A relationship first forged in the mid-1990s later paved the way for a collaborative partnership between Minneapolis and Kenya.
Retired Judge LaJune Lange began working with a Kenyan lawyer in 1994. “She [the lawyer] indicated that they would like more African Americans to work in Africa,” Lange recalls.
During a visit, Lange was introduced to Peter Ole Sabay, who took her and her group through Eldoret, a city of over 200,000, “to look at that area and look at the needs,” adds Lange. “From that meeting, we came back to Minnesota, determined to create a long-term relationship.”
The Sister Cities program was created in 2000 by Lange’s organization, the International Leadership Institute (ILI), and a “formal agreement” between the Minneapolis City Council and Eldoret was later signed.
“We will work together for one another’s benefit,” claims Lange. “That
[agreement] allowed us to demonstrate formally our commitment to Africa.”
Eldoret “is a sprawling city [that] is as big as Minneapolis,” says Lange. Among its key industries include knitting mills and flowers, especially roses.
“The flower industry thrives in Africa when it is too cold to grow [them] in Europe,” she points out. “They [also] have a lot of farming and a lot of large game reserves in the area.”
It also is the “center of long-distance running” for Kenya, continues Lange. Legendary runner Kip Keno lives there and established a running center in Eldoret, she adds.
Among the Kenyan city’s top concerns are fire safety, health care and access to schools, Lange says. “They don’t have a modern fire service. They have one [fire] truck that probably is from the 1950s. The only modern fire truck they have is at the airport.”
After a 2008 church fire that killed 30 people, Eldoret officials asked about fire equipment during a visit to Minneapolis. The City Council approved the donation of a 22-year-old fire truck that the city wasn’t using, and both Eldoret and ILI raised funds to get it from here to there.
It took several months, beginning last fall, to deliver the 22-year-old truck from Minneapolis: “It is a huge, heavy vehicle,” says Lange of the 15-ton truck. “So we had to sit down and figure out the best logistics because Minnesota is not near the ocean. We had to get the truck to the ocean, and then to an ocean-going carrier.”
A flatbed truck transported it from Minneapolis to Baltimore, and then the fire truck was shipped by sea to Kenya. “I flew to Kenya in January…to make sure that the fire truck got out of the port, and [then] actually into Eldoret,” surmises the retired judge of the 12-week process. “They [Eldoret officials] were able to get it out of [port] and drive it to Eldoret.”
Having the truck has “totally changed the community,” she adds, and plans are underway to raise funds for local firefighters to go to Kenya to provide training “to really run this fire truck at optimal use” later this year.
There were many people who worked on the project, including Ole Sabay, who initiated it, and two former Eldoret mayors, says ILI Coordinator Coventry Cowens. He came to the ILI for support and help and has worked with him for about 15 years, Cowens adds.
Furthermore, the Minneapolis-Eldoret connection is not a “tell them how to do things” relationship but a true collaboration between the African and African American communities, explains Cowens, who also has visited Kenya several times. “It is not our intent to ever come in and say this is what needs to be done, and this is how you should run your country, city, village or whatever,” she stresses.
“The projects we take on are brought to us, and we look at them for the sustainability,” Cowens continues. “Then we try to connect them with resources. Sometimes it takes a year, or two years, or maybe three years or more.” Eldoret city officials have traveled to Minneapolis on several occasions and met with city officials, small business owners and others, Covens says.
Lange adds that the collaboration also includes citizens as well. “We have taken ordinary families and children from Minneapolis to Eldoret to stay in the homes of their African counterparts, and learn about their culture and build relationships,” Lange says. “Then the African people from Eldoret and other parts of Kenya also come to Minnesota, and stay in our homes and talk with us.
“This has been 10 years of exchanges. It has really opened a world of opportunity and new information for both young people and their parents.”
It also helped erase several misconceptions, especially about the African continent. “Kenya has a beautiful climate, and people [visiting] can adjust very easily – even if it is their first trip to Africa – and can have an incredible experience. [On the other hand], people in Africa like the opportunity to broaden their horizons…[and] they can bring ideas home to improve their situation.”
“Minneapolis is benefiting in a way that they are getting to know a different part of the world,” notes Cowens. “[The people of Eldoret] have the same desires and needs as [people in Minneapolis]… There are some similarities that they can assist each other with.
“The bottom line is that it is all about relationship building. You can’t build sustainable programs or projects without a real understanding with the people you are working with.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record er.com.