For the love of Africa
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
For Chas Salmen, living in a tent in Africa for weeks on end is no big deal.
In fact, he says it’s kind of similar to living in his parents’ home in Glenwood Springs. In Africa, he wakes up between Lake Victoria and a mountainside. In Glenwood, the home he grew up in lies between the Roaring Fork River and Red Mountain. Anyone else would probably mention the lack of fresh water in Africa, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and don’t forget the presence of the black mamba, one of the world’s deadliest snakes.
But not Chas. Maybe it’s that way of looking at things that helped him stand out as a state champion track star and Mock Trial participant at Glenwood Springs High School. Perhaps it helped him start the Arab-Jewish Coalition at Duke University, where he also captained track teams and won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. It certainly is helping him with his latest venture, founding and then running a nonprofit to cope with the impacts of HIV and AIDS on the remote Mfangano Island in Kenya.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have the intention of starting anything,” Chas said during an interview at his parents’ home in Glenwood Springs, during his Christmas break from medical school at the University of California San Francisco. “I met two people at a bus stop and that’s kind of how it started.”
Mfangano is an island of 19,000 people on Lake Victoria, about a three-hour ride in a wooden outboard canoe off the coast of Kenya. There is one road on the island and no electricity. Mfangano has one of the most critical HIV concentrations in the world, with 30 percent of the population testing positive for the disease.
At the time of the bus stop conversation, Salmen was a 24-year-old Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Talking with two college students from Washington prompted him to make the Suba people of Mfangano the focus of his thesis on the roots of HIV/AIDS in Western Kenya. Later, he returned to Mfangano with another Oxford colleague to conduct a community health needs assessment. It was then that two native Mfangano residents approached Salmen about building a solar powered Internet library to coordinate HIV testing services and to teach about sustainable agriculture.
“I quickly realized that while my friends on the island had more than enough insight, ideas and dedication to make this program work, we needed outside funding and connections to help us turn this idea into a reality,” Chas said.
He returned to Oxford and started writing grants and holding fundraisers for the Organic Health Response project (OHR). He also got his younger brother, Marco, a medical student at the University of Colorado Denver, involved.
Chas admits it was discouraging at times when grant applications were rejected or leads fell through.
“I was pretty sure I was going to fail out of Oxford at one point,” he said. “I was spending about 60 hours a week working on OHR. My friends on the island and my family kept me inspired.”
Little by little, funding started coming though. In 2010, Glenwood Springs accountant Gus Lundin and attorney Bob Noone set up non-profit status for OHR in Glenwood Springs.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lundin said. “I agreed mostly because I wanted to work with Chas and Marco Salmen. They are two of the most amazing people I know.”
Lundin joined the OHR board, along with several other former Glenwood Springs classmates or teammates of Chas and Marco. Over the course of the last year, Lundin has come to understand the scope of his high school friends’ project.
“I feel privileged to be involved,” Lundin said. “I’m impressed with what they (the Salmen brothers) have done, but not surprised because I know how capable they are.”
The first project for Organic Health Response was to build a community center with six solar powered computers, providing the only Internet access on the island. If residents want to use them, they have to go through HIV testing.
“We realized an opportunity,” Chas Salmen said. “Everyone had this amazing excuse to get tested – ‘I want to use the Internet’.”
The people of Mfangano have come to trust Chas and his brother, along with their parents, according to Richard Magerenge, the executive director of the Ekiola Kiona Center, the community center Chas and Marco helped build.
“Lives have changed and (been) saved, especially from HIV/AIDS as (the) majority in this community now have hope to live with the virus,” wrote Magerenge in an e-mail. He lost his own mother and father to AIDS when he was a young man growing up in Mfangano.
HIV testing is just the first of many projects in the works for Mfangano.
Chas Salmen is taking next year off from medical school to go back to Mfangano with a friend, Jenna Hines, to implement a micro-clinic pilot program for people living with HIV/AIDS. They also hope to improve the organic farming program at the Ekiola Kona Center.
“On Mfangano, I’ve been challenged in ways I never imagined, and blessed by relationships I never expected,” Salmen said. “I’ve participated in midnight spirit exorcisms, learned how to butcher goats, taught Suba elders who to Google to search for Bantua oral histories, and watched close friends die of end-stage AIDS.”
Salmen didn’t go at this without family support. Marco became the OHR stateside director. His father, Dr. Paul Salmen, consults as medical director for the OHR and his mother, Nancy Reinisch, is the contact for a program for the HIV-positive women and men of the community (see Sisterhood Exchange story).
Chas said some of the first donations for OHR came from the Glenwood Springs Morning and Noon Rotary Clubs, as well as from the St. Stephen’s Catholic School Builder’s Club. He also credits family and friends in Glenwood Springs and in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area for helping fund the program.
“Our organization has a lot of love,” Chas said. There have been times when he’s told the board and the OHR budget would run out of funds in a week. Then, somehow, a funding source appears.
At the Ekiola Kiona Center, Richard Magerenge, said the islanders are amazed at how committed the Salmen family has become.
“The community is now saying they have never seen such kind of a white (Mzungu) family with love for this island,” wrote Magerenge.
That love is one of the reasons both Dr. Paul and Nancy can bear to see their two sons spend so much time in such a far away, remote place.
“We worried a lot in the beginning,” Nancy said. She and Paul took a trip to the island last summer to deliver sewing machines and set up the Sisterhood Exchange Program (see adjoining story). She said after spending time there and really learning to understand the people, she feels much better.
“I told them, ‘You can have my sons, but take care of them’,” she said.
Dr. Paul, who is known as Babba Chas on the island, appreciates the warmth of the people. A Mfangano elder told him, “You must be my brother, because he (Chas) is my son.”
But Paul is also aware that it takes a 22-hour flight, a 12-hour bus ride, a 3-hour ferry ride, a 3-hour canoe ride and then a motorcycle ride to get to his sons when they are on Mfangano. It’s a little difficult for this family physician to think about the fact that there is no doctor on this island, where people die from snake bites and appendicitis.
“Danger is everywhere,” Dr. Paul said.
At the same time, both parents are incredibly proud. Each of them has at one time won the Garfield County Humanitarian of the Year award. But they say their boys are stretching them.
“They took what we did as service work to another level,” Nancy said.
Paul credits the place that they grew up for the boys’ success in college, in medical school and in Africa.
“They had a great community education,” Paul said. “There were so many examples of community involvement. They really realize the importance of community.”
Both Chas and Marco are certain that their new community, their adopted African village, will forever be a part of their lives. In fact, together they have purchased land in Mfangano.
“It’s something I want to do for the rest of my life,” said Marco of his work with the OHR.
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