Life imitating art. Or is it the other way around?

I got an unexpected and sad reply from a friend in Africa when I sent him a birthday greeting this weekend. And it all resonated particularly harshly because of the theatre piece I saw last night. 

Tobias is the Beach Management Unit Chairman at the Kamin Oningo beach on Lake Victoria, a small fishing community in Kenya where I have visited several times.Through The CanAssist African Relief Trust we have been able to build up a small school there. The school, in fact, is named after my Dad as is one of the kids in the community!

Tobias responded to my cheery birthday note with the sad news of the death of two relatively young people in the village.  

Now I will take one step back.

Last night, I attended the Theatre Kingston performance of What a Young Wife Ought to Know.   The show was really well produced and there were some very funny and intimate moments. The general theme was a tough one, however.  It centred on the desperation of young women in Canada in the early 1900’s to limit their family size .  Living in relative poverty put them at increased health risk and they were simply not able to care for either themselves or their children adequately.   Their family planning choices were limited and sometimes the only choice was abstinence, a solution that strained their marriages. Desperate attempts to terminate the pregnancy were life-threatening and distressing. The show was dramatic and intense and personal and, for us in Canada now, it was “historical”.

Well in some parts of the world it is not history. 

One of the deaths at Kamin Oningo was a 35 year old woman who already had four kids and who delivered the fifth two weeks ago.  She must have been anemic during the pregnancy or, like many there, had some post-partum bleeding that was not fully addressed.  Like many African mothers, there really was no time to recuperate and she had to take up the usual household tasks immediately.  Apparently she had been given some iron tablets for the severe anemia  but she collapsed on Saturday and died at home.  Three of the older kids go to the SP Geddes school from pre-school age to grade 2. The husband, a fisherman with a meagre and unreliable income, is left with this young family. 

So this news drove home the message of the play even more (not that it needed any more driving home).  It was not that long ago that this conundrum was being played out in Ottawa.  It still is a concern in Africa and with people I know there. And women die. Less than two years ago, another young mother that I know died with a post-partum hemorrhage.  The baby survived but without a mother. 

The other fellow who passed away in the community this week, a 32 year old fisherman with three young children, died of what sounds to me like an Upper Gi Bleed.  Here, he would likely have had access to the medical care to prevent or manage this.  In Kamin Oningo there is no medical care in close proximity and most people can not afford transport to the nearest facilities that can deal with this or the meagre fees that are charged for health services.  So they leave it too late.  

Tobias has reached out to his friends for financial help so the families can achieve  release of the bodies of these two community members from the mortuary and to help to provide a funeral and burial for them.  I struggle to imagine what it is like to lose your wife, have a newborn baby at home and four other children and not have enough money to retrieve the body from the mortuary. Of course, the families will also be distraught by the deaths and suffer even more financially.

If anyone feels they want to reach out in support, I will be pleased to receive any donations and forward them directly to Africa where they will be used in support of these two bereaved families.  Even $10 will help.   An online transfer is best (john.a.geddes@gmail.com) or give me ten bucks when you see me next.  I promise that every cent will reach this community and the grieving families.

(This is not a CanAssist request, by the way, but a personal one from me.)

I would also recommend you seeing What a Young Wife Ought to Know at the Baby Grand – playing from now until February 16. And when you see it, realize what many women/families around the world are still going through and how it is not that long ago that this was the situation here in Canada.

The Kamin Oningo fishing community is suffering this week more than usual.

A stroll through Mbita town

I really enjoy strolling through Mbita town on the shore of Lake Victoria.  I have visited Mbita, Kenya about a dozen times in as many years.  As you can see from the photos, I am the only muzungu for miles around.  I get many greetings and stop to talk with vendors or pikipiki drivers.  I feel very safe and welcomed.  I love the vibrant color that surrounds me there.  The town also has special signficance for me which I will note at the end of this post.

The photos can speak for themselves.

500CC202-A9C4-4909-B08F-2B33B2F95249D128DCAC-E889-4627-A464-FEA31914F8CFC79E9514-1994-47EE-A14C-42D43976433EE464A8D8-6678-42C4-BE83-5D9D387A744E5CD6C1CA-EB43-43A7-8096-53603F77991A83DB0768-4815-452E-AEA5-0CABAAFCC9A246CD1CD5-65F6-464F-A03C-8BC6F92558832E6DD578-9357-46A7-86EE-4C77A4F0CF734805DF7F-9FBF-4DF3-8F90-1E78E53DE2F105B703A7-19F0-40FD-AC19-5241FE5423965269FE6B-9DFC-4ACD-A126-95607263DBAE7FEADFA5-3F5A-4C90-A965-C51A64E0DF155B58C1B9-7259-48D8-8757-E796F882C3EAF5A88267-9ED6-4782-9C4A-E07944FA56103D65AD7D-EC4D-482E-9D4D-C2B002A339EF

Below is one other reminder of my special connection to this town. In the middle of the local hospital grounds, now behind some trees, is a water tank bearing my name.  It was the first infrastructure project that I tackled in Kenya in 2005 and the benefits it gave to this clinic led me to establish the CanAssist African Relief Trust in 2008.  Since that time, CanAssist has provided more than a million dollars of infrastructure support to communities throughout East Africa.  Little did I know, in 2005, what a profound effect that water tank in Mbita town would have on my life for the next several years.

55C31A32-A852-4F17-87E5-3ACB93DBFB0A

 

 

Ramula Shopping Centre – photo gallery

 

Situated right on the Equator, Ramula is a colorful, little, rural Kenyan trading centre that  I love to wander around and take photos.  So much character. Friendly people living what appears to be simple lives but that are really quite complex given the challenges they face getting from day to day.

Here some photos of some of the shops that operate in this rural Kenyan “shopping centre.

 

This dilapidated van has been sitting here for the last five years, looking like this. In front of the “Palace” kinyozi (barber) hardware and beauty salon.

This fellow makes wooden tables, doors and cabinets using all hand tools. I contracted him to make a crib out of cyoress wood for little Heather Maddie at a cost of 6000KES ( $80 Can)

I asked these guys who were the other nine of the top ten.  There were no others.  Guess that makes this one number one.

The fellow hidden in this kiosk cage also can make deposits and give money from your Equity Bank account.  In his spare time he does construction and cuts hair.

org_dsc01391

This is where the fellow above gives haircuts.  The little sticker in the upper corner says “Trust in God”.  Advice for clients who may not feel his skills are up to par?

And for the ladies…

 

CB737D16-60AA-4FD0-BAD8-BFFC7CC26345

The Place Pub, complete with smoking zone outside.

An African basketball story

Last year, while on a safari with other CanAssist supporters, Kingston teacher Nancy Grew was drawn to the small community of Ramula in Siaya District of Kenya. In addition to several others, the safari group visited two schools there, St Catherine Primary School and the Ramula District Secondary School, both having been beneficiaries of CanAssist support in the past.

Nancy is also a dedicated basketball fan and had brought basketballs and school supplies donated by Truedell Public School and a few uniforms from Kingston Impact for the kids at the schools. She was astounded to find that they had heard little about basketball and did not know how to play the game. Fortunately, one of the teachers at St Catherine school was keen to learn and over the next while he coordinated with another coach in the district to start to introduce the sport to the Ramula community.

Knowing that sport was a great way to develop teamwork, discipline, strategic planning and physical fitness in students, Nancy decided to encourage the community to develop a basketball programme for students in the district. She corresponded with coach Donald and was supportive, both financially and through encouragement, of a Ramula district basketball initiative.

Students of the very rural St Catherine school were joined by others in nearby communities and formed a team. Nancy learned that they had the opportunity to participate in a tournament in Kisumu, about 90 minutes away from “the rural”. She wished that she could go to see this game and to encourage the development of basketball in the district, but thought that was a pipe dream.

But pipe dreams can become reality. Nancy applied for a brief leave of absence from her teaching position with the Limestone District School Board and was grateful and delighted that it was approved – for five working days. This gave her a week to make the 14,000 km trek to Kisumu to see her team play in the tournament, have a brief visit to the community, and return home.

I was planning a trip to review CanAssist projects in Kenya and Uganda so I arranged for part of my safari to overlap to include the basketball tournament, too.

On Saturday January 14, we had the pleasure of watching these kids compete. The tournament was similar to any junior basketball tournament in Canada. It was held on an outdoor court at a Muslim school in multicultural Kisumu. The temperature in the sunshine on the court was about 32 degrees C. Despite this, the kids were energetic and motivated. There were five local teams and the games were for half the usual regulation time. The Ramula district team was entered with the name “Kingston” and our team sported donated Kingston Impact uniforms. Balls used for the games had been supplied by the Lakers Basketball Association of Kingston.
I know little about basketball but Nancy was impressed by the level of skill of these players, on all the teams. We were also pleased to see that one of the teams was made up of teenage girls – a reflection that girls and women in this country are being encouraged, at least in some circles, to be empowered to have equal opportunities.


We were delighted to cheer on the Kingston team and watch them win their first two games. Then they won the semi final game and advanced to the finals. Prior to the final game, the kids were all given a big lunch. The outcome? The Kingston team won the tournament, collecting a little trophy to take back to the rural Siaya District community.

What does this all prove? Anything is possible. These rural kids, through hard work and perseverance were able to learn enough in a few months to perform competitively. Nancy, also with determination and support was able to attend the tournament, half a world away. She is now even more motivated to continue to encourage the Ramula community by helping to set up a local league at two schools in the next year. She will look for support to build two sports pads that can be used in the community for basketball and other outdoor sports activities. She hopes that the lessons learned through participation in sports activities will benefit the kids throughout their lives. Stay tuned to see how this story ends.

Nancy has blogged about her mission and her recent trip to Kenya at bballstorygrew.blogspot.com

Watch Catherine’s news report about the tournament here:

Parts of this story appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard on Thursday January 26, 2012.

CanAssist tries to do no harm.

Primum non nocere – first of all, do no harm”  was a dictum that I learned in medical school and always tried to apply in day to day practice.  I remind myself of this principle, as well, in my role as a trustee of  the CanAssist African Relief Trust, an African charity that has consumed much of my energy over the last few years.

There are two schools of thought about providing development aid to some struggling parts of the world.

unknownPeter Singer puts forth the argument that we are morally obliged to help. If we see someone straining to survive and helping them would be of little significant consequence to our own well-being then we must.  Most of us would not hesitate to wade into a shallow pool to save a drowning child, even if it meant getting our new leather shoes wet and dirty.  Taken more broadly, giving up the cost of a night out at the movies to help vulnerable children in Africa follows the same moral responsibility.  A life saved is a life saved, whether in a Canadian water park or a Ugandan village.

Other writers wonder whether some forms of developmental aid are doing more harm than good.  A recent  documentary, Poverty Inc, refers specifically to the tons of rice that poured into Haiti after their disaster in 2010. This aid was certainly helpful for crisis relief but it continued to flow into Haiti after the crisis was over.  Free rice, bought from suppliers in the US and subsidized by the US government to provide “aid”, caused the farmers in Haiti who previously sold rice locally to go bankrupt.  Who would pay for rice at the market when you can get it for free?  This ongoing supply undermined the local economy and increased dependency while American suppliers were being paid.  There is a difference between humanitarian aid and ongoing developmental funding.

This debate challenges me to think about what we do through the CanAssist African Relief Trust.  How can we satisfy our moral obligation to help struggling communities but not create or foster dependency?  Like the primum non nocere dictum, it is partly what we don’t do that is important.

1-2First of all, CanAssist does not send goods; we send money.  We don’t flood the East African market with materials purchased in Canada and shipped overseas at great cost.

CanAssist does not deal with large multi-layered governmental departments but directly with individual schools, support groups and clinics. We don’t go to a community to promote our own agenda or ways of doing things.  We let the community, school, health facility come to us with their ideas of what sustainable infrastructure we can fund that will improve their well-being.

We don’t send unskilled volunteers to Africa in a “voluntourism”  holiday to build a school or do  other work that can be done more effectively by Africans. Our supporters don’t rob jobs from local carpenters and masons who need that work to pay for their family’s schooling or health needs. Instead, our funding stimulates the local economy, albeit in a small way.

dsc05459We don’t provide money for programming, staffing or other individual support. Once a donor starts paying for school fees for a young child, for example,  the student  becomes dependent on the benefactor’s help to finish secondary school, and beyond.  It becomes difficult to stop this individual aid.  And only one person benefits from this well-meaning generosity.  CanAssist provides communities with funding for sanitation or clean water, or for classrooms and furnishings at rural schools.  The materials are purchased locally and construction done by employing local workers, both men and women.  If parents are healthy, better educated and have work available, they can earn the money to look after their children.  CanAssist project funding, therefore,  provides two benefits – temporary employment for local people and infrastructure improvement to the community, benefitting many rather than just one or two.

CanAssist’s administrative expenses in Canada are about 5% of our budget. For some other development programmes, a large proportion of the claimed development funding stays in Canada, paying for salaries, airfares, office space, fax machines, hotels and computers. CanAssist does have obligatory administrative expenses like bank fees, Internet  access, postage and liability insurance and some unavoidable professional fees we can not get pro bono. All other goods and services are purchased in Africa.  We pay no Canadian salaries.   We provide casual employment to some Africans to help implement our projects but this, too, provides initiative to them to work to earn their money. It is not a handout.

We don’t fund  one group indefinitely.  CanAssist attempts to give a school or community a kick-start to help their development but ultimately they must figure out how to manage their own operational and infrastructure needs.  The goal is self-sufficiency and this would not be attainable if the group could rely on CanAssist support indefinitely.

For these reasons, I am convinced that that CanAssist can continue to provide help without harm African communities.  We are grateful to our many generous donors who participate confidently in this mission with us – knowing that they can help without fostering dependency.

img_9486

Safari 2016.  Part 11. Winding up.

On the last two days of our safari we visited yet another two schools in Uganda,  the Kyabazaala Elementary School near Kayunga and Hope for Youth, near Mukono.  We experienced a torrential rain at the Kyabazaala School which slightly cut short our outdoor festivities but had us huddle with a gaggle of students, teachers and parents in a classroom under the tin roof.  A memorable downpour of fellowship and much appreciated water to fill the water tanks.  At Hope for Youth, we received the usual warm welcome and lots of hugs.  What a delight to see some of the kids I have known for about 7 years.  Some of the fellows who danced for me at age 8 are now 16 and in secondary school.  We remembered each other and relished the short time we had to visit once again.  And I promised that I will return.  

We cut the ribbon on a wonderful teachers’ accommodation building which will also have a health/first aid room.  Thanks to the Green           , the Sasamat foundation and to the benefactors who attended a fundraising dinner in Nanaimo last February for making this possible.

It was fitting that the last musical entertainment we had from students (we had a lot over the two weeks) was a blessing from them to us.  We all left East Africa feeling truly blessed by the opportunity to visit that we had with ten very different associate communities and are safely home – jet-lagged, adjusting to winter temperatures but hearts warm from our safari to spend time with our global family.

  

 
  
   
 

Safari 2016. Part 10.  Vibrant colours at Busagazi School, Uganda

We were not deterred by bumpy roads to the Busagazi School on an island in Lake Victoria between Jinja and Kampala, Uganda.  We had to alight from the truck and walk the final kilometer or so up a dusty red road to the school site.  In the last few months we constructed two classrooms at this school where only one existed before… to serve about 600 students.  Since we came on board to help, another Croatian organization has also constructed classrooms.  We were warmly  greeted by the community even though our visit coincided with a school holiday.  An enjoyable day, all in all, drenched in colour and joyful community celebration.

   

 

 

We signed an MOU at the school to provide 48 desks for the new classrooms.


    

  
  

Safari 2016  Part 7. Kamin Oningo beach community – learning about fuel-saving cooking

CanAssist has helped this fishing beach community to improve their sanitation with construction of latrines, a bathing building and hand washing station.  In conjunction with our visit to this village, Gabriella Zamojski has arranged to distribute some solar cookers and fuel saving stoves to some of the community who turned out in droves to see how these works and get a delicious, nutritious meal totally prepared using solar heat. 

  

 

Food was prepared in the morning, set out in the solar cookers amd by 1 full meals were ready to be eaten.

 

 

  

 

In addition to the solar cooking units for the community, Gabrella also facilitated the purchase of a fuel- efficient wood burning “rocket” stove for the S.P. Geddes school though CanAssist. The school reports that food cooks more quickly and with about 10% of the fuel compared to the open fire they were using before.