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Ministers in shirt sleeves

When Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi made a motion calling on Kenyans to fight soil erosion, he was standing under a spreading thorn tree at Machakos, some 60 miles from Nairobi.

It was Kenya's first open-air parliamentary session, and the President was in his shirt sleeves.

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So were the ministers, assistant ministers, and members of parliament surrounding him. Charles Njonjo, the dignified constitutional affairs minister, had abandoned his Savile Row suit for jeans and a T-shirt. Attorney General Joseph Kamere was in a bush shirt. There was not a tie to be seen.

''This parliamentary session is not for talkers--it is for practical work,'' said a smiling President Moi. To the astonishment of all he sprinted across the landscape toward a large trench splitting the area.

The MPs and ministers followed, panting, to begin a three-hour session of building gabions--bottomless wire cylinders of soil and stones that are used to fight erosion.

Moi shouldered enormous boulders, placing them in the gabions. Sweating ministers and MPs filled others, to the delight of thousands of Africans gathered to watch ministers engaged in manual labor instead of making speeches.

In Kenya there is serious soil erosion, and it will begin again when the big rains come in April. President Moi is leading a nationwide campaign to protect the soil from being washed into the Indian Ocean.

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