Capt. Matthew Dawe.  Killed in Afghanistan in 2007.

Capt. Matthew Dawe. Killed in Afghanistan in 2007.

I did not know Capt. Matthew Dawe. I do not know his family. But the death of this Kingston soldier in Afghanistan in 2007 touched me, just as the recent deaths of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent did last month. The collective outpouring of grief we felt as Canadians reminded me of the debt we have to people who provided support and protection and care to our society. This includes members of the Forces but also firefighters and policemen and nurses and …

Several friends on Facebook are posting a photo of Matthew Dawe, both to remember him and his family but also as a representative of all those other people, alive and dead, we need to remember and acknowledge.

In July 2007, I wrote an article for the Kingston Whig Standard about this event. Here are some updated excerpts.

When I go to an NHL hockey game I’m always astounded and delighted when the whole arena erupts simultaneously with a response to a near-goal or a spectacular play. It feels like all twenty thousand people are experiencing the same emotion or reaction at exactly the same instant and are expressing it as a whole rather than individually. I never get tired of that experience. It momentarily bonds the entire crowd and is what makes seeing the game live so much more exciting than watching it on television, no matter how big the screen.

This past week, I experienced a similar feeling of oneness with a crowd but the link was found in solemn silence and not a cheer.

I’m not in any way a “military” person and I have absolutely no connection with the family of Captain Matthew Dawe or his family; however, I felt an intense draw to attend his funeral service.

I read with interest and concern the reports from Afghanistan and elsewhere of the lives of Canadian soldiers lost in a conflicts that are complex but ones to which our Canadian military presence has been committed. I had not had the opportunity to show my respect and gratitude to any of these fallen individuals or their families. So the death of this young Kingston man with strong local connections drew me to participate in the grief that accompanies such a tragedy.

Several hundred people from all walks of life gathered for the funeral as a brass ensemble played brief muted selections prior to the ceremony and images of an ordinary young man and his family appeared on large screens at the front of the hall. Between the selections, despite the large crowd, there was an absolute and intense silence. Like the cheers at a hockey game, this sober silence, a spontaneous and collective reverence, had a dramatic and unifying effect.

No doubt we were all thinking the same thing. How difficult it must be for the family to experience this loss. How sad it seems that there is such hatred and tension throughout the world. Is it really worth it? Is anything being accomplished or is the whole exercise futile?

How many similar ceremonies have been held for many young Canadian soldiers? Slowly my thoughts moved to a wider perspective to include the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or, every bit as tragic, to the thousands of military and civilian families who have suffered painful losses as a result of wars around the world, including Kurds and Palestinians and Somalis.

Canada’s role as a stabilization force and facilitator of reconstruction in states like Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq is an important one. We have trained and skilled military personnel who, like it or not, we must share with the rest of the world. Repeatedly we hear how young soldiers are anxious to serve in these areas. It is their profession and they are convinced that they can make a contribution. We have to believe them. From a distance we are overwhelmed and perhaps biased by images of slain youth. They, however, can see first hand the positive effect that they are having and that is what motivates them.

The Dawe family gave us a great gift, not only in their contribution to Canada’s military force (Matthew was not the only soldier in the family) but also in allowing us to participate in some small way. Their dignified, yet personal response to this tragedy and their generous invitation to the public to share in this time of mourning allowed us to express the sadness that we feel as a result of losses we know are occurring and also to reflect on the forces that have brought this conflict about and our country’s role and responsibility to attempt to bring about a some resolution.

The spontaneous, respectful, dead silence of that arena said more than loud cheers or protests could. The service of our Canadian Forces personnel touches us all in one way or another. Collectively we pay a price but we must not lose sight of the reason that our troops are caught up in these conflicts or focus only on the losses and not on the gains that happen as a result of their work.

Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent

Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent

Corporal Nathan Cirillo

Corporal Nathan Cirillo

Would you want your kids using these school toilets?

Imagine this. You are a single mother of three children living in Kenya.  You desperately want your children to get an education, hoping that will boost their chances of living more comfortably than you do now.  You can barely afford food.  The local school is about three kilometres away and has crowded classrooms.

The toilets at the school look like this.Twiga Girls Latrine

Twiga Boys Latrine 3

Your kids are often sick with diarrhea and vomiting. Your thirteen year old daughter is in class seven. She as just stared menstruating.  These toilets, with broken doors, are the only place she can tend to her monthly needs.  So she stays home from school four or five days a month and subsequently gets behind with her studies.

At CanAssist we hear stories like this all the time.  We see these deplorable sanitation facilities at schools. It startles us  to find that in busy village markets there are no sanitation facilities at all. Adjacent fields and gutters turn into raw sewage minefields.

With the support of our donors, we try to help.

In the past couple of months we have been gratified to follow the construction of latrines at the Twiga school in Ruriru district of Kenya.  For a cost of about $7500 we have been able to provide rainwater catchment, new latrines for students and teachers and hand-washing stations for the school.  Hand washing has been shown to reduce the spread of many diseases but without the proper facilities this becomes impossible.

This week we received this report from Michael Gichia who works with the Murera Community Empowerment and Support Organization (MCESO) . It reads, in part:

Benefits realised from the project.

Inscription on the latrine wall reads " Twiga Primary School water & Sanitation enhancement project. This project has been funded by CanAssist African Relief Trust in conjunction with the Grey Gates Foundation /Vancouver and the family of Ruth and Donald Redmond."

Inscription on the latrine wall reads ” Twiga Primary School water & Sanitation enhancement project. This project has been funded by CanAssist African Relief Trust in conjunction with the Grey Gates Foundation /Vancouver and the family of Ruth and Donald Redmond.”

“The project has brought about the following benefits to the school children in TWIGA PRIMARY SCHOOL;

o 555 school children and 15 teachers at TWIGA PRIMARY SCHOOL in Ruiru district have
safe sanitation and drinking water facilities.
o The school enrolment ahs gone up by 20 more children by the beginning of second term
thanks to the water and sanitation enhancement project
Hand washing station

Hand washing station

o The project has improved access to water supply at TWIGA PRIMARY SCHOOL in Ruiru District

o The project has brought positive perception among the school children on sanitation and personal hygiene e.g. hand washing practices, proper disposal of wastes and economical use of water as well as improved knowledge about hygiene and environmental sanitation;

New CanAssist-funded teachers' latrine at Twiga School.

New CanAssist-funded teachers’ latrine at Twiga School.

o The project has brought about reduction in water shortages at TWIGA PRIMARY SCHOOL
and therefore more time for learning for the children.
o The project has reduced diseases associated with drinking dirty water and observing unclean hygienic behaviour among the school children.
o The school has functional hand wash facilities for the promotion of health and hygiene
o Preliminary training on sanitation and cleanliness has been conducted.”

Now, imagine again, as that poor African mother, how pleased you would be that your children had decent sanitation facilities at their school.

CanAssist has been happy to be able to improve the sanitation facilities for these 550 Kenyan pupils.  We have had specific support for much if the cost of this project from the Grey Gates Foundation in Vancouver and from friends and family of Ruth and Don Redmond in celebration of their 65th wedding anniversary last year.

CanAssist has just taken on similar projects in other schools in Kenya and Uganda.  If you or your family would like to help to bring smiles to the faces of African students and their teachers, you can give a tax-deductible donation to CanAssist by mail or online. Details about how to support a project like this a re available on our website www.canassistafrica.ca




It’s about giving …

For several years I worked in Bosnia and spent a lot of early Decembers in Sarajevo, a multicultural city that was still predominantly Muslim, before returning home for Christmas.  The country was also in a post-war period and struggling to rebuild.  I was always struck by the contrast between their society as it prepared for the winter solstice and year-end and mark varied religious celebrations and the onslaught I got when I came home the week before Christmas where I was bombarded with the pre-Christmas hype and commercialism that we endure in North America.

In the past few years, retailers have developed special shopping days to encourage people to buy, buy, buy – Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  The aim seems to be to offer bargains for people buying Christmas gifts and help the retailer get everyone in the spending mode.

This year, for the first time, Canada will mark Giving Tuesday.  Instead of focusing on getting, on December 3 there will be a country-wide effort to think about giving back – either through donations or volunteering.

africaleaf 2The CanAssist African Relief Trust depends on donations from people across Canada to do the infrastructure support work in East Africa that we know helps communities to improve their well-being.  We fund school classrooms and desks, hospital equipment and beds, rainwater catchment equipment in schools, clinics and communities, latrines for vulnerable children and adults at schools and in villages where no facilities have existed.

Each year CanAssist attempts to fund about $100,000 work.  We rely on the generosity of donors to do this.


This Giving Tuesday we hope you will consider the CanAssist African Relief Trust in your charitable activities. And a bonus is that a donor has agreed to match the first $3000 in donations to CanAssist on December 3.  So the value your donations (which already can buy about 4 times as much in East Africa as it would in Canada) will be doubled. Your donation will also be tax-deductible.

A study in the U.S. last year showed that the majority of people would prefer to have money donated to a charity than receive a gift that they could not use or did not really want. In this Holiday Season, please put CanAssist on your Giving list.  Donations can be made with a credit card on the Canada Helps link below or by searching for CanAssist on the Giving Tuesday website.  Or you can mail a check to 582 Sycamore Street, Kingston, Canada K7M7L8.

In the next few days, I will post some videos that highlight some of the work that CanAssist has already done in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.  We plan to continue to do similar work next year with your support.

Listen to members of various CanAssist partner communities as they express their appreciation for the generosity of Canadians that is making a difference for them and their families.


Giving Tuesday 2013 50

A tragic death in Tanzania

I never met Susan Wells. The news that this 41 year old Canadian aid worker had been killed in late November shortly after arriving in Tanzania to do charitable work struck home, however.

I imagined her arriving at the Kilimanjaro airport, tired from the long flight from Canada but invigourated and very excited to be back where she felt she belonged in some way. She would have been eager once more to meet loving children who would swarm her and welcome her in a heartwarming way that is hard to describe.

But she never made it. Her body was found in a field near Arusha. What exactly happened is still not certain but the bottom line is that her mission to East Africa ended in tragedy.

The message conveyed to others by this horrendous assault might be that East Africans are cruel and heartless. It is actually quite the opposite. I’m sure that the people living in the community where Susan Wells worked are grieving with a deep despair. I know that she would have had loving associations with many. Why else would she continue to return?

There are bad people everywhere. We don’t want all Canadians judged by the likes of Luka Magnotta, Russell Williams or Paul Bernardo. All of America can not be measured by the actions of the young man who murdered children at a Connecticut school this week. Tanzania has the same population as all of Canada. A tourism sector report in 2010 reported close to 1,000,000 tourist visits per year. Foreign visits  – both by tourists and by community aid workers – are  an important contributor to the local economy. Violence of this nature towards foreigners is rare.

Travel anywhere has its risks. Visitors to East Africa are aware that crime rates there are much higher than at home. Foreigners are perceived (and rightly so) as having more money than the locals. It must be tempting if you see a visitor using an iPhone that costs as much as you live on for a year, to want to relieve them of it. Pickpocketing and theft is rampant. Even the locals are cognizant of security risks and the potential for them to be victims of crime. Caution is always required. I’m sure that Susan Wells knew that and in all likelihood she thought she was being safe. Most of the people you meet are friendly and helpful. It is hard to imagine that you may be the victim of of such a violent crime – whether at home or abroad.

It is very sad that a young woman who had dedicated herself to sharing with people less fortunate in Africa has been brutally murdered. I suspect, however, that she would not want this crime to taint the reputation of the East Africans who had provided many other loving moments that she must have experienced while living and working there.

Visitors to East Africa are much more likely to be greeted with welcoming affection than negativity.

Visitors to East Africa are much more likely to be greeted with welcoming affection than negativity.