Ragnar Sverrisson is an engineer and technician who has been active in the humanist movement for thirty years, both in Iceland and abroad. In recent years, Ragnar has devoted his time and money to humanitarian work in Kenya. “When I first went to Kenya, I instantly fell in love with the country and its people. I’ve been there five times since 2004, and in fact I met my wife there,” Ragnar says.
Ragnar’s affiliation with the country began when a young man from Kenya named Ken sent an inquiry to the international humanist movement website. The site administrator in New York was a friend of Ragnar’s and the humanists’ in Iceland, and he thought it might be a good idea to put Ken in touch with the Icelandic humanist sect. “Ken wanted to know if he could help out in his own homeland, so we started corresponding. Three of us visited him and that’s how our humanitarian work in Kenya began. He was very ambitious but now, sadly, he’s deceased,” Ragnar says, adding that in Kenya, death is very much part of everyday life.
“It’s completely different there; throughout my whole life I’ve known perhaps ten people that have died, but since I first went to Kenya I’ve known about twenty to thirty people that have died either from AIDS or in car crashes, which cause more deaths among children there than AIDS.”
Bringing water and ice to Kenya
Ragnar experienced the difficult way of life in Kenya firsthand when he tried renting land and growing vegetables. “It went well at first, but when the crops came there were these massive droughts and we had very little to show for it. During drought season two years ago, one third of the population suffered famine,” Ragnar says.
Coming from a place where water is in abundance, namely Iceland, Ragnar has been working on a project to build water pumps in Kenya. There is a massive water shortage in Africa, and Eastern Africa in particular is experiencing some of the worst droughts in 60 years. “I wanted to use my knowledge of technology in helping out down there,” he says.
He has also spent five years building a refrigeration system. “Basically, you can capture the heat from the sun and use it to freeze food and even cool houses. They have very primitive fishing methods in Kenya and they almost never refrigerate their food,” Ragnar says. “To build this machine, we received a 10 million króna grant from the Rannís Technology Development Fund. We’ve finished all stages of development and the machine works. It might sound strange here in Iceland, but globally speaking, seventy percent of all the world’s electric energy output is used for refrigeration.”
In addition to using his technological expertise to work on refrigeration and water shortage problems in Kenya, Ragnar has been working on another pressing social concern. Due to AIDS, Kenyan society has an overwhelming problem of orphaned children. In a nation of about 50 million people, the number of orphans is estimated at five million, a staggering ten percent of the population.
“There are a lot of people who want to help by starting day care centres or supplying food, but they badly need money to fund these projects,” Ragnar says. “After kids finish elementary school they have to start paying school fees, so a lot of kids drop out. I started thinking how I could help these older kids and came up with a project that could make them some money. The idea was to start a young people’s co-op, where the profit would be used to pay their school fees.”
Learning from Kenya in return
Along the way, Ragnar discovered that Kenyans have a very different way of thinking and dealing with things. “Their mentality is completely different and when I first went there, I thought I could teach them a lot, but as time passes I’ve realised that there is rather a lot they can teach us,” he says. “We can bring the technology and the forward-thinking to them but they can help us with living our everyday lives in a happier fashion.”
However, Ragnar thinks that one of the things that hamper progress in Kenya is the incredibly corrupt government, which often steals government funding allocated for bettering the community. Icelanders tend to complain about the situation here after the crisis and some are disillusioned with the Icelandic politicians and the current state of affairs. Compared to the problems of a developing country like Kenya though, these problems are miniscule.
“My friend Paul Ramses [Icelandic immigrant from Kenya] laughs at the crisis here in Iceland because they live in that situation every day. There is massive shortage of food and water, poverty, corruption, AIDS and not many natural resources,” he says.