Vermonter's Walk Across Africa To Promote Hunger Awareness

PATRICK GIANTONIO now travels primarily by plane and car, taking his show about Africa to any audience that's interested. A few years ago, however, he traveled strictly by foot - all the way across that continent.

That trek through Africa, from east to west starting in Kenya and ending in Cameroon, won Mr. Giantonio some press coverage. The motive for his walk, says the prodigiously bearded crusader, was to draw attention to the tragedy of hunger in Africa - a grim phenomenon he'd first witnessed while visiting drought-stricken northern Kenya in 1980.

Though his 4-1/2-year African journey ended in 1988, Giantonio has never let up on his information campaign, scheduling and planning from his rented mountainside home in the central Vermont village of Plainfield. He emphasizes, however, that his message has evolved over the years.

"The walk was to be a statement of commitment," he says, "but soon after it began, the real work was in spending time and learning - in being a child." He was humbled, he says, by his own ignorance of how Africans actually lived and survived. He had to stow some of his preconceptions and learn from the people "their strengths, aspirations, and difficulties."

This awareness of Africa's grass-roots reality, conveyed through the continent's own images and voices, is what Giantonio tries to share in his multiprojector slide-and-sound show, "Footsteps Into Change."

The "change" referred to in the title of the show came primarily within Giantonio himself. He set out to help save the continent, he says, but realized that "Africa has problems, but it also has an enormous amount of good stuff going on." For example, "just the fact that people are getting by in a country like Zaire, with its astronomical inflation." Age-old social systems are still functioning at the village level, he says.

Giantonio is convinced that the aid relationship between the United States and Africa should be two-way. Africans have a lot to learn from the US, not least how to avoid becoming an "overdeveloped, consumptive" society, he says.

AMERICANS, on the other hand, could profit from an understanding of Africans' gift for community-building and hospitality, he affirms, suggesting, more than half seriously, that a reverse Peace Corps - bringing young Africans to US towns and cities - might be a good idea.

He was a guest in countless villages and often formed lasting friendships. One young Zairian, Kimoto, walked with him across most of that vast country. Kimoto sometimes helped put things in perspective, such as the Africans' zest for the trans-Africa highway then being built with foreign help. Giantonio viewed the project with dread, thinking of it, he says, as "a grand attempt to push blacktop all across the continent."

Kimoto sensed his friend's disgust with the project, sat down with him on the banks of the Zaire River, and said: "Maybe this road doesn't seem important to you, but for us, this is our road to the future." As he thought about it, Giantonio recognized that the road meant new markets for village products, less work for the women who transport so much of the continent's goods, and generally broadened horizons.

So Giantonio become leery of imposing Western viewpoints - including environmental, anti-growth ones - on Africans. But he has no qualms about criticizing other things he believes have been imposed on Africa: foremost among them, modern military gear.

As he travels around the US sharing with audiences the lessons from his walk, Giantonio encourages people to let their representatives in government know of their concerns about Africa. He'd like to see a citizen-led effort to change US foreign policy to take more account of Africans' own perspectives on their needs.

Isn't that a little idealistic, given Americans' much publicized lack of interest in overseas matters? Perhaps, but this man runs on idealism. "Americans are basically good people," he says, "and they will have concerns if they know what's going on."

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