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Saturday, Aug 25 2012 10:00 PM

Bakersfield needs a new sister or two

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    Robert Price

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By ROBERT PRICE

Bakersfield appears to take this Sister Cities thing seriously. Not only has this quaint municipality established cross-cultural siblinghood with no fewer than six cities, it has been honored for its enthusiasm by Sister Cities International. And now, with last week's phase-one grand opening of Sister City Gardens on 18th Street, Bakersfield has set its commitment to the ideals of civic sisterliness in concrete and steel.

Time to take it to the next level.

Bakersfield's sister cities are, in most cases, thriving million-plus hubs of culture and commerce. In the case of three of Bakersfield's sister cities (Amritsar, in the Punjab state of India; Queretaro, Mexico; and Bucheon, South Korea) cultural ties exist (or once existed) with Kern County immigrant groups of significant size and influence. Ethnic connections aside, though, these sister-city relationships involve economic near-equals.

So, how about some Big Sisterhood? Or, more specifically, something a bit more maternal: A city somewhere across the ocean that could benefit from the loving embrace of a people with superior resources and know-how.

Bakersfield should sister-up with Sister Cities International's Africa Urban Poverty Alleviation Program, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded endeavor that addresses water, health, and sanitation needs on the African continent.

Bakersfield, after all, knows something about stretching scarce water resources, dealing with the waste-management needs of a rapidly growing population and managing myriad health concerns (although, in that last case, not always as well as we might hope).

John Hefner of the Bakersfield Sister Cities Corp. has one possible candidate: Bugiri, a district in southeastern Uganda. Hefner visited the Bakersfield-sized region in February at the invitation of the main town's mayor and notes that, among other things, Bugiri's hospitals could use solar panels.

Bugiri is about five hours' drive from Kakuma, an adobe-and-tent city of 73,000 in northwestern Kenya where persecuted and malnourished refugees from Sudan and elsewhere have accepted the protection of the United Nations Commission on Refugees. The need there is vast and unending.

Some might be under the impression that the sister-city visits undertaken by local politicians and business leaders are nothing more than junkets -- an excuse for an exotic vacation. Not true. The delegates themselves often pay their own way. That's not to say these trips are devoid of all wining and dining. But establishing a sister-city relationship with a poverty-riddled city that can offer us little beyond the opportunity to help would certainly allay those perceptions.

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An existing sister city of Bakersfield's has a different sort of need: Leadership with a sense of humor, which is another way of saying political freedom. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a Bakersfield sister city for more than two decades, is stuck with a boorish, deluded president with a dictator complex and unusually thin skin.

On July 4, three Swedish advertising executives flew a small plane into Belarus airspace and gradually jettisoned 879 plush teddy bears, each with its own tiny parachute and a printed message calling for free speech in the one-time Soviet satellite.

Last week, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, apparently still in a snit over the whole thing, fired his foreign minister along with the generals in charge of air defense and the border patrol.

What can a sister city like Bakersfield do about a knuckle-dragger like Lukashenko? Not much -- unless the Bakersfield Condors hockey team wants to consider donating the bounty from its next Teddy Bear Toss to a re-enactment of that delightful nose-tweaking episode. Sometimes sisters can't help but pull a little hair.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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