Kenya: Building peace and greening the desert in Turkana

Supporters Winifred Patterson, Breda Williams, Nora & John Swift, & Gerry Kirby with Fr Albert & Fr Denis at Our Lady Help of Christians, north London

Supporters Winifred Patterson, Breda Williams, Nora & John Swift, & Gerry Kirby with Fr Albert & Fr Denis at Our Lady Help of Christians, north London

Westminster priest Fr Albert Salvans, who runs the Missionary Community of St Paul the Apostle, (MCSPA) in Lobur, on the edge of the Turkana desert in northwest Kenya, visited London last week and spoke with ICN about the work of the mission.

The region is home to about a million people, 60% of whom follow a nomadic life. In recent years it has been badly affected by drought, severe food shortages, and tribal conflicts, resulting in an influx of refugees. The mission, which runs many agricultural, water, health and education projects has now become involved in a major new diocesan-wide peace initiative, and an innovative agricultural project in collaboration with two Israeli charities.

Peace Across Borders

For years, tensions have been increasing in the drought-stricken region as nomadic tribes, entirely dependant on their animals for survival have been forced to compete for dwindling water and pastureland. Companies drilling for oil in the South Sudan are taking more land out of reach of the pastoralists.Those tensions, combined with a traditional practice among Dassenach tribe which encourages young men to kill as part of their initiation into adulthood, has resulted in several tragic deaths. Fr Albert said: "We are trying to change all that. It's like a primitive Old Testament practice of sacrifice. Jesus changed that once and for all and this is what we hope to teach them... But there are no simple answers. We educate people but then there are no jobs. If there are no jobs they become the first trouble makers."

Last year the Bishop of Lodwar, Bishop Dominic Kimengich and Fr Albert, invited all the bishops to Lodwar for the Golden Jubilee of the diocese. "We realised all our borders have problems and wanted to discuss what we could do together. Seven bishops from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya arrived, and in total 100 people were at the meeting, entitled: 'Peace Across Borders' .

"We want action and not talk" said Fr Albert. "There have been so many initiatives. NGOs have organised meetings with elders - they offer food and people come and talk and then they go. There has been no co-ordinated approach. We as a Church are fed up. There has been such a loss of hope, many deaths, then revenge killings and a general sense of fear and insecurity. We met as a Church to look at what we could do. We decided to take an integrated action starting at grass roots.

"After the meeting Bishop Dominic Kimengich contacted all parish priests and all communities on our borders. People were brought together in clusters, looking at 'connection projects' such as boreholes, dispensaries, schools, prayer meetings, markets and sports events, involving people from the different tribes" Fr Albert said. The initiative hasn't been easy. "Sometimes you start a meeting and then you hear a shootout and have to postpone."

Altogether ten meetings took place. The organisers are setting up some basic infrastructures, building up to more permanent projects and training organisers.

"Bishop Dominic said: 'Why didn't we do this before?' The whole problem looked so complicated we didn't know how to deal with things. It just took a spark for the idea to get started."

The next plenary takes place from 9-12 December. Bishop Dominic wants to invite bishops from Kenyan Bishops Conference, and hopes in future the programme can be repeated in other parts of Africa.

Furrows in the Desert

Fr Albert has a been in charge of the community since its founder, Fr Paco died in February this year. His daily routine begins at 6.15 in the morning when he spends some time working in the mission garden, which supplies much of their food.

Food production in Turkana has received a huge boost recently with the arrival of a group of scientists who are experts in desert agriculture from the Arava Centre for Sustainable Development in Israel, and volunteers from Brit Olam (everlasting covenant) a farm manager and two workers, staying for six month periods and training local people in desert farming methods. Fr Albert said: "Their expertise is unique in the world."

"At first people were't so interested but after the first group of 15 people finished in March, and went back into their communities with their new skills, more have come forward. We now have another 15 in training. In three years we hope to have 340 trained farmers."

Fr Albert said they are hoping to develop about 100 plots, in order to grow enough food to feed people with surplus to sell. "The places we have chosen to work have great food shortage and depend on Oxfam and other other aid agencies to survive," he said.

Fr Albert praised the Israelis, saying: "They are so hardworking and disciplined. They don't get paid. We celebrate each other's festivals - Jewish, Catholic and Animist festivals. It is really edifying to be be with them.

"The Israelis are doing this as a ten year project. Their graduates go on to train others. They are giving people long term support , a crucial part of the programme. In the second phase they want to grow date palms and pomegranates along the lakeshore. Lake Turkana is a huge body of alkaline water. Dates and pomegranates thrive there and don't need refrigeration. Their first date and pomegranate harvest should come in about five years time. "management isn;t simple" he said. "Date trees have to be manually pollinated."

The project also needs funding. Father Albert explained: "We need £350,000 per year to keep the show on the road - paying for staff and equipment.

How did they discover the Israeli scientists? Fr Albert explained that he and a fellow priest went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and stayed on a kibbutz. There, by chance they met Dr Mike Naftali chair of the volunteer charity Brit Olam. In January 2010 the charity came to Turkana on a fact finding mission. He said: "They couldn't believe a Christian community in such a remote place was building dams, wind farms, schools, clinics, growing vegetables and so forth. So they introduced us to the experts at ARAVA. We went in June 2010 to Israel and in May 2011 came up with the proposal. In 2012 we started the project.

"The Israelis said they have been given so much help over the past 60 years they want to share their expertise. When we planned our visit to the Holy Land we had no idea where it would lead. God is so merciful!"

The mission is being supported in the UK by the charity New Ways. If you would like to support their work, please make a donation to: or send a cheque to: New Ways, 47, Cumberland Street, London SW1V 4LY

Tags: Arava Centre for Sustainable Development, Bishop Dominic Kimengich, Bishop of Lodwar, Brit Olem, Fr Albert Salvans, New Ways, Peggy Campbell, Turkana

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