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Sometimes it is easier to turn a blind eye to poverty and suffering than to do something about it.

In Canada, because we have social assistance programmes  funded by our various levels of government, we tend to let others provide the help rather than deal directly with the people in need.

Do you know that a single person receiving social assistance (we used to call this welfare) only gets about $650 a month to sustain them? Could you find accommodation, food, clothing, and transportation for that? How could you find a job if you have no phone, or a computer connection to communicate with prospective employers, or transportation to go to an interview? If the social assistance recipient finds even a part-time job to supplement his/her income, that money is deducted from the social assistance check. This must remove incentive to find low-paying work, often the only jobs available.

Now … imagine what it is like in much of sub-Saharan Africa. There is no government social assistance, or employment insurance, or social security, or pension plan. Unemployment rates approach 40% in Kenya (in Canada is is 6.8%) and the food inflation rate in Kenya in 2014 was 8% compared to ours at 3.9%. Although primary school education in Kenya is claimed to be “free”, many families can not afford the required school uniforms, or additional payments needed to support poorly-payed teachers. Classrooms may have sixty or more pupils per teacher, no desks, and no books.

The burden of illness in much of Africa from infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS and ebola far outweighs ours. In Kenya, one  child in fourteen dies before the age of five and the chances of a woman dying of a complication from pregnancy is 1:250 compared to 1:9000 here.

Despite their poverty, patients are required to pay a small user fee for health services and medications are often not available or too expensive.

Those of us who have visited communities where this is the situation come home wondering what we can do to help. This is poverty beyond what we, in Canada, can comprehend.

When faced with these overwhelming statistics, it might be natural to feel sorry but give in to the thought that the problems are just too great and vague for individuals like ourselves to do anything about it.

Let me tell you about one Kingston family that decided to help.

Thomas and friends enjoying a filling lunch thanks to Canadian friends.

Thomas and friends enjoying a filling lunch thanks to Canadian friends.

Last year, Marcia O’Brien, her two young sons and her mom, Gabriella Zamojski traveled to Kenya. During their trip, they visited some rural community schools supported by the CanAssist African Relief Trust.

While visiting the S.P. Geddes Early Childhood Development Centre in Osiri village, they were impressed by how the community was attempting to provide early education to the young children at the school. They also saw that many of the pupils (and teachers too) come to school hungry. One young fellow named Thomas caught their attention and represented the rest. His father is deaf and mute and his mother had died the day prior to their visit to the school.  Yet, the child was at school, is best opportunity to receive some caring and support. He was, like many of the other children, hungry.

The image of this child haunted Marcia and Gabriella for months after they returned home. They decided to do what they could to help Thomas and the other children at the school.

In February, I took money from this Canadian family to the school in Kenya to start a weekly lunch programme. CanAssist bought plates and spoons, the children will bring sticks of firewood, parent volunteers will help stir the pots and serve the food and their Kingstonian friends will provide $100 a month, money that will allow the school to feed 120 kids a nutritious lunch once a week.

Although it may be tempting and more appealing to our hearts to provide individual help to one needy child, at the CanAssist African Relief Trust we believe that by helping the community with infrastructure like classrooms, clinics, latrines and water tanks, we are contributing to the well-being of many rather than just a few. Marcia and Gabriella have also adopted this stance with their direct donation to the Kenyan school to feed the whole group, even though their hearts were particularly touched by one student.

What can you do to help? Realize that your support, however meagre it may seem in the big picture, does make a difference to the people in need who live in our own community, or to those who are even more impoverished in developing nations.  Every individual effort helps. Combined small contributions add up.  Believe it. You can assist.

Little S.P. hands out spoons to the children lined up to get their lunch.

Little S.P. hands out spoons to the children lined up to get their lunch.

Portions of this  article was printed in the Kingston Whig Standard on Thursday April 9, 2015.

A heartwarming letter and ongoing need …

It is always gratifying to feel that the work that we do through the CanAssist African Relief Trust is helping kids (and adults too) acquire education, health care and improved water and sanitation facilities.

Kya Elem SchoolThere are about 300 children at the Kyabazaala Elementary School in Uganda.  CanAssist has had an ongoing association with that school, helping them in many ways.   I have visited the school a few times and can vouch that they do need help. The classrooms are somewhat dilapidated and they have few resources. The teachers are paid a meagre salary by the government and often have to find places to live as their homes are not close by.  When we first went to the school, they were getting water from a dirty pond shared with animals, to make the one cup of maize gruel served to the kids at noon, often their only meal of the day.  Their toilets were abysmal.

IMG_20140912_134515CanAssist helped by repairing their one water tank that had been damaged and installing new toilets.  Other Canadian well-wishers visiting the school (including Hugh Langley, Ann Marie Van Raay and Elizabeth Muwonge) provided funding for cementing floors of some classrooms and between us all, we got electrical supply to the school.
Last year, the Mayer Institute in Hamilton, through CanAssist, funded installation of two water tanks at the School.  This will be a grand improvement to their access to water.

This week, I received an email with a scanned letter of appreciation for the various ways we have helped.  It was, indeed, heartwarming, to get this acknowledgement of our support and I want to share it with those who have, through donations to CanAssist, contributed to all the work we have done at the school.1

Our next project at the Kyabazaala Elementary School is to help them construct teachers’ quarters on the school property.  This will help them to acquire and retain qualified teachers since the school will be able to offer some modest accommodation to the teachers whose salaries are woefully low. The community has already been accumulating locally-made bricks for this venture. The total cost for this six-room teachers’ quarters will be approximately $7000 CAN.  CanAssist (and the school) will welcome any support dedicated to this project so we can start it soon.

Donate Now Through!

An opportunity for better nutrition …

In addition to providing desks and chairs and hospital equipment and classrooms in East Africa, the CanAssist African Relief Trust has also helped establish gardens like this one at the Kanyala Little Stars School in Mbita, Kenya.  The garden’s help to provide a steady source of nutritious food and a modest income-generating activity which helps other expenses.

CanAssist has most recently funded development of a garden like the Little Stars one for a patient support group a the Tom Mboya Hospital in Rusinga Island, Kenya.

Mama Benta of Kanyala Little Stars explains the benefits of this support to African families and groups.

In search of a Ugandan Rose…

My 2009 safari in East Africa took me back to the edge of Kibale Forest, a high-altitude rain forest ( a jungle, in fact)  in Western Uganda. The forest lived up to its name with rain pelting down in dramatic outbursts most days. When the clouds cleared it became humid and warm and felt quite tropical.

I had been there a few times before so it was quite wonderful to see the villagers who live nearby, people I had smiled and waved at in past visits. They seemed to remember this white-haired mzungu with a camera around his neck who wandered along the road taking pictures of birds and butterflies and kids. I have tentative plans to return to Kibale for a few days in September 2013 and am very much looking forward to it.

On my daily walks, as I followed the red dirt road into Kanyawara village, I was aware of  being watched by several sets of eyes.  An old baboon sits in the grass, scratching himself and looking like he’s a spectator for a parade. A big brown cow stops chewing for a moment to look up as I pass and children peek from behind curtain doorways.   Some of the bolder ones run out to greet me with “How are you?” the only English phrase that they know. One little girl is dressed in a torn and dirty party dress and most of the children are barefoot.

MarkI stopped along the way to visit a young fellow named Mark who is a progressive entrepreneurial type. He had purchased a plot of land that sloped down into the valley.  He grows all of the food needed to feed his four children and has some left over to sell. As we chat, he hands me a carrot pulled from his garden and I munch on it as we walk.  He introduces me to his 9 year old son, Moses, as “Geddes, my friend from Canada”.

He  and his wife have been digging sweet potatoes and pulling up plants that have peanut-like clusters on the roots. Ground nuts, or G-nuts, are a staple here.  Mark also knows that they enrich the soil somehow so he intercrops them with other plants.  We walked under the banana trees and he pointed out various other crops – greens, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cassava and arrowroot. Avocado trees form a border for his lot. He sells the fruits for less than ten cents each. He breaks off a fresh pineapple from a spiny bush and cuts it up for me to savour. There is no comparison in taste between a tender, sweet, fresh pineapple that is five minutes from the plant and the pale sinewy ones we often get in the super market.

I leave Mark with thanks for his hospitality and carry on. I’m on a bit of a mission.  I have with me a photograph of Rose, a waif who I have seen by the side of the road every year for the past four.

When I first encountered Rose in 2006, she was a sad little waif on the side of the road.

When I first encountered Rose in 2006, she was a sad little waif on the side of the road.

When I get to her village, Rose is nowhere to be found. Knowing that many children in Uganda succumb to malaria or malnutrition before they reach the age of five, I worry that she is OK.

I show Rose’s picture to a woman who is sitting under a tree as she weaves a basket from coarse grass. She shakes her head then points vaguely across the road but I can tell from the look in her eyes and absence of a smile that I won’t find Rose there.

Rose in 2007.  I knew she remembered me from the year before.

Rose in 2007. I knew she remembered me from the year before.

A man sitting in a doorway looks at the photo and tells me that this little girl is not here any more. Both her parents died within the past few months, her mother on Christmas Day. She has gone to live with grandparents in another village – the stereotypical African orphan story. He says he will try to pass the picture on to them.

Disappointed, but glad to know that Rose is alive, I start to head back to the research station. Soon I am joined by four young kids who have been following me around the village. The youngest, about four years old is dressed in a one-piece red pajama outfit, the dome fasteners up the legs and around the crotch all undone. She grabs my hand as we walk.

I think of how trusting and open these kids are with me, a white foreigner from the other side of the world.. In North America, we have scared our children so much with warnings about strangers that they have become fearful and suspicious. There must be a happy medium.

As we walk, the kids want me to go up a side road. I don’t understand their Rutoro language nor do they understand my English, but it is clear that they want me to follow them, perhaps to their home.  So, also in a very non-North American way, I let these kids drag me half a kilometre up a narrow roadway lined with tall grass and banana trees.

We come to a driveway that leads to a small house. Outside a mother is sitting with a baby on her lap. Beans boil on an open fire in a mud kitchen hut. Three other kids are playing in the yard.

One of them is Rose.

Rose in 2009. A happier chid living with grandparents and brothers after both parents had died, likely of AIDS.

Rose in 2009. A happier chid living with grandparents and brothers after both parents had died, likely of AIDS.

She looked happy and healthier than when I saw her the year before.  Shyly she came to greet me. She remembered me for sure and once again, I checked out the scar on her leg that reminded us both of our first meeting when I treated an open sore there. We were all smiles and I take a few more photos with promises to send them back or maybe bring them myself one day.

After a brief visit, I headed out, feeling relieved that Rose was still there – still alive – struggling, no doubt, to get day to day but looking like she will survive. Rose will never know and would never understand the influence her being has had on motivating me to help in Africa where I can. I have trouble, sometimes, really understanding it myself.

I will travel to Kibale Forest again this September.  Will our paths cross again in this little town near the Ugandan jungle? Stay tuned.

Rose in 2010. Look at those eyes. She will be a teenager now. Will I find her again? I am on a mission.

Rose in 2010. Look at those eyes. She will be a teenager now. Will I find her again? I am on a mission.

Dimes 4 desks

Kids!  Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Last month I visited the Grade 4 class at Glenburnie School to tell them a bit about Africa.

Here is a “campaign” that resulted from my visit. This short video presentation, created by Ashley, one of the students in the class,  speaks for itself.

Ashley had originally had “With a Little Help from my Friends” as her background music but YouTube is picky about copyright so we changed it to some original African sounds. I recorded the music in the video when I was visiting a CanAssist project site in the village of Olimai, Uganda in 2011.  The thumb piano band had welcomed me to the community in the afternoon and serenaded me again after dark. What a delightful treat for a visitor.

The money raised by the class will go to the S.P. Geddes Early Childhood Development Centre to provide furnishings (they have none at the moment).

Beautiful Kenyan kids …

In July I related the story of Jerry O, a young Kenyan orphan boy whose story surprised me and touched my heart.

You can read the blog article here : The story of Jerry O.

Today I visited the Hope School in Mbita Kenya and in one classroom the teacher plunked this kid into my arms. “Here is your friend, Jerry”

His problems continue but the child looks robust and is obviously being cared for by the school and his adoptive mother. A delight to see him again.

Me and Jerry O.  - 2012/2013

Me and Jerry O. – 2012/2013

On Tuesday morning I also met Lorraine Kathryn, six month old daughter of Kennedy Onyago who was name was taken from that of my mom (Lorraine) and my daughter (Kathryn) and granddaughter (Cate Lorraine). I introduced you to little Stewart Geddes last week … Well, meet Lorraine Kathryn (Kathy) today! Another Geddes namesake – an honour for our family.

Lorraine Kathryn (Kathy) Onyango

Lorraine Kathryn (Kathy) Onyango

A dilemma

A recent article that I wrote for the Kingston Whig Standard about little Jerry O, a 4 year old Kenyan orphan that I encountered earlier in 2012, brought several responses that included questions about adoption. Here is a response that I sent to one couple who inquired about adopting this child.

“There are many, many children in Africa who are vulnerable in so many ways. Your offer to help is kind and generous.

By “adopt” I am not sure if you are meaning a true adoption – bringing a child to Canada – or a distance adoption which amounts to sponsorship and support from here.

The true adoption process is long and complex and I really know very little about it. African countries tend to be pretty strict on the process of adoption to another country, requiring that the adoptive parents actually live in the African country for a period of time prior to any adoption happening. Private adoption would also likely entail similar restrictions. But I am not familiar with all the laws and rules. You may have explored them already.

Sponsoring a child is often the support from a distance that an individual child needs for schooling, food, security. Some individuals decide to do this through an organization or on a one-to-one basis. It certainly provides good support for children in need and is much less expensive and also keeps the child in their own cultural environment. (This piece entitled “A Small Act” was on CBC radio a few months ago can illustrate the value of this kind of support. )

Individuals who support a child through organizations like World Vision can be sure that money that they donate is being used in the community where the child lives. Your “adopted” child benefits through the supprt that is given to the community for sanitation, education and health.

At the CanAssist African Relief Trust, we realize that it is impossible to help any one child specifically without overlooking someone else who may be as deserving. Our preference has been to provide help within a community or school that will, in some way, benefit all. CanAssist does not facilitate individual supportive programs for school fees, etc, but rather works to help within the community, using community leaders, teachers and health care workers to guide our work there.

You may have heard this talk that I did at a Chalmers United Church service in Kingston, Ontario a couple of years ago. My talk addresses this dilemma. A Youtube link to it is here:

I commend your interest in helping these vulnerable children.

There are, no doubt, families in Canada who would gladly “adopt” a struggling orphan child from a developing country. But it is not simple. Not only is the adoption process encumbered with discouraging red-tape, but rescuing one child leaves many others behind who are equally needy and deserving of support.

Through CanAssist we try to do what we can to help a community to improved water access, sanitation, health or education. Hopefully there will be many children who will benefit in some way from this process rather than by plucking just one for exceptional attention.”

A letter from Africa

One of the three completed latrines that will dramatically improve sanitation for students at the Mutundu School in Kenya – funded by CanAssist African Relief Trust

I am happy to share this letter of appreciation from Michael Gichia who has been the African contact with the Murera Community Empowerment group and the Mutundu School where the CanAssist African Relief Trust has funded construction of new latrines and provision of clean water.

See these earlier posts for background on this project.

Sanitation…or lack of it
Sanitation..making progress
Not just new latrines

Dear John,
I hope you are doing fine as we are here in Kenya. I would like to let you know that we have completed the proposed project successfully and I’m taking this opportunity on behalf of MCESO to thank all the trustees, board members, staff and the friends of Can Assist African Relief Trust for their generosity in support of our project titled, provision of clean portable drinking water and construction of enhanced sanitation facilities in Mutundu primary school in Ruiru District 0f Kenya. Your financial commitment has incredibly helped and has allowed us to reach our goal. We would like to let you know that your financial inputs towards our proposed project have greatly helped the project turn into a successful and replicable model and the situation at Mutundu pry school has improved from worst to best.

We pray that may God keep continue giving you good health as well as good will to keep on helping marginalized communities.Please find attached our end project for your files.Too, we have kept all the project invoices safe.We look forward to submitting another project proposal to Can Assist African Relief Trust soon.

Thank you once more and God bless.

Read Michael’s full report on this project here.

Mutundu school latrines

Before and after photos of the boys latrines at Mutundu School. In addition to the latrines, sanitation has been improved by the construction of handwashing stations. CanAssist has been delighted to have funded these sanitation improvements.

The story of Jerry O.

(Published in the Kingston Whig Standard – July 18, 2012.)
My friends told me that I needed an updated photo for my Facebook page. I have been a somewhat reluctant Facebook user but I recently attended a conference for charities on behalf of the CanAssist African Relief Trust and the message was that “conversation and collaboration” are now the keys to successful charities and fundraising. And Facebook, with over eighteen million users in Canada … half our population … is the way to communicate in 2012.

So I opened up my previously fairly clandestine Facebook account to the world, started a blog and I am going to give it a good try in the next few months.

I had been using a photo of the Rift Valley as my profile picture. “Not good enough,” was the response. “It has to be a photo of you. People will communicate with you because of common interests so they have to see who you are.”

I compromised. I found a picture that was taken last winter when I was in Kenya of me and an African child. I have always liked the photo. But I knew little about the child.

It was taken at a very small school in Mbita Kenya, one where we were working to start a school farm. There were kids everywhere. Playing and running and singing. Many were curious about this “mzungu” who was standing in their midst with a camera. One little fellow was particularly eager to be near me. He followed me around for a few minutes, sometimes holding on to my pant-leg or “petting” my hairy arms. (African men usually have little or no hair on their arms so my furry forearms are a novelty that many African children cannot resist. “You are like a lion,” one kid told me a couple of years ago.)

I was drawn to this little fellow’s smile and after a few minutes I picked him up and carried him around as I greeted the other children. He beamed. I gave my camera to one of the teachers to take our picture. You can see joy on both our faces. We became friends quickly and were relishing the new-found bond between us.

This photo has become a symbol to me, representing the happy association that I cherish between me and African people, particularly the children.

So I put it up on my page. I immediately had comments and “likes” for the photo. It seemed a good choice.

Later that morning I happened to be chatting with the Director of the School in Kenya using Skype. I asked if he could identify the child.

His name is Jerry Otieno,” I was told. “Fantastic,” I thought. Jerry sounds like such an active, outgoing name and suits the smile that I remember. And Otieno is a very common Luo man’s name meaning “born at night”. I have dear friends with that name in Kenya. It seemed perfect.

What a sad case,” continued Kennedy.

This poor little fellow was brought to our school by a teenage caregiver. He had no money for school fees or food. He is about 4 years old. His mother worked for another woman in town as a housekeeper. She got pregnant and there was no father in the picture. Last year she became ill and was taken to a hospital in a neighboring town. She died there. Her body rots in the mortuary of the hospital, unclaimed. Jerry is being looked after by the woman for whom the mother worked but she has children of her own and cannot afford his care.

We have taken him into Hope School and support his education. He gets one meal a day here. He loves school, walking to school himself most mornings.

I was startled by this story. I had picked this photo because I thought it was upbeat and the child in it the epitome of a happy African kid. I have seen lots of heart-tugging photos of emaciated children covered with flies used by charities to promote their cause. I don’t want to use those images to portray African children because even though their stories would break your heart, most of them look like little Jerry. They are smiling and cuddly and loving and resilient.

The Hope School is one that CanAssist supports. The school has about 150 students ranging in age from about 4 to 12. Most of them are categorized as “OVC’s” (Orphans and Vulnerable Children). The teachers work at the school for little remuneration and the school struggles to provide both education and one meal of porridge a day to these kids. CanAssist has helped the school by providing funds to start a school garden that will both provide better nourishment to the students and perhaps a bit of extra income for the school to help with expenses. Children who can afford it, pay about $8 a month as a school fee. But at least 30% cannot afford even that and are included with no fee.

Jerry’s story shook me but it is not that different from many others I have heard. I still think about little Rose, the Ugandan waif that got me started with this business of trying to help out in Africa. Now Jerry has added motivation to my work through CanAssist and I will leave his picture with mine on my Facebook page to remind me — and my Facebook friends— of the happiness that can come from helping where you can and the joy that just caring brings to others.