- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2001

"People seem to think that because someone works for the welfare of animals they don't give a damn about people nothing could be further from the truth."

Virginia McKenna's eyes light up with a glittering passion when she talks about Africa: its endangered species and benighted human communities alike.

The former actress, whose award-winning role in the film "Born Free" led to a new career in wildlife conservation, has a hands-on approach to the alleviation of suffering.

Alongside her role in the Born Free Foundation, she is also a patron of the charity Plan International and its longest-standing sponsor parent in Kenya. She first become involved with the charity, which works in communities to achieve a better quality of life through practical help in areas such as education and health care, in 1986.

"I love the idea of sponsoring a child. We all like to be thought of as individuals, not just a great amorphous mass," she said. "The one little boy or little girl who is sponsored represents the whole community."

Over the past 14 years, Miss McKenna has closely followed the progress of the Njare family, who live in Nguru village, in Embu, Eastern Kenya. Through letters and visits, she has traced their progression from a primitive mud hut to a little brick house on a precious scrap of land. Thanks to Plan International, the family of nine has access to health care and clean drinking water, and the children are receiving that most treasured of commodities: education. But now, natural disaster is threatening their future.

The region has been afflicted by drought, which is causing desperate levels of hardship among a population dependent on agriculture. Most families have not been able to harvest for three consecutive seasons, and although rains fell as recently as late November, they weren't heavy enough to make much difference.

When Miss McKenna visited her sponsor family in October, she was shocked by the conditions she encountered.

"The ground was like baked concrete, and the animals by the roadside were skin and bone. They were dragging themselves along there's literally nothing for them to eat," she said.

"I was told that the children had been so weakened from hunger, they didn't have the strength to walk the three kilometers to school." Plan International doesn't provide emergency relief, but because of its understanding of the community and its needs, the charity was in a position to provide a solution to at least one aspect of the problem.

A feeding program has been introduced through the local school, so children get a hot meal every day. The result has been a dramatic rise in attendance.

"I visited Kaninwanthiga Primary School, and it was wonderful to get stuck in, ladling beans and maize into bowls for the children," she said.

"Like a lot of the work Plan does providing water tanks, malaria nets or latrines it sounds so simple, but has an enormous impact on the people who live there."

Through Plan, other vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and the elderly, also are receiving food. It was hoped that the arrival of the rains would mean the program could end in February, to coincide with the harvest of beans and potatoes. But as yet, no end to the crisis is in sight.

Miss McKenna's original sponsor child, Elijah, is now a grown man of 23. But when he reached 18, sponsorship was transferred to his 9-year-old sister, Faith, ensuring the relationship will flourish for many years to come.

"I've been out to see them three times, and the transformation in their lives over that time has been incredible," said Miss McKenna.

"I remember the first time I visited, Elijah's father, James, gave me a gift of three chicken's eggs wrapped in brown paper it was a feast to them, but they wanted to show me their gratitude.

"I explained I was afraid they would break on the journey, and asked the family to eat them instead. It was very moving to see such generosity despite their poverty."

In the semi-arid lands of Kenya, where nothing not even a regular food supply is taken for granted, Plan International strives to give hope and security to a generation. For Miss McKenna, strengthening the links between developed and developing world is crucial.

"My daughter-in-law has become a sponsor parent, so my grandchildren are learning about a very different culture," she said. "They swap drawings and tell each other about their lives through letters. That can only be good. The more that our children understand about the world we live in, the better it will be for the future of all living creatures on our planet."

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