Visitor notes vast differences between U.S. And Africa, Former Woodmere head now improving life for Kenyans

Featured Post, Local Life April 21, 2011 0 Comments

Visitor notes vast differences between U.S. And Africa, Former Woodmere head now improving life for Kenyans

by Barbara Sherf

Former Hiller Vivian Gast, her niece, Gabrielle Wagner, a Radnor native and Peace Corps volunteer, and Josphat Macharia, founder and director of the Ndabibi Environmental Conservation Centre (NECC) in Kenya, are seen discussing fundraising activities at Gast's Ambler home. Gast and her husband, Bill, hosted 80 area residents there this past weekend, introducing Macharia on his first US visit. (Photo by Barbara Sherf)

It has been a whirlwind week for former Board President of the Woodmere Art Museum and former Chestnut Hill resident, Vivian Gast, and her husband, Bill, who hosted 70 people at their Ambler home during a horrendous storm on Saturday to raise funds for the Ndabibi Environmental Conservation Center (NECC). As of Sunday, the couple reached their goal of raising $8,000, and it appears they will go beyond that goal.

The journey will continue for another week as they host and take Josphat Macharia of Kenya, founder and director of NECC, to local environmental centers including the Weavers Way Farm at Awbury Arboretum, the Pennypack Farm and Alliance Center, and Morris Arboretum. NECC is considered a model for environmental conservation, teaching best practices in sustainable agriculture. Macharia spent two weeks in San Francisco before arriving in Ambler last week. In his first visit to the U.S., Macharia spoke of the culture shock. “I just had my first cheesesteak,” he laughed. “It was different. Good, but different.”

Macharia noted the many differences between the U.S. and Africa. First and foremost is the road system. They are so smooth here, and they all connect. At home most are dirt roads that have been washed out and filled with dips and craters. It is very easy to damage your vehicle,” he added, noting that he often organizes unemployed young men to fix the roads, particularly when it could mean the loss of life.

If there is a sick person at the top of a hill, and I have to get to them with my outreach van to take them to the hospital, the road must be safe for me to make it to and from that point. I will work alongside the young men with my tools to fix the roads so that we do not damage the vehicle.”

The vehicle, a used Toyota van, was purchased through money raised in a previous fundraising effort by the Gast family and friends last year. “He was doing all of his work and outreach on a bicycle. We realized he needed a vehicle to spread the word and educate neighboring villages,” said Vivian Gast.

Josphat demonstrates how to plant a tree seedling to a group of children from an impoverished village in Kenya, East Africa. Tress and water are crucial to the survival of the villagers, who have no modern conveniences.

She and her husband were introduced to Macharia when they traveled to Kenya in 2004 to visit their niece, Gabrielle “Gabby” Wagner, who was in the Peace Corps there. Ever since then, the Gasts have been instrumental in fundraising in the U.S. towards several infrastructure projects including the installation of solar energy technology in 2007, construction of an 18,000-gallon water retention tank in 2008, and most recently, the purchase of the outreach vehicle.

Gabrielle, who grew up in Radnor, entered the Peace Corps in 2003 for a three-year tour, and the Gasts visited NEEC in 2004 and again in 2008. “I had always wanted to go to Africa, and now we had an excuse to go,” said Gast in her sun-filled, historic stone home as Wagner and Macharia listened. “There were so many needs, including just basic water and firewood. We started prioritizing the needs and raising funds to address them one by one.”

Macharia was given a teaching position in Kenya, but he had no classroom in which to conduct lessons. “First we helped raise funds for a social hall-type classroom that housed a TV monitor, DVD and VCR. Next up was a gas generator to run the electronic equipment. Our initial gift of several thousand dollars went far because Josphat is a clever man who respects the money,” she said. “Then he built a cow shed, a rabbit hutch and goat shed.”

From then it was onto building an 18,000-gallon water tank for use on five-acre farm Macharia donated to NECC. Families grow crops on the land, using the water for irrigation, and sell the surplus crops so they can buy books and school clothes for their children.

Vivian Gast (right), former Board President at Woodmer Art Museum, and her husband, Bill (left), are seen with Josphat Macharia, of Kenya, who is currently visiting local environmental organizations, including the Morris Arboretum. (The three are seen here in front of an 18,000 gallon water tank in Kenya which the Gasts helped get constructed with their fundraising efforts.) More information at ndabibi.info@gmail.com.

In addition, NECC plants trees within the compound so they can harvest the wood for firewood, their main fuel source. As we sat in front of a fireplace in the Gast home, Macharia commented that they would never build a fire just to relax in front of it. “It would be a waste. We would use it to boil water or cook food,” he added. “I turn on the water here and turn it off very quickly; then I see an American leave the water on while going to get a pan or something from the refrigerator. It is crazy,” he said in his thick Kenyan accent and wide smile.

During his Saturday presentation, Gast says, Macharia used his humor and observations to entertain and educate the guests. “Josphat was brilliant. He talked about his astonishment at being shown my sister-in-law’s workout gym. He noted that Kenyans work out all day every day just to get by, so there is no need for a gym. The guests took to heart all that he said and were amazed at his accomplishments.”

Macharia shared that he is still trying to get used to the flush toilet. “There is so much water that goes down with every flush. It is incredible,” he added, noting that they have two rainy seasons in his country, and the rest of the time water is stored in the tank and used sparingly. “We use the water we have washed with to put down the toilet. That is our flush system.”

In November, 2007, NECC completed installation of solar panels, bringing electricity to the center for the first time. “There is no electric grid in rural Kenya,” he said. Last year, Macharia initiated a youth training program at the Centre, where mostly young men learn advanced practices in sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. “We want to replace the obsolete farming methods in the villages.” Last year, NECC served more than 900 youth and 900 adults from seven tribes at the center.

He said women do most of the work in a family. “I do domestic work like washing the children and cooking, but most Kenyan women do everything,” he said. Wagner added, “Yes; many of the men just lie under the trees napping when they are not farming,” explaining that most Kenyan men also practice polygamy, or the custom of having more than one spouse.

Wagner, who grew up in Radnor but now lives in Seattle, just finished law school and would like to embark on a career serving those in need of free and low-cost legal advice. She spent three years in Kenya after graduating from college with a degree in chemistry, mostly as a public health volunteer educating the people on water sanitation and HIV infection. “Kenyan people don’t speak openly about AIDS,” she said.

Macharia noted that in every lesson he gives he tries to teach about HIV and the importance of being tested. “I go and get tested about once a month, not because I need to, but I want to show the others that it is easy and that the results will be kept secret.”

Macharia works in cooperation with his wife, Tabitha, in the operation of the center, along with his three children, who help out when not in school.

The money raised toward this trip will go toward two specific goals.

Right now we are asking for individuals to sponsor a child for one week at $130, or three weeks at $390, allowing them to attend the Youth Training Programme, where they will learn sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. The second area most in need is the installation of sturdy fencing to keep predators and free-range cattle out of the compound. $10,000 is needed to secure the five-acre compound.”

To make a donation, make checks payable to African People & Wildlife Fund, c/o Vivian Gast, 1411 E. Butler Pike, Ambler, PA 19002-2731.

For more information abut NEEC, e-mail ndabibi.info@gmail.com.

Macharia will give a talk on Tuesday, April 26, 7 p.m., at Mid Atlantic Renewable Energy Association (MAREA) at TEK Park, 9999 Hamilton Blvd., Breinigsville, PA., www.themarea.org
Barbara Sherf can be reached at Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.

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