Urbana Named Illinois Sister City of the Year

Urbana has been named the 2012 Illinois Sister City of the Year for its groundbreaking community outreach and educational work with the African city of Zomba, Malawi.

The award was announced Oct. 19 at the Illinois Municipal League conference in Chicago.

“It’s recognition of a Sister City in Illinois that has, in our opinion, achieved and exceeded our goals and performed beyond everybody else,” said Frank E. Lateano, president of the Illinois Sister Cities Association.

“Urbana’s application stood out … because of the quality and extent of their outreach to their African Sister City to improve their lives and to mutually promote sharing and understanding of their cultures,” said Nancy Devereaux, who chaired the committee that selected Urbana.

On Feb. 25, 2009, Urbana initiated its formal Sister Cities relationship with Zomba, Malawi, a city of 88,000 in southeast Africa. In April 2010, Urbana was selected to receive a $115,000 grant from Sister Cities International to work on the “African Urban Poverty Alleviation Program.” The grant called for the two cities to address the problems of urban poverty, health, sanitation and water in Zomba.

Alderman Dennis Roberts worked to secure and implement the grant. He said working with Zomba residents was a life-changing experience.

“Zomba is a beautiful part of Africa, and the people are so incredibly nice and open and so appreciative,” Roberts said. “We’ve built friendships that are very sincere. But Malawi is also one of the poorest nations in Africa, and AIDS and HIV illness are still a major national health issue.

“Working in Zomba with the city administration and Local Community Committee to fulfill the goals of the grant has been quite an experience,” he added. “At times, it was frustrating due to different cultural expectations. However, after two years of effort, we accomplished so very much.”

At Zomba Central Hospital, residents can get medical care, but extended family is expected to cook meals, do laundry and help care for family members who are patients. Families had to do this under “appalling conditions,” Roberts said, including just having one filthy shower stall for family members.

Ablution BlockThanks to the work of the Sister City initiative, the hospital now has what they call the Guardian Village Ablution Block and laundry facility. It includes two women’s and two men’s shower stalls, flush toilets connected to the sewer system, laundry facilities and a clothes drying area with a perimeter fence.

Concrete-lined toilet facilities also were constructed at three Zomba primary schools. Roberts said one school with 3,200 students had only 10 toilets when they arrived. Now they have 26.

Urbana resident Scott Dossett was the project manager for the grant program and provided plenty of assistance to Roberts. Also helping were Urbana Sister Cities Committee members Meg Miller, Chris Stohr and Sam Smith, among others.

Dossett, a large man with curly gray hair and a beard, quickly became a favorite of Zomba residents during his two visits there.

“They love Scott partially because he looks like a giant Teddy Bear,” said Roberts. “When we would go to the market, soon there would be a giant crowd around Scott. He’s very responsive and fun and handled it very well.”

Dossett said the reaction he provoked was interesting.

“They don’t see too many thick, burly dudes with beards,” he laughed. “I think some women felt if they handed me their babies, they’d be blessed.”

During the course of the two and one-half-year grant period, there were periodic visits to Africa by Urbana committee members and visits of Zomba officials to Urbana. It takes 23 hours of flight time to get from Urbana to Zomba.

Charles Kalemba, chief executive officer of Zomba City, and Mussa Mwale, Zomba City director of administration, visited Urbana in March 2011 and attended a public “Malawi Mixer” party, as well as a private reception at the home of then-University of Illinois President Michael Hogan.

Kalemba and Mwale also met Mayor Laurel Prussing and the city council, spoke to Urbana Rotarians, visited Urbana schools and met staff at the UI African Studies Department.

There were other outreach efforts. In 2010, the Urbana Sister Cities Committee was awarded a $15,000 grant by the UI Department of Public Engagement Outreach to extend an educational reading program to Urbana elementary, middle and high schools.

At the elementary school level, 90 copies of “Galimoto,” a story about a Malawi boy who builds his own wire car toy, were purchased for select reading groups. Workshops were also held where students attempted to build their own wire toy car from random materials, like the boy in the book.

The advanced reading levels read “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,” about a Malawi 13-year-old boy who uses his creativity and community collaboration to help build a windmill to bring his family running water and electricity.

Mayor Prussing praised Roberts for his tireless efforts to build a Sister City relationship with Zomba. She also noted that Urbana is well-suited to forge such relationships.

“Urbana is really an international city,” Prussing said. “People come here from all over the world. We consider Sister Cities a good way to make friends with individuals from around the world.”

For more information on Urbana's Sister Cities Committee, click here.

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