Friday, September 30, 2011

KENYA: The Constitution, Widows and Orphans

"We have one of the best-- if not the best -- constitutions in the world today," said Ambassador Elkanah Odembo, Kenya's emissary to the United States. In Charlottesville at the invitation of the African Development Project at St. Paul's Memorial Church, Ambassador Odembo is an old friend of the church and Charlottesville.

Beginning in the 1988, when he worked for World Neighbors in Kenya, Odembo visited Charlottesville to talk about the work of that nongovernmental organization. Educated at Bowdoin College in Maine and the University of Texas, he had returned to his native Kenya.
Sue Rainey, who met Odembo in the 1980s and introduced him Friday night, said she followed his career because she knew this young man was going to make a difference.

An advocate for social justice, Odembo found himself fighting the Kenyan government. Eventually, government leadership began to change, and Odembo became part of that change, participating in a Constitutional Convention to rewrite Kenya's Constitution.

"It is a revolutionary constitution," he claimed, covering not only the basic human rights of free speech, religious freedom and civil rights but also guaranteeing the basic needs of human beings for food, health care, water and shelter.

With this framework, he explained, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like World Neighbors and others can more appropriately serve the needs of others.

Kenya has also improved the status of women in Kenya, providing them with rights that they lacked only a few years ago. For example, women can now own property rather than being considered the "property" of their husbands to be inherited by brothers-in-law when they are widowed.

He also explained that Kenya is in the process of creating more local governments in the newly created 47 counties (like our states). The Ambassador believes that the tribal wars of 2007-08 are a thing of the past and that Kenya over the next 10 years will be working to improve its infrastructure of roads and access to electricity. He predicts that Kenya will become the first country to depend totally on renewable energy, and he anticipates that geothermal energy production will reach 10,000 megawatts.

In response to questions, the ambassador said that Kenya is working to reforest its lands which in recent years had been reduced from 10% tree cover to 3%. He noted the work of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Wangari Maathai (who died earlier this month) to reforest Kenya. Currently, the nation is reforesting at the rate of 70,000,000 trees per year. It also has passed a law requiring farmers to allocate 10% of their land to trees.

The Ambassador also said the Kenya would not close its borders to Somalis fleeing the famine. Currently, its camp on the Somali border, built for 80,000, holds 560,000 refugees, mostly women and children. The camp is the fourth largest settlement in Kenya, after Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa.

In addition to the Ambassador, the Rev. James Ouma spoke about the Nyalwodep Project for Orphans which pairs orphans (resulting from the HIV deaths of their parents) with widows, most of whose spouses died from HIV. Currently the west Kenyan project is supporting 65 widows and 120 children. There are schools for the children and occupational training for the widows. His too is an inspiring project and one of several that is sponsored by the African Development Project.

Later, in October, the Rev. Peter Indalo, leader of the Oyani Christian Rural Services in western Kenya, will also be speaking in Charlottesville. His is another of the projects along with Kitui Development Center that receives funding through the African Development Project, which includes many citizens in Charlottesville but which has been a partnership between St. Paul's and Trinity Episcopal Churches. Sphere: Related Content



Joseph Passonneau, a renowned American architect-engineer, died in Washington, D.C. in late August at the age of 90. Among his accomplishments was his design of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado as well as his ability to persuade a timid St. Louis political hierarchy that the controversial Arch would be a successful gateway to the West.

In the late 1980s, Passonneau also worked on Charlottesville’s gateway: U.S. 29 North. In fact, his proposed urban expressway became so controversial that “expressway” became a pejorative word in Charlottesville transportation lexicology. It shouldn’t be.

In his 1988 report, Passonneau pointed out that it was possible to design “large urban roads that delight the communities in which they are built,” and he envisioned such an expressway for through traffic on 29 with adjacent and parallel landscaped local traffic lanes. (The recent Places 29 Plan proposed a similar design but avoided the “expressway” term.)

Passonneau analyzed the various bypass pathways, including his own adjustments to an urban expressway expediting southbound traffic through Charlottesville and connecting to 29 South via the 250 Bypass. The design built on the so called “base case” traffic improvements of grade-separated interchanges to foster the flow of local east-west auto and pedestrian traffic at Hydraulic and Rio Roads with crossover roads at other points like Greenbrier Drive and Shoppers World.

Such an urban expressway, Passonneau pointed out, would take 242 fewer acres than the proposed bypass, destroy no residences, farm, forest or subdivision land, and impact less business land than any of the bypass pathways. Certainly, an urban expressway would be the least environmentally-damaging option.

Despite Passonneau’s vision, neither he nor his proponents (the Piedmont Environmental Council and Supervisor Tim Lindstrom among the most vocal) could convince the powerful North 29 business owners that a more attractive roadway not only would provide a better solution for local and through traffic but also would serve long term economic interests by creating a more attractive 29 business district. After all, in addition to the local lanes along 29, the network of parallel roads to serve local traffic would include Hillsdale and Commonwealth Drives. That would allow development of an expanded business district– not just the 29 strip.

At the time, however, the 250 interchange flyway, perhaps most controversial piece, was criticized as having too large a footprint. Yet Passonneau had designed it and the rest of the roadway to national safety standards, not to VDOT’s more gargantuan scale. In fact, the 1988 design has no larger a footprint than the Bypass/250 flyway now proposed (and shown in 3D modelling on the Charlottesville Tomorrow website).

Passonneau's urban expressway (and its later version in Places 29) were nixed largely by those representing local business interests, which have evidenced in the 29 discussion little imagination, creativity, or commitment to the region's long-term economic health.

Glenwood Canyon above the Colorado River was a far more difficult engineering challenge and an even more controversial project. Nevertheless, Passonneau’s design preserved and even improved on the terracing above the Colorado River, weaving a 12-mile highway through tunnels and bridges to complete I-70. The result is a beautiful, functional, and scenic highway, which earned Passonneau a Presidential Award for Design Excellence.

Here, in Charlottesville, state politicians have engineered (pardon the pun) a political decision to build a western bypass that will cut through the rural landscape, including Stillhouse Mountain and the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, impact beautiful residential areas and several schools while spending between $240 - 500 million of taxpayer dollars for just six miles of road ($40/million a mile at the lowest estimate)– while removing just 10 percent of the traffic from 29 Business. The interchanges, by contrast, would cost $40-50 million apiece.

If we want a real solution to local and state traffic issues through Charlottesville, one need look no further than to the vision of Passonneau. If Glenwood Canyon could benefit from this excellent designer-architect, why shouldn’t Charlottesville get a landscaped gateway that welcomes visitors to the uniqueness of Jefferson’s country?

Over 35 years ago, Charlottesville invited another visionary, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, to design the Downtown Mall. Despite naysayers in the business community, the Mall thrives thanks in large part to Halprin’s vision and the leadership of the two Councilors who voted aye on the then-controversial issue: Charles Barbour and Mitch Van Yahres.

An urban expressway on 29 would transform an Everyplace USA strip mall road to vindicate Passonneau’s vision, but more importantly, it would be a true testimonial to the long range vision of our local and state leaders.

Will the expressway design be revived? Probably not.

But imagine what could happen if we could scrap the special interests to execute a truly win-win solution not only for transportation and beauty, but also for business, for the community, and for the Commonwealth. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Day for World Peace: Reflecting on Thomas Merton

I attended a world peace commemoration at St. Paul's Memorial Church this afternoon and then enjoyed a community dinner with a large crowd of St. Paul's parishioners and other community members.

Rather than stay for a film, I came home to watch a DVD documentary about the life of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer whose books I had read frequently 30-40 years ago.

It was a fitting day to remember Merton. Although he had converted to Catholicism as a young adult, then to joining Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky, over time he came to believe there could be no separation between the secular and the sacred.

Although he craved solitude, he also sought out holy persons from other religious traditions -- the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama and others. By studying their traditions, he came closer to his own. He believed that the religious person had to be engaged with the issues of the time -- for him -- and also for me -- nuclear war, racism and the War in Vietnam. He inspired thousands of young people from the '60s to this day.

In the film, Merton is quoted from one of his essays: he stands at an intersection of a shopping district in Louisville, Kentucky, suddenly realizing that he is at one with all the people walking past. He had experienced the oneness with humanity that many of us only talk about. From that vantage point, he had to be care about social issues.

One of the exercises we did at St. Paul's was to write on a sheet of paper:

What would peace look like?

My response:

Every person would have a home.

Strangers would be no more; we would greet one another with respect and caring.

We would listen to one another, especially when we disagree.

Egos would be left at the door.

Our politicians--local, state, national, and international-- would reflect us: they too would seek to listen to one another, to resolve issues with respect for the other's opinion when it differs from their own, and they also would leave their egos at the door.

Sphere: Related Content