The College Magazine - Winter 2001
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Splendor in the grass roots: IU students reach out
by Philip Roessler

The same week five Indiana University students headed overseas to western Kenya, the cover article in The Economist magazine dismissed the African continent as “hopeless.” Citing examples of civil wars and corruption, mismanagement and bad governance, epidemics and famines, the author provided a bleak portrayal of the continent. This depiction is not entirely wrong, but it is one-sided. This summer, working in the remote regions of the Western Province of Kenya, five members of an IU student group providing HIV/AIDS education and development support, Outreach Kenya Development Volunteers, discovered something remarkable — the other half of the story.

The author right, with the Reb. Reuben Lubanga.
      In our second-hand Isuzu Trooper we made our way down the rural road, which seemed more like a dried riverbed. It looked as if a vehicle had not been down this road in years. After an hour of travel, we began to doubt there even existed a secondary school this far in the interior. But the Rev. Reuben Lubanga, the director of the grass-roots Kenyan counterpart organization to our IU student group, reassured us that he had been here before and that we were on the right path.

      We had already finished a lengthy HIV/AIDS awareness program in the morning, including a demonstration on proper condom use, awareness films, and a question-and-answer session. We were hungry and lightheaded since we had not eaten anything all day except some bread and margarine at breakfast. The Trooper had reached its maximum capacity with seven bodies, a TV/VCR, and a power generator. It was tempting to give up trying to find the place, or to make up some excuse why we never made it, like that we had car trouble or someone became sick. But we continued to slowly make our way over the rough road, inspired partly by the beauty of the scenery — with the Ugandan hills in the distance, the surrounding maize fields, and the remoteness of where we were — but more by the thought of the hundreds of people who were anxiously waiting for us and who would be devastated if we never came.

      When we finally arrived at Ndakaru Primary and Secondary School, we were welcomed with great fanfare: singing, dancing, and traditional music. After this hospitable greeting, the excitement and self-confidence evident in the people did not wane, but continued as we set up the TV and generator for the lecture and discussion on HIV/AIDS. They sang songs and were eager to show off a drama they had prepared that warned of the dangers of the deadly virus.

      The drama was not long, perhaps 10 minutes, but it was an excellent introduction to our HIV/AIDS awareness program. It increased the crowd’s attentiveness by depicting the stark realities of HIV and introducing facts about the fatal disease. The audience responded with great interest, laughing at the sexual innuendoes and at the actors’ portrayals of the village elders. As the play ended, however, a new mood swept through the room. The lively and good-humored crowd became much more solemn as the larger implications of the play, and the overall health crisis, began to set in.

      But to me the drama illustrated a different theme — that here in the most isolated parts of Kenya, where international donor money does not reach, where government programs do not go, the people rely on themselves to address the obstacles to development. If no one will provide this community with the resources to fight the exponential spread of HIV, they will create their own programs.

      What occurred at Ndakaru School was not an aberration. In the past two summers we have seen many groups in the Western Province exhibit an impressive degree of self-reliance and enthusiasm. We saw this in the drama produced at Sangalo Secondary School and in the drama we saw performed at Muanda Church, which warned of the dangers of wife-inheritance and other cultural practices. In Webuye, we ran into an awareness team using humor and drama to break the silence and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and STDs. While the Western press highlights the dismal failures and corruption of the leaders and the elites in the African countries, they are overlooking the resilience of the people at the grass-roots level. We continued to meet groups of Kenyans who refuse to remain idle, who refuse to wait for someone from the outside to give them a grant or a four-wheel drive vehicle, who have taken matters into their own hands. As we surveyed women’s groups to see how we could help foster their small businesses and microenterprise programs, we discovered incredibly dynamic organizations. We met a group of widows who through the profits from a shared small business helped each other build their houses and continue to help pay the school fees for their children. We encountered a group that concentrates on organic farming and uses plants and other natural ingredients to make herbicides and fertilizers. They have begun to teach others in their community their techniques. We toured a school that another women’s group built and runs; we crossed a bridge constructed by yet another. Throughout the Western Province of Kenya, these women’s groups, which receive no outside assistance, surviving only on what each woman contributes or what they gain from their collective small-business or farms, are introducing sustainable development projects in their communities. Though many have small ongoing projects, their visions are large and their determination cannot be swayed. Many talk of changing the health-care systems or improving the roads, communication, and other infrastructure. They are tired of waiting for the government to fulfill false promises.

Even a real trooper needs a break every now and then.
Even a real trooper needs a break every now and then.


      Coming across the HIV/AIDS drama teams and working with the women’s groups is an inspiring experience; to meet these groups and to forget them is impossible. But we were not surprised to discover the enterprising and self-confident nature of the Kenyan people in our travels because we had already seen these characteristics displayed in Reuben Lubanga, our Kenyan host and director of Intercommunity Development Involvement. Lubanga is a quiet and humble man, but his commitment to development work in western Kenya has created a stir of excitement. It is living, working, and traveling with him that makes the summer an extraordinary experience. After using his organization’s first grant in the fall of 1998 to buy a TV/VCR, generator, and health awareness films, Lubanga started using a wheelbarrow to ferry them to various local schools and churches to increase the awareness of HIV/AIDS — sometimes trundling the wheelbarrow as far as 15 kilometers! Lubanga’s unwavering dedication and selflessness — placing the interest of his community far above his personal interest — have led to his emergence as one of the most respected people in the Western Province of Kenya.

      But Lubanga does not exploit his reputation or slacken his workload. To this day, ICODEI, working with OKDV and using the same TV/VCR and generator that Lubanga bought more than two years ago, has managed to educate more than 30,000 Kenyans on the transmission and prevention of HIV and AIDS. This past summer, we were able to buy a used Isuzu Trooper and expand our projects to work with women’s groups and to build a public library. (We have just secured the arrival of 1,600 pounds of library books that arrived in western Kenya in mid-August.)

      In working with Lubanga, the women’s groups, and the HIV/AIDS drama teams, we realized that an abundance of hope does exist in Kenya. And this hope resides in the people — the people who live in the grass roots, who are self-confident, resilient, and unnoticed, but who continue to develop and improve their communities. It is this group of people that Outreach Kenya Development Volunteers will continue to work with hand in hand, and it is with these people Kenya’s future rests — a future that is much brighter than many realize.

After reading a series of articles in the New York Times about the AIDS epidemic, Phil Roessler, a senior majoring in political science, co-founded Outreach Kenya Development Volunteers with Hank Selke, BA’99, a biochemistry major who is now enrolled in medical school. Roessler’s summer in Kenya was partially funded by a grant from the IU Science, Technology, and Research Scholars Program. For more information about OKDV and its Kenyan partner, ICODEI, go to www.iub.edu/~okdv.


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