a nation that has come a long way on many fronts, but still has many challenges to overcome. This country of 44 million people labors to feed itself while also struggling to shed the vestiges of several unacceptable cultural traditions.

I should confess to having a sentimental connection to Kenya. The president's trip summoned many memories of my Peace Corps days there, in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Kenya is where I was married and, years later, the birthplace of my son. This summer, many of the 40 volunteers in my class got together for our 35th reunion. Besides reminding us all of how much we have changed over the years, the photos we shared brought back memories of both the kindness of the people and the daily hardships they bore then and continue to endure, especially in the remote area I called home. I lived in a mud hut, worked with a great deal of enthusiasm and idealism (and some naiveté) to educate mothers about proper health and nutrition. By the end of my Peace Corps assignment, I made the conscious decision that this would be my life's work, a profession that up until that time I hadn't known existed.

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to visit the eastern African nation and see firsthand the fits and starts of progress. On the one hand, the country has made some headway in reducing the proportion of people living in poverty - down over the last quarter-century from 43 to 34 percent. They also have made strides in educating their children. Primary school enrollment rose from about 6 million in 2000 to more than 10 million as of 2013. These are important and significant steps forward.

And yet many challenges persist. As a nation stricken with regular periods of extended drought (it rained only once in my village the two years I lived there), Kenya struggles to feed its people. Over the last half-century, an area the size of France in the northern part of Africa has become desert. At the same time, increases in population have led to a spike in development, displacing what was once agricultural land.

Amid these challenges, however, we are helping plant seeds of hope - in the literal sense.

ChildFund International is administering an initiative called the Food for Assets program, funded by the United Nations World Food Program. It provides families with food and goods in exchange for their work building irrigation systems and community gardens, and by doing so enables participating villages to feed and sustain themselves. On one of my last visits there, outside one village, I was taken aback by an oasis of green vegetation - such a stark contrast to the Kenya I had known three decades ago. I strolled through acres of "shambas" (vegetable gardens) where local women tended to spinach, tomatoes, green peppers, okra, watermelons, kale, maize and snow peas. In all, more than 20,000 people are participating in the Food for Assets program. Admittedly, it is not a large number amid a nation of millions, but it is a model that works and that can be replicated with the proper commitment.

ChildFund has learned that lasting change must start at a community level, and that we must foster relationships of trust as the basis for introducing new ways of thinking. That also is a critical component in helping Kenya move beyond a number of cultural traditions that are inhibiting the country's - and other African nations', for that matter - progress and opportunity. President Obama seized the occasion of his visit to deliver some tough love on this topic to his Kenyan hosts. Using his bully pulpit, he decried a culture where sexual assault, domestic violence, genital mutilation and the early or forced marriage of children are accepted as tradition. "These traditions may date back centuries," the president said, [but] "they have no place in the 21st century." He also reminded his audience that restricting children, especially girls, from going to school not only hinders their own progress as individuals but constrains the collective progress of the Kenyan people.

These are critically important issues to us at ChildFund and to other NGOs working throughout the continent to help shape lasting change. The protection of children is a paramount priority, and a nation like Kenya that is seeking a position of leadership within Africa must lead by example. Our work at the community level, side by side with village elders and families, is helping engender greater understanding of how important child protection is in creating a healthy foundation on which the nation's children can grow.

The president's visit to Kenya not only served to resurrect some personal memories, but it also provided a timely reminder of issues that continue to impede the country's progress. As Kenya learns to harness a capacity to feed its children, it must move just as aggressively to embrace their safety and well-being. Only when they are successful on both fronts will Kenya find a productive path forward.