Hungry as a child, now she wants to feed Haiti and the world
Edna Ogwangi looked out recently at five acres of bananas, papaya and plantains in this desperately poor Caribbean country and saw lush splashes of green. To her, it looked like hope. And it felt like she had kept a personal promise from many years ago.
As a girl in Kenya in 1982, Ogwangi and her schoolmates suffered through a deadly drought that brought widespread hunger to their country in East Africa. Edna, then in the fifth grade, and her friends ate because of the arrival of 200-pound sacks of corn that were ground into cornmeal, a staple of the Kenyan diet.
She has never forgotten the words on the side of the bags of corn: "From the generosity of the American people." Someday, she pledged, she would do what someone in America had done for her.
Thirty-six years later, Ogwangi, now a U.S. citizen, stood at the edge of what was once a barren field in northern Haiti, 7,500 miles from Kenya and 1,200 miles from her office in Raleigh. Ogwangi is a key player in an effort to feed Haitian children and help the Haitian people provide for themselves.
For Ogwangi, her trip to the Caribbean nation last month was a journey of love and commitment as she and her colleagues at Rise Against Hunger work to feed the world. Along the way, Ogwangi won over her Haitian male colleagues who operate in a male-dominated society and almost surely have never dealt professionally with a woman quite like her.
"She's just one of those forces of nature," said Anne Bander, a former Raleigh resident who chairs the Rise Against Hunger board.
Ogwangi, now 47, survived the Kenyan drought of '82 and graduated from college with a degree in agricultural economics. She came to the United States to get a master's degree in international development and administration, and then worked 17 years for a development group based in Minnesota.
About three years ago, she joined Raleigh-based Rise Against Hunger (formerly known as Stop Hunger Now) and is now its chief impact officer. She and her husband, who also is from Kenya, have two children and live northeast of Raleigh in Youngsville.
Many Triangle residents know Rise Against Hunger for its innovative (and fun) assembly line productions of packaged meals. It has assembled and delivered more than 380 million meals to 74 countries.
But distributing meals isn't a long-term solution to reducing hunger. The group wants to help people feed themselves. Ogwangi has been a strong force pushing the group in that direction.
Bander remembers Ogwangi's first appearance before the board three years ago when Ogwangi urged it to expand beyond food packaging and work toward what they call "food security." Bander, former assistant state budget officer who now lives in Beaufort, S.C., cites Ogwangi's knowledge, vision and persuasiveness. Said Bander: "We were all breathless."
On the Haiti project, Rise Against Hunger has joined forces with another Raleigh-based group, Hearts and Hands for Haiti. That group is led by Stan Wiebe, who lived in Haiti in the 1980s, speaks Haitian Creole, and now lives in Raleigh. His group works with the Siloe Mission leadership team in Haiti to operate a children's home, seven churches and eight schools with a total of 2,100 students in the Gonaives area. (Disclosure: My wife and I support Hearts and Hands for Haiti and have traveled with Wiebe to Haiti at our expense.)
A few years ago, Ogwangi and Wiebe met and decided to work together on an agricultural project. Ogwangi traveled to the children's home in Poteau, Haiti, in 2015 and saw five dry, vacant acres next to it. She asked Jean Pere Nadieul, the Haitian who founded the home and leads the Siloe Mission, what his vision was.
"My dream is to see this land green,” he told Ogwangi.
Ogwangi, Wiebe and Nadieul have worked to do that. Rise Against Hunger has committed about $150,000 to the project over three years. When Ogwangi returned to Haiti in March for the first time since her 2015 visit and eyed the lush five acres, including 1,000 banana trees, the transformation was startling. Ogwangi held back tears.
Their goal is to produce enough food to feed the 75 children in the home and the 2,100 in the schools, and to sell surplus food at market. They want to teach Haitian farmers in the region, and the children enrolled in their schools, how to grow more and better crops and how to sell more.
Searching for water
There are plenty of challenges. In Haiti, there always are. The country is starkly poor. Electricity and clean water can be scarce. The road network is primitive.
“Buses went by, painted in stripes of red and yellow and blue,” the writer Graham Greene, a frequent visitor, wrote a half century ago in a novel set in Haiti. “There might be little food in the land, but there was always color.” Haitian president Francois Duvalier denounced the novel (Greene called Haiti “The Nightmare Republic”) but many of Greene’s observations remain true today. Haiti doesn't produce enough food to feed its people and imports 60 percent of its food.
Until recently, the five acres near the children’s home were dry because there wasn’t a reliable water supply. Last year, two wells were drilled and are now supplying much of the water for the property. But the wells aren’t supplying as much water as the Haitians and Rise Against Hunger had hoped. Ogwangi thinks there are other potential sources of water.
Another problem is more vexing. Nadieul and his crew would like to grow enough to sell surplus food at the local market, which is a short walk down a dusty, unpaved road from where the food is grown.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, the people of Poteau rise before daybreak to bring their goods to market at the edge of Route National No. One, a two-lane strip of unpredictable asphalt that runs north-south through the country. There is a bustle of energy as children, dogs, goats and women congregate; there are few men here. Women place fruit and vegetables atop spread-out blankets on the ground.
A few Tuesdays ago, Ogwangi walked among these women at about 5:30 p.m. Many of the women had been at the market for 12 hours but still had plenty of produce for sale.
“In the end of the day, she’s not going to be able to sell all these tomatoes,” Ogwangi said, pointing to one woman. The growers, she said, need to band together to find buyers, perhaps in Port au Prince, Haiti’s largest city. Finding larger buyers, she said, “is always a problem in developing countries.”
Ogwangi believes in helping people find ways to feed themselves. This isn’t just because she knows what it’s like to be hungry, although that’s part of it. She believes ending hunger is vital to having a peaceful world. When large numbers of people are hungry and desperate, countries become unstable. “Food security is always a national security issue,” she said.
The trend lines are mostly good. The United Nations says 11 percent of the world is hungry, down from 24 percent in 1990. Still, ending hunger by 2030 (the goal of the U.N. and of Rise Against Hunger) is daunting. The number of hungry people in the world increased by 38 million from 2015 to 2016, in part because of global conflict.
Ogwangi visited Haiti last month as a top officer of Rise Against Hunger, an international organization with offices in places such as India, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Yet that didn’t guarantee that she would be heard. Haitians are used to outsiders coming to their country, offering guidance and then slipping away, never to be heard from again. Many, many groups have tried — for a while, anyway — to save Haiti.
As a woman, Ogwangi faced another obstacle. In Haiti, men usually deal with men. “I knew there’d be a lot of skepticism that here’s a woman coming to discuss development,” Ogwangi told me.
One afternoon, Ogwangi met on the shaded veranda of the two-story children’s home with a small group that included Nadieul; a man who was visiting from nearby Jamaica; and a man from Florida who is an expert with aquaponics. That practice combines raising fish in tanks with cultivating plants in the nutrient-laden water discharged from the fish tanks.
In Poteau, the project includes raising tilapia in tanks. The small tilapia were to be placed in the tanks the next day.
At first Ogwangi listened to the discussion as they sat in the shade on the 90 degree day, cooled by an occasional breeze. Then she asked questions. Where will we sell the fish? Who are the market clientele? How big do they like their fish? With the heads or without? How will we maintain the system? At one point she reached over and touched the hand of the expert from Florida.
The man from Jamaica, Ralston Francis, was impressed. "Her questions were always pointed toward the sustainability of the effort," he said later. "She was doing risk analysis of what could go wrong and also looking at the value added." Francis appreciated Ogwangi's global perspective (she's visited 147 countries) and said she had "a vibration, an energy that you can feel."
The next day, Ogwangi walked down the dusty road in front of the children's home to visit a successfull small farm run by Sadrack Morency, 57, a native Haitian who returned to the country in 2015 after living 29 years in Miami. Morency is 6-foot-2 and gruff. Ogwangi is 5-foot-2 and friendly.
He and Ogwangi talked for a while outside and he began calling her "Miss Kenya." Eventually, she advised him to work with his neighbors to get more water.
"Why should I do it?" he said.
"You're special," she said, smiling.
Eventually, he agreed about the water. As she departed, he said, "OK, Miss Kenya, nice meeting you."
"She's smart," he said to me.
'Madame Edna loved us'
In conversation after conversation, a pattern emerged: Ogwangi would listen, ask questions and then throw out some ideas about practices that had been tried in other countries. "You have to respect the values and culture of the people you work with," she said in her lilting Kenyan accent.
Wiebe, the Raleigh man who's worked in Haiti for decades, said: "Edna truly understands development work in a developing country. Our success does not come nearly as quickly as we would desire. She is willing to walk alongside (the native people). She listens, digs in and explores possibilities....I do not believe that is typical from many organizations."
Perhaps the most important relationship for Ogwangi in Haiti is with the head man of the Siloe Mission, Jean Pere Nadieul. A former construction man, Nadieul, 57, is a distinguished and imposing figure, tall with broad shoulders.
It was his conversation with Ogwangi in 2015, when the five acres near the children's home were brown and dry, that led to Ogwangi's enthusiasm for the project.
"She took that with all her heart," Nadieul said through a translator. When Ogwangi saw the mango, papaya and cabbage a few weeks ago, Nadieul said, "She was so excited. I feel so happy because she was encouraged with what we are doing."
On Ogwangi's last of four nights in Haiti, the children gathered in the dining hall of the nearby school to perform skits and say goodbye to her, Wiebe and the other Americans who accompanied them and stayed in the children's home.
All through the week, the children were drawn to Ogwangi. You can't determine where you come from, Ogwangi said, but you can determine where you go.
Then Nadieul spoke. "Madame Edna is really connected to us," he said. "Since the first time she came here, we could tell that she loved us." Nadieul led them in singing a religious song.
Then, as the children applauded, Ogwangi and Nadieul hugged, a shared embrace that reflected their mutual commitment that none of the children in that room — or anywhere in the world — would go to bed hungry.