(Published in the Kingston Whig Standard – July 18, 2012.)
My friends told me that I needed an updated photo for my Facebook page. I have been a somewhat reluctant Facebook user but I recently attended a conference for charities on behalf of the CanAssist African Relief Trust and the message was that “conversation and collaboration” are now the keys to successful charities and fundraising. And Facebook, with over eighteen million users in Canada … half our population … is the way to communicate in 2012.
So I opened up my previously fairly clandestine Facebook account to the world, started a blog and I am going to give it a good try in the next few months.
I had been using a photo of the Rift Valley as my profile picture. “Not good enough,” was the response. “It has to be a photo of you. People will communicate with you because of common interests so they have to see who you are.”
It was taken at a very small school in Mbita Kenya, one where we were working to start a school farm. There were kids everywhere. Playing and running and singing. Many were curious about this “mzungu” who was standing in their midst with a camera. One little fellow was particularly eager to be near me. He followed me around for a few minutes, sometimes holding on to my pant-leg or “petting” my hairy arms. (African men usually have little or no hair on their arms so my furry forearms are a novelty that many African children cannot resist. “You are like a lion,” one kid told me a couple of years ago.)
I was drawn to this little fellow’s smile and after a few minutes I picked him up and carried him around as I greeted the other children. He beamed. I gave my camera to one of the teachers to take our picture. You can see joy on both our faces. We became friends quickly and were relishing the new-found bond between us.
This photo has become a symbol to me, representing the happy association that I cherish between me and African people, particularly the children.
So I put it up on my page. I immediately had comments and “likes” for the photo. It seemed a good choice.
Later that morning I happened to be chatting with the Director of the School in Kenya using Skype. I asked if he could identify the child.
“His name is Jerry Otieno,” I was told. “Fantastic,” I thought. Jerry sounds like such an active, outgoing name and suits the smile that I remember. And Otieno is a very common Luo man’s name meaning “born at night”. I have dear friends with that name in Kenya. It seemed perfect.
“What a sad case,” continued Kennedy.
“This poor little fellow was brought to our school by a teenage caregiver. He had no money for school fees or food. He is about 4 years old. His mother worked for another woman in town as a housekeeper. She got pregnant and there was no father in the picture. Last year she became ill and was taken to a hospital in a neighboring town. She died there. Her body rots in the mortuary of the hospital, unclaimed. Jerry is being looked after by the woman for whom the mother worked but she has children of her own and cannot afford his care.”
“We have taken him into Hope School and support his education. He gets one meal a day here. He loves school, walking to school himself most mornings.”
I was startled by this story. I had picked this photo because I thought it was upbeat and the child in it the epitome of a happy African kid. I have seen lots of heart-tugging photos of emaciated children covered with flies used by charities to promote their cause. I don’t want to use those images to portray African children because even though their stories would break your heart, most of them look like little Jerry. They are smiling and cuddly and loving and resilient.
The Hope School is one that CanAssist supports. The school has about 150 students ranging in age from about 4 to 12. Most of them are categorized as “OVC’s” (Orphans and Vulnerable Children). The teachers work at the school for little remuneration and the school struggles to provide both education and one meal of porridge a day to these kids. CanAssist has helped the school by providing funds to start a school garden that will both provide better nourishment to the students and perhaps a bit of extra income for the school to help with expenses. Children who can afford it, pay about $8 a month as a school fee. But at least 30% cannot afford even that and are included with no fee.
Jerry’s story shook me but it is not that different from many others I have heard. I still think about little Rose, the Ugandan waif that got me started with this business of trying to help out in Africa. Now Jerry has added motivation to my work through CanAssist and I will leave his picture with mine on my Facebook page to remind me — and my Facebook friends— of the happiness that can come from helping where you can and the joy that just caring brings to others.