Finally … my very own Red Rider

Boys like toys. I could empathize with Ralphie in A Christmas Story for wanting that Red Ryder BB-gun. And boys don’t seem to grow up.

Jim on his Silver Bullet.

Jim on his Silver Bullet.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine called me over to his place to check out his new toy. An E-Bike. Much like an E-book, this thing is a modification of the standard object. It has all the usual things that a bicycle would have but also has a battery that powers a motor that can either let you sail along, throttling it like a motorcycle or set it to call in electric power when your legs are not quite doing the trick.

It was a delight to ride. He gave me a brand new helmet that he had that was not a good fit for him but fit me perfectly.

Now I had the helmet, all I needed was the bike.

Last weekend I picked up my very own “official, red, folding, EMMO double action six-speed, dual-braked hybrid electric bicycle with a kickstand, bell, rechargeable lithium-ion battery and a Starbucks cup holder right on the handlebar.” I am going to call it my Red Rider.

My Red Rider

My Red Rider

I had been thinking of getting a bike this spring but the whole exercise thing was just a little more than I was looking forward to. It would have been OK on the flat but when there is a hill – well, my old joints and muscles are just not up to it. But this E-bike seemed perfect. If I get tired, I can just throttle up and ride. Easy stuff, right?

Well, initially I had to get used to the controls. The throttle, I found, is sensitive. As I was walking the bike through my underground garage I had, unwittingly (the word unwittingly may come up more than once here) left the key in the on position. I accidentally gripped the throttle and the bike took off, wheelie-style, toward a neighbouring car. Luckily I was able to stumble along side and eventually realized that if I just let up on the throttle things would be OK. A close call and I was not even out of the garage.

A ride on the street was in order. What fun to put the bike in boost mode, sit beside a car at a stop light and when the light turns green, give minimal pedal power and have the bike shoot off the mark like I am Lance Armstrong on steroids. I’m sure they were thinking “Who is this old guy on the bike that can beat me away from the corner on his bike?”

All went well – my crotch will get used to the seat, I hope – until the next day when my sacroiliac joints were complaining and my calves ached. I had not counted on using those muscles which had been sitting (literally) dormant for some time. I realize that this is a good thing in many ways – the bike is not completely a wimp thing – but I also thought that maybe I should do some stretching before I set out the next time.

I looked online for stretches for bikers. The nubile, 20-something woman that was demonstrating the stretches looked very good. But I soon recognized that I couldn’t get my maturing body contorted into the stretch position she was showing. I tried. It made me dizzy.

On to another YouTube page of stretches – this time done holding the bike. I watched the first minute which involved straddling the front wheel and holding onto the handlebars to stretch. Given my parking lot experience with the throttle, I decided immediately against that one.

Eventually I found a stretch where you just lie on the floor and bend your knees up to one side. I will adopt this pre-cycle “stretch” although I am not sure it is stretching anything but the time.

The Red Rider folds up and weighs less than 50 pounds. It has a battery that will, apparently, take you up to 40 km.  It folds up and fits in the back of my car.  I can take it anywhere!

I am waiting anxiously now for warmer weather to arrive (it is still cold here in Ontario). I have fantasies of eventually getting my muscles accustomed to the new activity and heading up to the hill on Fort Henry on a June evening to watch the sunset. I can hardly wait to smile innocently as I peddle effortlessly and cruise past others who have given up and are struggling to push their bikes up the hill.

To everyone’s relief, I have decided not to purchase lycra bicycle pants.

Grandmother’s Breath

It is 15 years, almost to the day, that I first went to Sarajevo to start work with the Queens Family Medicine Development Programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina.   I find it hard to imagine where those 15 years have gone.

I remember arriving in Sarajevo, flying into the airport over houses whose roofs had been destroyed by the recent war.  The city had been devastated and in the dreary spring weather looked particularly tired.

On March 24 we had a light snow and a cooler dip in temperatures to about 2 degrees.  The locals called it “Grandmother’s Breath”.  I always wondered why that might be the nickname for this last burst of winter.  I always had associated grandmothers with warmth and comfort. Maybe it was grandmother winter saying “I’m not done yet.  There is still breath in me.”  Just when it looks like spring is on the way, there is a brief and surprising turn to the life of old winter.

photoThis past two days we have experienced Grandmother’s Breath in Kingston. We wake up in the morning to a fresh whallop of snow.  As the day goes on the sun quickly warms our spirit however and melts much of the snow on the sidewalks and streets.  Winter saying, “Don’t give up on me yet, I am not through.”

This reflection made me look through an old journal entry I had written on March 25, 1998.  It was the start of  an adventure in Bosnia that lasted for 11 years and my foray into International Development that has taken me in a direction I would never have imagined.

It is also obvious that digital photography has come a long way in the past 15 years!

 Sarajevo. March 25, 1998.

The apartment where we are staying is very interesting. It is an old, high-ceilinged place on the top of a hill. It has a great view from the balcony overlooking the main part of the city and the mountains beyond.  There are several places in the wooden floors that are splintered from bullets that would have come through the windows during the war and the outside of the building is pock-marked with the shelling from grenades.  Buildings nearby remain totally gutted.

The view from our Sarajevo apartment in March 1998 after "Grandmother's Breath" had dumped a bit of snow on the city.

The view from our Sarajevo apartment in March 1998 after “Grandmother’s Breath” had dumped a bit of snow on the city.

There has been a light dusting of snow. The locals call it Grandmother’s breath, the last winter’s snow. It is about 2 degrees. Today the sun is shining. There are a lot of funny things about living here. The water is often shut off during the middle of the day or at night which makes flushing the toilet a bit of a problem. You have to plan your washroom activities around the water or let it sit there until the water comes back on.

Many of the buildings in Sarajevo had been destroyed by the recent war.

Many of the buildings in Sarajevo had been destroyed by the recent war.

The food is great. The Bosnians tend to be meat and potato people. Lots of Lamb and Veal but they have some other great vegetable dishes as well. Today for lunch we went to a little restaurant to have Cevapcici, a sort of pita  thing made a local bread called Somun filled with grilled sausages, vegetables and onions. This is a popular meal like a hamburger in North America. Last night we went to another little restaurant that was like a deli with lots of good selection of local foods. The local beer (pivo) is called Lachka (or something similar) and I have had a few cans.

Everyone is a winner…

I am always happy to be part of a win-win situation. Last year I enjoyed one that was win-win-win. If I think about it I could add more win’s but you get the point, I am sure.

The St Gorety School is a secondary school in a small village called Mikei, Kenya. It is pretty rurual, about 20 km inland from Lake Victoria and in Nyanza Province, one of the least advantaged districts of Kenya.

Through CanAssist, and with my Canadian friends, Virginia and Suzanne I met Edward Kabaka a couple of years ago. Edward is a founder of a local support group called Rieko Kenya. Well, to make a rather long story shorter, Edward brought the needs of St Gorety School to our attention. Basically the school, serving secondary students from the surrounding region, was overcrowded and needed more classroom space.

St G classroom 2013So in 2012, CanAssist agreed to construct one classroom and complete another which had been partially built with Kenyan government funds which dried up before the roof could be put on the building.

Virginia and Suzanne, secondary school teachers themselves in Kingston, promoted this project to some of their students who responded with fundraising to help with this building.

At the same time, the Queen’s Health Outreach group, university students whose mandate is to promote Health education to students and youth in various parts of the developing world, were looking for a new district in Kenya to work. I have been an ad hoc mentor to this group for the past several years and it seemed natural to put them in touch with Edward and the St. Gorety School.

QHO students visited several schools and community groups in the Nyatike region in 2012.

QHO students visited several schools and community groups in the Nyatike region in 2012.

Last year the QHO group spent several weeks in the Mikei/Nyatike community, living in a house overlooking the rolling Kenyan hills and interacting with schools and women’s groups in the region to educate and promote healthy living practices. Another group of six QHO students are excited to be returning to the community in May/June this year.

When I visited the St Gorety School and other groups in the region in February, they all lit up with smiles at the mention of the QHO students and were ecstatic to hear that there would be a group returning this year.

So where do all the “win’s” come in?

  • CanAssist has been delighted to be able to provide infrastructure support to the school (and three other community groups as well…more about those in later posts).
  • The QHO group has found a welcoming community where they are able to do their outreach work to promote education about health to young Africans.
  • The community which was actually quite neglected and off the beaten track for development has been excited to welcome visitors from Canada who are eager to help them improve their living circumstances. Kenyans love visitors.
  • Edward Kabaka has found support for his dream of improving well-being in the community.
  • Some of the students at KCVI and LCVI in Kingston have established pen-pal relationships with students in Kenya and have the satisfaction of having been able to help their peers in Africa.

And I sit back and smile. It’s all so good.

Treat yourself to the joyous music from the St. Gorety school choir in the Youtube video below.

A delicate matter …

Imagine being a 14 year old girl heading off to school with your menstrual period and not having a clean place to tend to your sanitary needs – or any money to buy sanitary towels for protection. This is the dilemma faced by young African women have no money for the luxury of sanitary pads.

Young African women have enough to contend with but when I visit African schools, the female students are quite vocal about this disadvantage. Schools recognize that girls miss a few days each month because they have no means of dealing with the problems caused by menstruation. This slows their ability to achieve at school and causes them to fall behind the boys.

Sanitary pads are expensive. Particularly if you are barely getting by with other school expenses or even food. In some communities there are initiatives for producing reusable, washable sanitary towels but even this requires a private place to look after your needs which is often not available.

The women at St Mark’s Church in Barriefield, Ontario heard about this problem at one of the schools that has been supported by the CanAssist African Relief Trust for the past few years. Provision of ongoing supplies and consumables is not within the mandate of CanAssist so we approached this Anglican Church Women’s Group for help. And they responded.

The ACW at St Mark’s have been providing funds to purchase sanitary towels and undergarments for the young girls at Kanyala Little Stars School for the past 18 months. And the reward has been better attendance from the girls who now can match the boys in academics. One young woman even got top marks for the region in the last set of standardized exams before secondary school.

Another Kingston couple came forward with a donation to CanAssist to build construct improved latrines and washing areas for the girls. What an improvement!

This problem is huge. But I commend the women at St Mark’s who have determined that they will help the young girls at Kanyala Little Stars with this somewhat delicate problem.

The school is running low on supplies and the St Mark’s ACW will be looking to send another $450 to help for the next few months. In order to keep this ongoing, I’m sure they would welcome a $10 from other Canadian women (or men) who would like to contribute.

Next time you see me, pass me $10 and I will be glad to send it on to the St Mark’s ACW and thence to the Kenyan young women. Evelyn Bowering ( also be happy to be the intermediary to help bolster the ACW funds to keep this program going.

ACW friends
To quote Mama Benta “I have to congratulate those Anglican girls. They are good ladies!”

Sanitation improvements on Rusinga Island

Rusinga Island, on the shore of Lake Victoria, is off the beaten path for development and in a very poor region of Nyanza Province, Kenya. The people in lakeshore beach villages rely on fishing for their meagre incomes and the population of the villages fluctuates with the season. Declining fish stocks in Lake Victoria and lowering sale prices for their catch has made living conditions difficult for these people.

Kaswanga Beach - Rusinga Island, Kenya

Kaswanga Beach – Rusinga Island, Kenya

The CanAssist African Relief Trust has been looking to improve sanitation in four of these lakeside commnities. The villages may have a population of between 100 and 400 inhabitants throughout the year and have had no toilets or washing facilities. Bathing has been done in the lake where there was no privacy and near the same region where household water was drawn for both cleaning and even drinking. The fields near the village were makeshift night toilets and became both contaminated and a health hazard. When it rained, fecal contamination was washed into the lake close to the bathing/water retrieval areas. This, of course, provided a significant health hazard for diarrheal diseases like typhoid and cholera.

CanAssist has been working through the Badilisha Ecovillage Foundation on the island to improve this situation.

VIP (Ventilated Improved Pit) latrines and a washing room at the Kaswanga Beach community.

VIP (Ventilated Improved Pit) latrines and a washing room at the Kaswanga Beach community.

We  built latrines at four of these villages around the island. Although four stalls may not really seem adequate to serve the population of the village, these are four more than zero and the communities are grateful for their addition. The fields adjacent to the villages are much cleaner. Fecal contamination no longer is washed into the lake near the village where water for drinking, washing and cleaning is gathered.

The communities have also asked for washing facilities so that they can have some privacy when cleaning themselves and also discourage contamination of their water supply with detergents and soaps. Last year, assisted by a specific donation from the Mission Committee of St.Peter’s Cathedral in London, Ontario, CanAssist built two washing rooms with cement floors, four private stalls with doors and drainage into a grey-water underground pit.

I visited the Kaswanga Village in February (see the movie trailer here! and was assured that these improvements, which may seem rudimentary and even crude to the North American reader, were making a grand difference to the people who live there.

The treasurer of the Beach Management Unit smiled and added ” If we could get a water pump to bring water from the lake to a raised tank near the washing facility it would be warmed in the sun and we could have warm showers.”

Some things that we just take for granted are deemed luxuries to many African villagers.

Voters queueing to cast ballot in Nairobi this morning.

According to news reports people in Kenya started lining up in the middle of the night to vote. They blew whistles and horns to rouse everyone to get out to vote and lined up in long, long lines waiting for the polls to open. This is an historic vote for Kenya, both in terms of the outcome and the aftermath. I am following reports on Twitter to get a sense of it.

Here is a photo posted on Twitter of a bird’s view of voters queueing to cast ballot in Nairobi’s Eastlands.

And here is another posted on Twitter of people lined up to vote. Incredible.

Would Canadians queue like this to vote?

Kenya Elections

Kenya is having a very important election on March 4, 2013.  Not only will the outcome of the election determine the course that the country takes in the next four years, it will test if  fair, democratic elections, free of tribal antagonism  can happen in Kenya.  Last time it was a disaster.  I do hope that this election is free of corruption and tribal violence.

This is a copy of an article that I wrote for the Kingston Whig Standard when I was in Kenya last month. It was published on Saturday February 23.

Kenya goes to the polls on March 4 and throughout the. country there is an air of anticipation and some angst.  After the last general election in December 2007, allegations of rigging and unfairness led to two months of tribal turmoil that left about 1500 dead and many people displaced.

Traditionally, political parties in Kenya have been organized with tribal affiliations.  There are over 40 tribes in Kenya, each with their own customs and language. Three of these make up the majority of the population and since the country got independence in the early 1960’s governments have been predominantly formed by these.  In a culture where nepotism and rewarding friends is common, this meant that many people were left disadvantaged because they had no effective political representation.

But this is changing.  The ruling President, Mwai Kibaki, has had his share of corruption scandals and improper political manipulations but the freedom of speech and right to protest that was introduced when he was elected in 2003 is remarkably different from the preceding regimes of Moi and Kenyatta.  Under their rule, dissenting views were not permitted and perpetrators were punished and even tortured.

 The resulting opening-up of the press and media and the ability for people to freely challenge or express opposing views has allowed Kenyans to participate more openly in the process. Last week, an historic open debate between the 8 Presidential hopefuls took place. Kenyans throughout the country were glued to their radios or looked to find televisions to witness their leaders actually debate policy rather than just face off like power mongers.  This sort of open contest of ideals has never happened here before. It symbolizes progress.

After the last election, some Kenyan leaders were indicted to go to The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity resulting from their alleged inciting of the 2008 post election violence.  In a peculiar twist, two of these men, whose followers in 2007-8 were in violent opposition to each other, have united into one party and are seeking the posts of President and Vice President.  Although this seems a strange alliance, there are many who support their party because of their tribal allegiances.  On the positive side,  the uniting of these two opposing groups into one party will likely dramatically dilute the risk of violent post-election conflicts this round. On the down side, if they are elected it may provide some strain on international relations.

Another hopeful sign of democratic progress occurred last month when party nominations were held.  Because there is an almost assured win for some parties in different constituencies, and because new alignments of parties and tribes have happened since the last government was formed, the competition to get the nomination certificate was fierce.  In some regions, winners were announced that clearly were the result of unfair practices or rigging of the voting process.  This led to protests in many areas and although these were sometimes rowdy, they did not lead to violence.

And what is even more encouraging, in many locations, the nominations that were announced with corrupt support were revoked and the candidates preferred by the people through a legitimate voting process were installed.  Many established Members of Parliament lost their positions and thereby their power to control. 

In one city there was great celebration as the corrupt nominations were overturned and a joyful parade ensued, people singing and waving tree branches in a symbol of peace.

Kenya is a young democracy. Canadian confederation occurred in 1867 and one has only to look at the Robocall scandal in 2011 go know that we still have some problems with our elections. Kenya was granted independence in 1963 and so are 100 years behind us in development of governance. In this technological age we are used to things happening with immediacy.  The growth of a democratic society takes time.  For years this country was under colonial rule with a control being in the hands of a few.  Kenyans learned that power was concentrated at the top and that individuals, particularly Africans, had little opportunity to express their political views or have any influence. So it is no wonder that it is taking time for Kenya to grow into a freely democratic society.

The people who live here are anxious for this change to happen and it may be frustrating to them that it is so slow.  But in the ten years that I have been visiting Kenya, there are many improvements and opportunities for citizens to express themselves freely and exercise their franchise to vote.  As a result of the new constitution, the judicial system has been revamped and people now have confidence that they can be represented fairly in their courts.  

 The upcoming elections will be a chance to overcome the turmoil that ensued after the last debacle which may turn out to be a difficult but essential lesson.  The consensus now is that with the contentious party nomination process behind them, the introduction of electronic voting for the election (supported in part by Canadian aid), a fair judicial system to prosecute perpetrators of crime and violence, and the realignment of parties and constituencies there will be an openly fair upcoming election. I hope that the country will be able to celebrate progress after March 4.

This article on BBC may expand if you are interested in learning more.

BBC news video about the upcoming Kenya Elections.