At age 92, my Dad announced that he would like to go to Africa. He had never been there but he had developed a connection, in part, through the work that I do with the CanAssist African Relief Trust. Over the past few years he donated support to two small schools in Kenya and was honoured that one of the communities named their school after him – The S.P. Geddes Early Childhood Development Centre. This proved to be a long title that was challenging to fit onto the school gate. Something like naming a Kingston street The Tragically Hip Way.
The logistics of taking a 92 year old on a 30 hour plane trip and then negotiating rough roads and drop toilets meant that Dad never made it to Africa. He passed away quietly this autumn almost 95 years old, having lived a satisfying long life but he never made it to Africa.
Sometimes people in North America feel helpless and frustrated by the stream of difficult news from Africa. Research has shown that we are negatively affected by discouraging stories of war and poverty and AIDS and Ebola. Although our inner selves would very much like to help in some way, we shy away from taking any action if the challenges seem to be too difficult. We are much more likely to help one child than a whole school.
Large international charities know this. They may imply that your donation is going straight to the child whose photo is on their website although the small print will tell you that this child will be one of many that are helped by your donation to their general cause. Charities are well aware that helping the community is more effective but they also know they can garner more financial support if their marketing leads you to imagine your money is going straight to one vulnerable child.
At the CanAssist African Relief Trust we help communities. To pick one child from the many deserving and vulnerable children at a school and ignore the needs of the rest would be counterproductive and unfair. Instead we attempt to assist with general societal infrastructure needs by building latrines or supplying school desks and supplies, water tanks and classrooms. In the last several months alone, CanAssist projects have improved access to water and sanitation to about 3000 children.
My Dad agreed with this approach. He may have been surprised how his support was affecting so many individuals and how much they were aware if it. There are now three little African boys in different villages named Stewart Geddes. These boys were all recently born to people who never met Dad but who have seen the direct effect of his support to their schools. I recently receive this note.
“I am very happy to have my first son born on 3rd Nov. It is my greatest pleasure to name him after your late father Stewart Geddes. I arrived to to this decision to ensure his good work remains as a legacy to tell and to grow in our children here in Africa,Kenya,rural village of Nyatike specifically.”
Dad would have been touched by this recognition. It bears witness to the notion that one person really can make a difference to individual lives by supporting the community.
Through the work I have done in Africa, I have learned that we must not be discouraged by odds that seem overwhelming. Those of us who have visited African communities are motivated by the sense of hope and resilience and determination that overpowers any negativity. We know that by helping schools and clinics and women’s groups in Africa we are participating in improving what Jeffrey Sachs has referred to as the “human capital”.
I believe that if we support communities to become healthy and educated and self-sufficient Africans will find their own solutions to all of those big problems that seem insurmountable to the outsider.
On Giving Tuesday, December 2, or any time of year in fact, your family can make a difference. Find a charity that works in development work that interests you (there are several local groups working in Africa and around the globe) and share some of your good fortune with them.
My father would have turned 95 on November 30. I will honour his example by continuing to do what I can to help African men, women and children to have improved living conditions. I also hope others will not be disheartened but will see that every small deed of good will has a definite effect on someone’s life. Don’t despair. You can assist.
This is the text of an article that will appear in the Kingston Whig Standard on December 1, 2014.