This is an updated version of an article that I had published in the Kingston Whig Standard in December 2012. As I leave Africa for home these thoughts are in my mind.
In July 2011, I led a group of 20 CanAssist supporters (at their own expense) to Kenya and Uganda to see first-hand some of the projects that our charity was funding there. We had a wonderful visit. There were smiles, hugs and tears of joy throughout the time we spent mingling with African communities and schools.
Our trip started auspiciously with our flight out of Montreal being cancelled on the morn-ing we were to depart. Not postponed – cancelled. Thanks to our friends at Odyssey Travel we were all rebooked to bounce through Paris, then Amsterdam to arrive as scheduled in Nairobi but we had to hustle as our changed itinerary had us departing three hours earlier than originally planned. We jostled in large customs and security lineups at the Paris airport. It was hectic. By the time we reached Amsterdam I was a bit frazzled.
Then, as we were leaving the Air France plane and wondering if we would get to our last connecting flight on time, a smiling dark-skinned fellow in a red jacket appeared. With a reassuring and gentle voice, he guided us through the Amsterdam airport securi-ty and onto a special bus to the gate where our Kenya Airways plane, already boarded with 200 other passengers, was waiting. We were ushered to our seats and greeted with smiles by the attendants. They had held the plane’s departure a few minutes so we could get there on time. The pilot then announced that we would be just a few minutes more before departure to be sure our luggage had all been transferred.
The atmosphere had miraculously changed from frenzied panic to one that was calm and soothing. I felt like I was already “home” in Africa. I could relax knowing these people would help us to arrive safely at our destination. What a relief.
Often I get asked if I have any culture shock or major adjustments to make when I travel in East Africa.
In fact, I find myself immediately comfortable when I arrive and smell the air at Nairobi airport and feel the warmth both of the climate and of the people. It is this warmth, like the relief I had when we were finally in the hands of the Kenya Airways crew, that draws me back to Africa and motivates me to promote the work we do through the CanAssist African Relief Trust.
The difficulty adjusting happens when I come home. Today I am heading to the Kisumu airport to start the 30+ hour trip home. I have had a productive and pleasant sojourn in Kenya since mid January. The weather and people here are both warm and inviting. I will still have some winter to face when I get home. And the usual cultural adjustment back to my Canadian ways.
I am proud to be a Canadian. I know how fortunate I am to live in a multicultural, tolerant and respectful society and among the top tier of people in the world with regard to food, security and fresh water to spare. I choke up when I sing “God, keep our land glorious and free” in our national anthem.
But when I come home I start to look around me and wonder where our priorities are.
We have so much “stuff”. And despite having so much, our consumer-based society encourages us to want more. After spending time in a small African town where people do their shopping in kiosks or off straw mats on the street, I find that setting foot in one of our “Box” stores almost feels obscene.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a consumer, too. I enjoy comforts and unnecessary frills just as much as anyone. But when I look around me at all the “things” that we have – or think that we need to have – I start to ponder the differences between our society and the life I experience when I am in Africa. Their priority seems to be much more based on caring interaction with others, rather than with material accumulations.
So how do I find balance? I have come to agree with the recommendations made by Peter Singer in his book “The Life You Can Save”. Singer’s suggestion is that we should enjoy the luxuries we are accustomed to – and work to acquire – but that we must also share our good fortune in some way with developing nations. If we have enough money to spend $4.50 on a ‘low fat, extra hot, vanilla soy latte” or $2.00 on a bottle of water that would be free if we get it from the tap, surely we have some to share with people who have no access to clean water, adequate sanitation, food security or basic health care.
I am extraordinarily lucky to have the opportunity to spend time in both worlds. I can ex-perience the comfort and security of a Canadian society and also the friendly, caring warmth that envelopes me when I visit communities in Africa. Through the CanAssist African Relief Trust, I hope that I can share my good fortune, and encourage others to share as well, with people who live in communities that can use our help.