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Trans-Africa trek: one man's walk to combat world hunger

`HUNGER is something that does not have to be on the planet today.'' Patrick Giantonio is talking passionately about a goal of his ``walk to end hunger'' - a 4,500-kilometer (2,800-mile) trek across Africa to heighten public commitment to fight world hunger. Patrick's Walk is the name of a nonprofit organization set up to support this goal. For 3 years, Mr. Giantonio has been walking westward from Mombasa, Ken-ya, toward Douala in Cameroon.

Horst Cerni, a UNICEF official in New York, calls the walk ``quite an interesting and positive initiative by one individual.'' UNICEF has helped Giantonio in his effort to distribute health and diet information to Africans he meets in his travels.

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Now about two-thirds of the way across the continent, Giantonio has interrupted the walk at Basoko, Zaire, to return to the United States for a few months of ``rest and relaxation,'' as well as publicity and fund raising.

With his long angular face, abundant dark beard, and powder-blue eyes, he has the look of an Italian saint as painted by El Greco - with the gentle drive of an Albert Schweitzer.

Traveling through Southeast Asia in 1979 and 1980, Giantonio was appalled by the effects of starvation he saw. At the end of that trip, he made his way to Turkana, in northern Kenya, during a severe famine.

``It was amazing to me to be immersed in a famine that people in Nairobi didn't even know about,'' he says. ``I decided I was going to do something.''

He returned to the US and for two years became involved in supporting various hunger relief organizations, including Oxfam America, but he wanted to make a more personal statement for the alleviation of hunger.

One night, Giantonio dreamed about walking through Africa. He mentioned the dream to his brother, who said, ``Well, you're doing all this work to fight hunger in the world. Why don't you do a walk to fight hunger?''

His brother's comment ignited a spark that hasn't been extinguished yet - and probably won't be for years to come.

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A member of a large and close-knit Italian-American family, Giantonio called his parents right away to tell them his proposal to walk across Africa. Surprised at first, they quickly became strong supporters, so much so that Giantonio speaks of his walk as if a whole company of family members were going with him.

``It really began not just with my own views and perspectives on life, but with my parents', because I figure if my parents hadn't raised me with strong moral values, I wouldn't be doing the walk.''

The goals for his walk evolved from those two bases: shock at the starvation in Turkana and values established for him as a boy by his parents.

``The original goal was to cross the continent of Africa by foot and to try to gather as much information in villages along the way as I could. Right before I left the United States, we established a relationship with UNICEF.

``They're sharing some basic health techniques among the developing nations, which serve to empower people in the villages, especially in terms of child health. Very simple things like mixing sugar, salt, and water to rehydrate children who would otherwise die from dehydration.

``There are 5 million children that die every year from dehydration. Hearing figures like that and a very simple solution like this led me to believe that another goal - of trying to promote these health ideas - would be a strong focal point of the walk.''

Financed by community fund raising in the US, Giantonio flew to Nairobi, Kenya, in January of 1984. In the early part of February, he began Patrick's Walk to End Hunger from Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean. He spent roughly a year in Kenya, a year in and out of Tanzania, and after that moved on to Rwanda, and now Zaire.

In Nairobi, Giantonio stopped to collaborate on a pamphlet with UNICEF, incorporating UNICEF's simple self-help techniques for alleviating starvation and disease among Africa's children. ``For me there had to be something we could leave behind,'' he says.

Called ``Njia Tano'' (Kiswahili for ``five ways''), this first version of the pamphlet was funded by the UNICEF regional office there.

Near Nairobi, Giantonio bought two donkeys and had saddlebags made to hold the pamphlets. Then for 10 months he pretested the practicality of the pamphlets with mothers on the first leg of the walk, which extended from Nairobi west across the Great Rift Valley to the shores of Lake Victoria.

Exiting Kenya, Giantonio entered Tanzania at the western edge of the Serengeti Plain below the lake. There he was occasionally accompanied by park rangers to protect him from lions, cheetahs, and the increasingly rare rhinoceros.

Taking a side trip to Dar es Salaam to meet with officials of the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and the country office of UNICEF, he revised ``Njia Tano,'' and they funded publication of the revision. His research up to that point, coupled with their advice, had helped focus the pamphlet in more practical ways for the villages.

Except for side trips, for the full length of Patrick's Walk to End Hunger so far, Giantonio did indeed walk.

``For me, walking is an important part of the process of getting to know the culture,'' he says. ``It's a much different experience walking into a village rather than driving in in a Land-Rover. There's a lot more trust. People open up much more quickly, and they're intrigued. They haven't seen whites walking, carrying their own stuff.''

Giantonio is intense about issues, but his eyes reflect delight when he talks about meeting people this way.

``It's very easy in a surface way to be absorbed into the culture of Africa. After that, it takes a long time to dig down to what the culture really is made of.''

Soon, Giantonio will fly back to Zaire to complete his cross-Africa walk. Late this year he returns to the US to begin a lecture tour. In some respects, his walk will just begin then.

``Africans are more than the figures of emaciated bodies we've seen on television,'' he says. ``They have strong spirits. They have strong hopes for the future. They can do much for themselves, and they want to. What's needed is a partnership between this world and that world.

``We're all interrelated.''

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