This school visit choked me up a bit

Last week while visiting a school in Nyanza Province with Dan, I experienced a particularly touching moment.

Two schools, Nyangulu Secondary School the adjacent primary school, also called Nyangulu are in a valley (Nyangulu apparently means “a place of valleys”) that’s down a very bumpy road that gets partly washed out by the rain. It rivals a bumper-car ride at the fair to get there. The schools are virtually on the equator.

The secondary school looked orderly and well managed. We were there to bring greetings on behalf of the CanAssist Trustees and donors and to officially turn over a new 10,000 litre water tank that was already full to the brim because of the late afternoon rains we have received in the past week. While I had been visiting the district for the previous week, the mornings were often bright and sunny and hot and then, at about four, thunder rolled in the distance and brought a brief but torrential downpour. Then the skies cleared in about an hour.

Video: Typical short afternoon cloudburst in Nyanza Province.

The Nyangulu secondary school has about 700 students who all met outside during their morning break to receive our greetings. One of the girls thanked CanAssist for their contributions to the school. She requested that CanAssist help next with some kitchen improvements. After the assembly, Dan and I strolled over to see where three cooks work to provide two meals a day for the 700 pupils. It was a tiny smokey shack with a couple of huge pots and a lean-to beside it with another open fire. It was unimaginable that they could provide food daily from this environment for all of these kids.

Video: Can you imagine preparing lunch did several hundred high school students in this “kitchen”?

Then we walked next door to the primary school where another water tank had just been installed. Once again we were greeted by staff and students and I went from classroom to classroom to say hello. In once class they sang for me.

Video: Grade 5 at Nyangulu Elementary School welcome me with a song,

As we were about to leave, we were directed to a group of very young students under a tree by the primary classes who wanted to greet me with a couple of poems.

One of the poems was about being a Good Samaritan and thanking CanAssist for the contributions made to the school.

Video: Outside under a tree, a grade three class recited a poem they had practiced about CanAssist being a Good Samaritan to them.

“A Good Samaritan becomes a good neighbor. A neighbour is anyone in need. We were in need of hand-washing containers, latrines, storybooks, balls for play and fresh water to drink. CanAssist was there for us. You provided all these. You are our Good Samaritan, a wonderful partner. God bless you and thank you.”

I found this very touching. I told them that I remembered a stained glass window depiction of the Good Samaritan in New St James Church in London, Ontario beside the pew where my family usually sat when I was a their age. I probably spent a lot of time looking up at that colorful window and daydreaming during the sermon.

This stained-glass window is like the one I remember from my childhood.

I realized as I heard these kids and thought about this childhood memory of the Good Samaritan window that the message of that parable must have had an influence on me in choosing both my vocation as a physician and the development work that I have done over the years. I reflected on what a privilege it has been for me to be able to work with communities in East Africa, to meet so many friends there and to have unique interactions with them. My life has been incredibly enriched by these experiences. Hearing the children recite this little poem triggered a surprisingly emotional response in me as and will be a moment that I will long remember.

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Adam Nkuyan School – A Success Story

Driving to the Adam Nkuyan School deep in Maasai territory on the floor of the Rift Valley in Kenya has always been a bit of an adventure. Once, with a group of 20 CanAssist supporters in safari truck we ran out of gas, with no fuel available for miles. This time, my friend, Stephen drove me out to the school and once we got half an hour away from the main Magadi Road everything started to look the same. We took one (or maybe more) wrong turns and basically got lost in the middle of nowhere and with no phone service. We asked the few folks we saw for directions and eventually arrived at the school about 90 minutes late. On the bright side we did spot zebras and giraffes by the side of the “road”.

Video: Wildlife by the side of the road on our drive to Nkuyan School.

I had not been to the school for about 7 years and when I arrived I was very pleasantly surprised.

The Nkuyan School was CanAssist’s first project. We officially opened it in 2009. There might have been 30 students in the single tin classroom.

Alex and Judith Adam open the tin sheet classroom that started the Nkuyan School in 2009. Now there are 8 permanent classrooms and three din sheet classrooms including this original structure.

Gradually a couple of permanent classrooms were added as well as water tanks and latrines. Eventually the school became registered with the Government who ended up paying for 4 more classrooms. The school now has enrollment of 250 students and 11 teachers, four of them paid for by the government. There are another couple of tin structures for the very young kids and they have students from preschool age to class eight.

The school now has 250 students from preschool age to Grade 8

In the National exams last year for the Class 8 students they had the best marks of the 40 schools in their district. In addition, the enrollment at the school is equal numbers of boys and girls.

Fifteen more pupils have joined the Nkuyan school since this chart was made.

We were met by the Chairman of the School Board, the teachers led by the Deputy Head Teacher, a group of parents, including three that are on the parent’s committee. The whole community is involved and supportive and most grateful for this school in their very remote community. Without this school, children in this community might have to walk as far as 13 km to school each day which would mean many would go without their basic education.

The bottom line is that this school has grown incredibly, and has even received some government funding to help it grow. The community is taking care of the resources that have been given to them, is actively supporting the school and encouraging their children to acquire and education. The pupils are showing excellent academic performance. The help that CanAssist provided and continues to provide in partnership with two Kenyan NGO’s (MPIDO and MANDO) has kickstarted a school that is making a big difference for this remote Maasai community. This is the kind of success we dreamed about when we started the CanAssist African Relief Trust 15 years ago.

Video: The students of Nkuyan School entertained me with traditional song and dance.

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I came across this photo of the Nkuyan School in 2009

S.P. Geddes School in Osiri Village, Kenya

In 2011 I met Meshack Andiwo who lived in a small Kenyan village near the Luanda K’Otieno ferry that takes passengers and cars across Homa Bay to Mbita Point. He told me that small children in his community were struggling when they went to Primary School because they didn’t have the basics of English and arithmetic. They were too young to walk the distance to the nearest Primary School. Once the were old enough to walk the distance to school they were behind many of their peers and they became discouraged and lagged behind. He wanted them to have some early childhood education so they would not struggle or be discouraged and quit when they were old enough to walk to school.

I told my late Dad who was about 92 at the time,about this challenge and he offered some financial support through the CanAssist African Relied Trust to start to build a school for the community and it began with one small tin classroom and a latrine. And so it began.

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* video Come, come, come. Come to SP Geddes School for a better foundation. A young child will grow and grow and later become a doctor/teacher.

I visited the school today. There are several buildings now, a kitchen, clean new latrine, a fenced playground and a small office. There are currently about 50 kids at the school from preschool age to grade 4. They are learning the basics and being fed a breakfast of porridge and a lunch of beans or rice and vegetables, sometimes their only nutrition in a community that struggles with food security.

*Video* How wonderful is this welcome?

When we formed the CanAssist African Relief Trust in 2008, we determined that it’s mandate would be to provide sustainable tangible infrastructure and not programming or management costs (like teachers’ salaries or feeding programmes. This is for two reasons. One is that it would commit for a longer term and limit the number of communities that CanAssist donors could help. It also would foster reliance on outside help and May might foster dependency rather than encourage financial planning and self sufficiency. The latrines, classrooms, water catchment, text books, solar panels, fencing etc are tangible gifts to give the building blocks for running a school or clinic or community sanitation programme. Responsibility for managing and funding the programming is up to the recipient.

Feeding these kids two meals a day is an important motivator to have them attend the school and ensures that they get some sustenance.

.Food supplies for the fifty kids at SP Geddes school cost about $15-$20 per day. Parents pay a small fee to cover the cost of the food but by the end of the week, they sometimes run out and Meshack and Caroline have to dip into their own means to support this. I plan to send a bit of money every so often to help them with this expense. If you want to help a bit with this, let me know as even a couple of dollars a week would be of great value to sustain these beautiful kids.

* video Children at the SP Geddes School washing their hands before lunch.
In addition to early academic education they are taught other life skills.

Caroline and Meshack’s grandson was named “SP” in recognition of my Dad’s generosity and the school was named the SP Geddes School. I met SP as an infant several years ago and what a treat it was to see him again today. He is now 9 years old.

Reuniting with young SP, named after my Dad.
Meshack and Carolinr

Meshack and Caroline take good care of the children at SP Geddes School

Visit to a rural Kenyan Elementary School

This morning, Dan and I dropped in to the Ramula Primary School, a rural public school that has about 700 pupils from grade 1 to 8. Although I am no longer a Trustee with the CanAssist African Relief Trust, the CanAssist board asked me to look in on a few project partners while I am here in Kenya.

The purpose of Dan’s visit to the school this morning was to sign an MOU with the head teacher of the school to confirm the building of an 8 stall pit latrine for the boys. Last year CanAssist built a girls latrine at the school and also supplied some much needed desks.

Dan Otieno, CsnAssist’s African Field Representative signing an MOU for a new boys latrine with the Head Teacher, chairman of the school board and chairman of the PTA of Ramula Primary School.

You would not believe the state of the current boys latrines. They are old and in very poor condition (I won’t disgust you with photos.) I watched as three or four boys opened doors looking for a stall that was useable. Toilets that are collapsing and I’m poor repair are not uncommon in Kenyan elementary schools. Although these schools are publicly run, there seems to be no money for many basic needs, like text books and sanitation. CanAssist has helped several schools in East Africa over the years to help with water collection, sanitation and other infrastructure.

Girls’ latrine built last year at the Ramula Primary School.

CanAssist does not work on a cookie-cutter mold. Every project is different and tailored to the needs expressed by the school or hospital or community. This morning a young woman in grade 8 asked if they could have a couple of cupboards for books – essentially asking for book shelves. I told her that I would pass on this request to the CanAssist trustees. And one of the teachers who teaches language and English asked if they could get some storybooks in English and Swahili to help with reading and literacy.

Literacy teacher Frederick Kolanyo
Student Lucy Atieno

For the past few years the Ontario Teacher’s federation has generously funded purchase of requested books for two or three schools annually through CanAssist. Dan usually asks the teachers what they need and the books specific to their needs are purchased from local booksellers. I am sure that when this funding comes through later this year he will be asking this teacher for his recommendations. (Thanks OTF for your ongoing support.)

We were received warmly. The students, the teaching staff, the Chairman of the school’s Board, and the head of the Parent-Teachers Association all expressed appreciation for the gifts that Canadian donors make to the school through CanAssist.

I was happy to bring greetings from Canada on behalf of the donors and trustees of the CanAssist African Relief Trust.

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.

Nyumbani – Home

When I posted to my Facebook page that I was back in a Kenya I received a number of comments from my many African friends that could be summarized as “Welcome home.”   The Swahili phrase is “Karibu Nyumbani”. ” Come and visit.  When will I see you? I hope we can have lunch?  Are you coming my way? ”

This social media welcome extended to our first couple of days here where school principals were asking if we could visit them.  Even the students at one secondary school we anxious to have a school assembly to welcome us and they insisted that all of them get in the picture.  

Africans are generous and excited about welcoming visitors.  They extend that greeting to me but it feels more like family to me in so many East African communities.

I have a theory that there is some of my DNA that recognizes this as a place of my ancestral origin. If Monarch butterflies can find their breeding ground in Mexico without ever having been there or salmon can swim back to their birthplace to breed,  I am sure that there is some little chemical part of my genes that know this as the place where my genetic being began.

Over the next three weeks I will visit at least ten communities and will try to share some photos of my visits.  On Friday we went to the St Catherine School to open a new classsroom building and to the Ramula Secondary School where we constructed a new kitchen several months ago.  Both are well maintained and are serving the students and teachers well.   They are all grateful for the support of the  many donors to the CanAssist African Relief Trust that have made these improvements to their communities possible.

Yesterday we attended a basketball tournament in Kisumu – food for another longer story. Stay tuned.

Today we are heading to “the rural” for an overnight with Dan Otieno’s grandmother, Ann.  How fortunate I feel to be able to experience this association with my numerous African families.

We cross the equator every day going from Kisumu to Ramula. In fact the Ramula Secondary school is situated on the Equator!

These are the students at Ramula Secondary School, taken near the water tanks, installed with CanAssist donor support. Before these tanks were put in, the water for the school was brought in by donkey from a stream. The student have much less gastrointestinal illness with this clean water available.

Nancy looks out through the window of one of the new classrooms at St Catherine school as the kids sing and dance in celebration in the yard.

When I visited this community two years ago there was nothing here. The kids learned under a tree. Now there are six classrooms, an improved latrine, rainwater catchment and school furnishings at the St Catherine school, thanks to the support of CanAssist donors.

Signing the guest book at St Catherine School in the principal’s office. The last time I signed a document here it was in his office on a table under a mango tree.

Cutting the ribbon to open the new classroom at St Catherine school with a butcher knife. No scissors available.

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.

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Smiles and tears – Remembering Dennis

I love visiting schools in Africa. The kids are so warm and friendly and joyous and welcoming.  No exception last month when 20 CanAssist supporters visited 10 schools in Kenya  and Uganda on our expedition to CanAssist associate communities.

Our last stop was at Hope for Youth School near Mukono, Uganda.   It was so much fun.  Even though the school was not open yet after a winter break, students (past and present) and teachers and community members came out to greet us and, once again, we were feted with song and dance and even a skit about how CanAssist is helping with latrines and sanitation in Africa.

We were all up dancing and clapping, lead by a young fellow who was a recent graduate of Hope for Youth and now in high school.  With drumming by the students and Dennis Sserugo rhythmically blowing on a whistle we hooted and clapped and danced together. It was joyous.

We were saddened to learn from the school that Dennis was been killed this week in a motor vehicle accident.

Hello John,

With deep sorrow I bring to you sadDennis1_edit news of the passing away o our dear student Dennis Sserugo, the boy who was blowing the whistle in the traditional dance during your recent visit. He was studying in Secondary school and was being sponsored by on family in Nanaimo.

He was hit by a speeding taxi that swayed off the road as he was walking to school with his friends in the morning hours. The taxi ran off and they could not trace it. He did not die instantly, so uncle David, our school administrator did everything possible to rescue Dennis by taking him to Mukono health center where they could not handle him. They referred them to Mulago main referral hospital in Kampala and they were recommended to use an ambulance. Immediately they reached Mulago hospital, Dennis was pronounced dead from internal breeding.

As you may have some knowledge about our systems, getting a car from our village to Mukono health center, then the process of getting an ambulance and the distance from Mukono to Kampala with the usual traffic jam on the roads, you could really see that probably, he would have survived. 

He has been among the children who stay with my mum and has been a hard working boy, who had the desire and motivation to become a Doctor. We will miss him but we thank the good Lord for his life until now.

If you can, please help and pass on the message to a few friends whom you visited with, some may remember him.  

Peter Nsubuga

This news has touched those of us who revelled with Dennis a few weeks back.  In Canada, with good roads, available emergency services and accessible trauma centres, he may have survived his internal bleeding.

My global family has suffered a loss and I mourn with them. But I also will remember an afternoon of great fun we all had together not that long ago. And Dennis, blowing that whistle.

CanAssist will soon be constructing a kitchen facility for the Hope for Youth School.  We will make this addition to the school in Dennis’ memory.

Enlight1

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.