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African sisters


In 1988, a citizens' group from Seattle headed for the town of Limbe in Cameroon on the west coast of Africa to see if the two communities wanted to become sister cities. Dr. Millie Russell described her first impressions: "It was very busy. Lots of people. Luxuriant with trees and green growth." Guides took them from the airport to a hotel by the ocean, where they were plied with fresh sea bass. As one of the trip members put it, "we liked the water and the good fish but their kindness was what impressed me the most."

Since then, the Seattle-Limbe Sister City Association has made valuable contributions towards life in Limbe. The group delivered a refurbished truck packed with medical supplies. It has provided a school with textbooks and band instruments, and sent used computers.

Sister city relationships allow ordinary people in the US to get involved in the developing world and help improve other people's lives. Larger cities often take on many sister cities and view them as a source of civic pride.

The relationship between Amesbury, Massachusetts, and the village of Esabulu, Kenya, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Amesbury is a small (pop. 14,000), mostly white, suburban community. Mark Bean, a local physician and one of the instigators of "Amesbury for Africa," says the relationship began during the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. High school kids held a fundraiser but wanted to know for sure how the funds would be used. As it proved impractical to form a relationship with an Ethiopian community, they chose one from neighboring Kenya because they met a Kenyan from that area who acted as a go-between.

Inhabitants of Amesbury use French Intensive vegetable gardening, a practice developed in the 1820s on the outskirts of Paris that increases soil fertility through sustained manuring. The practice is useful in Africa, especially to a densely populated rural area with 1,000 people per square kilometer, insufficient food production and no money for fertilizer. Two Kenyan farmers worked on Amesbury farms as trainees, returning home to Kenya to teach others.

Another personal effort came from an Amesbury clergyman, Rev. Mike Shirley, who wanted to spread the work of the Heifer Project International (HPI). HPI is an international NGO that provides livestock to needy families. HPI promotes the idea of "zero-grazed cattle," where a cow is kept in a pen sown with a special grass sufficient to supply its needs. A Kenyan teacher was inspired to write a grant proposal and raise the money to buy the first cow.

The Amesbury group addresses obvious needs, such as clean drinking water - an urgent need in most developing world communities. A project funded by Rotary International in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Kisumu (a larger city near Esabulu) is drilling several boreholes and installing pumps to take water to storage tanks and kiosks for distribution.

A network of sisters
Sister city associations such as "Amesbury for Africa" are helped by a national organization, Sister Cities International (SCI) and a subgroup called "U.S. Africa Sister Cities," which held its eleventh annual conference in San Francisco in April. The conference was attended by around 125 people.

SCI officially recognizes 98 US-Africa sister city relationships - and there are many others around the country that have not affiliated with SCI.

Many of the African relationships were started as a way to gain political support within the African-American community. The Washington DC - Dakar (Senegal) partnership was begun in 1980 by African-American Mayor Marion Berry. Seattle's relationship with Mombasa, Kenya, began in 1981 - an election year - initiated by incumbent mayor Charles Royer as an attempt to reach out to African-American constituents.

The conference provided many examples of flourishing relationships. An example is St. Louis, Missouri and its African sister city, St. Louis, in French-speaking Senegal. There are numerous similarities between the two Sts. Louis. There is the name, and the French heritage (not that most people in Missouri speak French these days). Both are on major rivers, the Mississippi and the Senegal, one the "gateway to the west" and the other "the gateway to black Africa." (The rivers played a major part in the slave trade in both cities).

Sylvia and John Wright told me about their role in the sister city relationship. Sylvia and John are African-Americans who had always wanted to go to Africa. John began his visits in 1983 and Sylvia accompanied him in 1984 as part of a group of 37 people - two thirds of them African American - that took with them a friendship proclamation from their mayor for the mayor of St. Louis, Senegal. Talk about a sister city relationship between the two St. Louis began in 1992; the relationship was finally cemented in 1994.

The Missouri-Senegal relationship is still active several years later, mostly due to John. "You have to have someone who is willing to push. You have to have a leader." Sylvia says. Churches have sent school supplies. Twelve Missouri teachers are on Fulbright scholarships in Senegal. The Alliance Française has organized a vibrant cultural exchange of high school students through email. Five years ago a veterinarian from the St. Louis, Missouri zoo went to a game reserve to study endangered species; he is now raising money for research and training for Senegalese wildlife managers.

Sylvia's first visit to Africa provoked mixed emotions. "I felt a thrill inside. I felt devastated by my first impression of Dakar [Senegalese capital]. There was a lot of poverty; they were undergoing a drought." And now? Things have changed slightly - or perhaps the change is in her. "People were singing and I thought: This is the future. These people will survive."

What you can do: Find out if your city has a sister city relationship with somewhere in the developing world. If not, consider starting one yourself. See Sister Cities International Website for some basic advice on how to get started

Nicola Swinburne is Project Director of City Talk, an Earth Island Project, and International Editor of the Earth Island Journal. She is actively seeking a sister city in the San Francisco Bay Area for Entebbe, Uganda.


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