TIFF Day 4 – An elephant in the room

There are over 400 movies at TIFF, including documentaries and short films.  My penchant for things African led me to see The Ivory Game, a recently-completed Netflix-produced film about the rapid decimation of the African elephant population  that, sadly, is threatening extinction of this largest of land animals.   The figures are startling.   The number of elephants in East Africa declined by 30%  or about 150,000 elephants, from 2007 to 2014 and continues at a rate of about 8% per year.  Part of this stems from human-wildlife conflict as human development  encroaches on previously protected areas. Elephants know no boundaries and may destroy gardens and local agriculture so people living in villages near these animals turn to killing the animals to protect their crops.

But the bigger problem is poaching of the animals for their tusks.  It seems that the main trade in elephant tusks is through China where ivory trinkets or carvings are seen as valued pieces of art.  And poachers, gang leaders and corrupt officials can make a lot of money selling illegal ivory.  They are even banking on the approaching extinction of the elephant, a boon to their profit as ivory becomes increasingly scarce.

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In addition to educating about this crisis, the film turns into a real-life spy thriller as it follows undercover agents as they try to gather information to help capture and convict the poachers, including one of the  kingpins aptly nicknamed Shetani – “the devil”.

It appears that the only way for elephants to survive is for governments around the world to make sale of ivory totally illegal.  Until that happens the poaching will continue and the number of African elephants living in the wild become dangerously threatened.

You can read more about this at  www.theivorygame.com and the Great Elephant Census.

I give this documentary 4 stars of 5.  It was the only movie that I saw this year at TIFF that actually moved me to tears.  It will be on Netflix later this season.

I have peppered this page with a few of photos of elephants that I have been fortunate to see over the years in East Africa.  How many of these magnificent animals have survived the poacher, I wonder?

I took the above photo on my way to the airstrip in the Maasai Mara.  I was worried that having to stop as this herd of elephants meandered across the road would make me miss my plane back to Nairobi.  But even the small local airlines are on “Africa time” and the plane was an hour off schedule. Meanwhile I got to sit in a jeep and watch this extended elephant family enjoying their day.

And when I got to the air strip, the small plane was oversold by one – so I got to sit in the cockpit with the pilot.  A commanding view of the Maasai Mara and this memorable sight of another large herd of elephants crossing the Savannah.

aerial-elephants

Feeling proud…

When my grandson turned six, he decided that, instead of having kids bring him presents for his birthday party, he would have them bring a bit of money that he gave to me to take to Kenya to share with school kids there.  I was able to buy a soccer ball and books for three schools with the money he collected.  I also took a photo of him to each school.

When I returned to one of the schools a year later the children asked me “How is Noah Budd?”  They knew that he had helped them and were wanting to send greetings.  Last year it took me by surprise when I was in the office of yet another school and saw Noah’s photo on the wall.    I was delighted to make Noah aware that these children were grateful and appreciative of his generosity.

Maia 3In May, Noah’s sister, Emma,  sent me $10 of her birthday money and this afternoon, in the mail, I got a note and $10 fromtheir sister, Maia, who turns five today, money for the CanAssist African Relief Trust.

I am so proud of these kids (and their parents) for sharing their good fortune with others.

I have also gone to elementary schools where the kids have been very enthusiastic and motivated to help others in Africa.  Ms Paré’s Grade 4-5 class at Glenburnie School gathered $1300 this spring and this money is now being put to use to construct school furnishings for the St Catherine School in Kenya.

CanAssist  has also had generous support from children at Sweet’s Corners School, Rideau Vista School,  and Inglewood School in Toronto.

These kids seem to just realize that with really very little effort and sacrifice on their part (mainly enthusiasm and motivating others) they can make a really significant difference to the lives of children in Africa.

I am moved and proud of all of them for their altruism and I hope that their parents and neighbours and aunts and uncles can take a lesson from them and reach out to help others both at  home and in the developing world – because we can assist.

Kids at the Kanyala Little Stars School in Mbita Kenya sing a song for Noah Budd.

Osiri, a Lake Victoria fishing village

Osiri village is a 15 minute walk from the Luanda ferry dock that takes me to Mbita town. It is a small fishing village with a population of about 500. The people there struggle with poverty and the unfortunate lack of adequate clean water and sanitation.

Osiri fishermen

Osiri fishermen

I was introduced to the community through Meshack Andiwo, a fellow who as had the opportunity for a bit more education than most there. He indicated that the community was concerned about the children not getting any schooling. It is near this village that CanAssist has built the Stewart Geddes School. Fishing had been the main source of income for people in the village but this is becoming more challenging for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as in the rest of lake Victoria, the fish stocks are being depleted. Nile perch were introduced to the lake in the 1950’s as a potential source of fishing income. This was both a blessing and a curse as these fish have a voracious appetite and have consumed many of the smaller species in the lake, upsetting the ecological balance. They can grow to be very large. Nile perch caught in the lake are packed in ice and taken to a larger city, Kisumu or Nairobi, for filleting and shipping to Europe.

Day catch of Nile Perch. These four fish weighed 38.5 kg.

Day catch of Nile Perch. These four fish weighed 38.5 kg.

Although the price that the fishermen can get for the fish has fallen, it is still an income. So the people who live here are forced to sell the fish and go without. Despite being close to this nutritious food source, they can not afford to keep the fish which end up in European markets.

Another introduced species that is causing problems in the bay is Water Hyacinth. You may know this as the lettuce-like floating plant on ornamental garden ponds in Canada. They sell for $4-$5 each in garden centers in May and June. They have a nice purple flower and spread out over the pond only to be frozen at the first frost.

Somehow, this native of South America entered the Lake Victoria system in the 1980’s and since then, they have rapidly taken over. Millions of them float in clumps or even large islands in the lake, being blown around by the wind and currents.image Although they may shelter the fish in some ways, the fishermen have trouble with their nets brewing caught up in the rafts of plants and when a large crop blows in to the shore at the village, it makes landing or launching a boat impossible.

Water hyacinth floating on the lake.

Water hyacinth floating on the lake.

They also act as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, thus increasing the spread of malaria and dengue fever.

I told the folks here that the poverty problem in their community could be solved if they could just sell these plant pests to North Americans and Europeans for their backyard ponds. Another inequitable obscenity, when you think about it very much.

This unventilated latrine is the only toilet for the 500 people living in Osiri village.

This unventilated latrine is the only toilet for the 500 people living in Osiri village.

There are few households with any toilet and most of the people in the community either use the bush or one small latrine found near the centre of the village. They collect their water from the lake but the lake is becoming increasingly polluted with sewage, laundry detergents and other effluents. Many do not boil or purify their water before consuming it as this takes time and money or consumes scrounged firewood that is needed for other cooking.

Kids swim in the lake and others bathe there. Many are infected with bilharzla, a parasitic fluke that can infest kidneys and bowel.

Despite these challenges, the people who live in Osiri Village are cheerful and optimistic and my visit to the community and the Stewart Geddes school was heart-warming.

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The butterfly in me …

A few weeks ago I went to the IMAX theatre at the Museum of Civilization in Hull to see the movie “Flight of the Butterflies”.  In addition to being a visually spectacular film in 3D it told another amazing story.

Monarch butterfies weighing only a few grams migrate from our back yards in Ontario to one particular spot in Mexico where they spend the “winter” months.  They then fly back to the southern US where they lay eggs and a new generation is formed which makes the second migratory loop to the northern parts of North America.  The generation that goes through the egg/caterpillar/pupa/butterfly phase here in Canada is the one that goes back to Mexico.  This journey is incredible enough, given the size of the delicate butterfly and the distance traveled.  But even more unbelievable is that the butterfly that migrates back to Mexico has never been there. It was her grandmother that spent the previous winter at the same location.

What could be the explanation for this?  There must be something inate that leads the butterfly to Mexico – something in its DNA that acted as a homeing GPS.

I have often found it remarkable that caucasian visitors from the northern hemisphere (including me) who visit East Africa are drawn to return there.  I have this unusual inner voice drawing me back repeatedly.  I have often wondered what this is all about.

Now I know.  Or think I do.

I imagine that there is some little piece of my DNA that knows where I came from – not last year but hundreds of thousands of years ago.  I think that some of us have some tiny piece of genetic material that recognizes East Africa as the place of our origin and, although we are not a migrating species, there is some biological inner voice that draws us there.  If it can happen to a Monarch Buttefly or Pacific Salmon, why not us.

Homo Habilis Maxilla

This is an actual 1.5 million year old maxilla and teeth from Homo habilis – one of my extended family members?

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to wander in the Rift Valley where humanity originated.  In a little museum in Arusha Tanzania, I have seen part of a 1.5 million-year-old skull of Homo habilis – one of my great, great, great, great, great, …x many greats ……..  grandparents, perhaps.

Science supports the idea that all humanity originated in East Africa.   It makes me wonder – does my DNA remember this in some primitive way and that is why, like the butterfly that returns to the place of its ancestors without a map, I am drawn to return to the Rift Valley of Kenya?

It is, I am sure,  my ancestral home.

The Rift Valley of Kenya - I am drawn to this place like a magnet is pulling me there.

The Rift Valley of Kenya – I am drawn to this place like a magnet is pulling me there.

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.

The “D” word…Drought.

This is a slight variation on an article that I wrote that was published in the Kingston Whig Standard, on Monday October 22, 2012.

In Eastern Ontario it has been a dry hot summer. Ideal for vacations, swimming at the cottage and just living outdoors. But not ideal for farmers.

We tend to take water and even adequate rainfall for granted here in Canada. But this year farmers in Ontario were suffering. Apparently corn crops are miserable. Many farmers who raise livestock are having trouble finding feed for them. Grazing fields have been dry and wheat crops have failed. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, combined with the Mennonite Disaster Service have initiated a program whereby Western Canadian Wheat farmers can donate bales of hay for feed to ship by train or truck to their Ontario peers.

The first shipment of 200 bales arrived this week. They estimate that the need is more like fifty thousand bales.

I wonder if we are getting the idea that the climate is changing and that it will affect us. We have been relatively insulated from the shift in weather patterns. Air conditioning when it is hot. Ample supply of fresh water in lakes and rivers. Government subsidies. Social assistance.

In Africa the situation is more challenging.

Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Maasai herdsman in Kenya.

First of all, the shoes would likely be made from old auto tires. Or maybe you would have no shoes at all.

Your herd of cattle, even at their best being scrawny compared to what you see in Canada, are grazing in the open on land that is barren and dry. It has not rained in several months. You have to walk miles with your cattle to the local watering hole, a source shared by the livestock and humans alike for drinking, cleaning and bathing.

On the way to the water source one of your animals becomes weak and collapses. You have no choice but to leave her there. Hyenas and vultures will take care of the rest.

Traditionally you have always relied on your animals as your source of wealth and many years ago you moved with your extended family from region to region, building a new village as you relocated and following the rain and grass for your animals.

Early in the 1900’s the British colonialists arrived saw your land as being not “owned” by anyone. Ignoring your traditions, they quickly set to work according to their laws and customs to purchase land for themselves and erect fences. You and your animals became gradually squeezed to less favourable locales. The city of Nairobi now sits on land that your grandfather used for grazing his cattle.

Rain is essential to your survival. In the past few years there have been increasingly longer periods of drought, often lasting for months and months. Your animals stop producing milk. Many of them die. Your “wealth” is drastically reduced along with your supply of food.

You have nowhere to turn for social support. Food prices in general escalate, in part because of lack of local foodstuffs but also because of the increasing cost of fuel to transport food from further away.

What can you do? Where can you turn? You might give up your traditional means of livelihood and move to the city. But you are not educated, have never used a computer and when you get there would be forced to cram into slum living conditions with others who are flocking to the city looking for work.

So you pray for rain. Your children go hungry. You scrounge for any bit of food for you and your animals. You rely on handouts from International Food Aid programs or your neighbours. You hope.

Eventually rain comes. Within days there is a tinge of green on the landscape. You rejoice that you have survived this crisis, emerging more poor even than you were before, but ready to start over.

Every few years, this kind of drought event has occurred in East Africa for a long time. Now, the problem is that this pattern is happening with increasing frequency.

People in tropical climates have recognized these changing patterns for a while now. They are powerless to change them. The CO2 emissions that are leading to these climate variations are coming, almost entirely, from the more opulent nations in temperate climates – regions that have been somewhat protected from the resulting changes. We may be happy to shovel less in the winter, spend more time on the beach in the summer but eventually the penny will drop.

This year in Ontario we have had a significant drought. It has been a crisis for farmers and food producers here. Will it become more common as time goes on and the climate changes? How can we prepare for this?

And I wonder what will happen to the Maasai pastoralists.

Here are some weather observations that reinforce the notion that patterns are changing.

Not just new latrines

I’m delighted to have received further updates about the sanitation improvements that CanAssist is funding at the Mutundu Primary School in Kenya.

Toilet for girls at the Mutundu School – Spring 2012

I first wrote about this in a blog article in June (Sanitation – or lack of it) and subsequently updated it last month (Sanitation – Making progress) As you can see from the photos, the state of the toilets for staff and students at the school when our Kenyan assistant, Dan Otieno, assessed them was nothing short of disgusting.

Last week I received more pictures of the new latrines at the Mutundu School I would like to share along with some hidden advantages to the community from the kind of development work we are doing through the CanAssist African Relief Trust.

New CanAssist-funded girls toilet at Mutundu School. August 2012

I have come to realize that often the stimulus to a community provided by the funding of an infrastructure project such as this one has other less obvious benefits. The materials for construction are all locally purchased and the skilled (and unskilled) labourers to construct the projects are local tradesmen, often without much work. So we are not only providing the structure or item that will be part of the community and improve well-being there, we are also giving some employment to the locals, albeit temporary.

CanAssist recently sent money to another school in Uganda – Hope for Youth School near Mukono – to purchase 70 desks and chairs for the school. The cost comes to just over $5000 to do this. The bonus is that the desks and chairs will all be made locally by carpenters who will therefore benefit as well. This is a Win-Win situation. The school gets the needed furnishings and the local carpenters (and suppliers) benefit from the business.

It makes me happy to see this work at the Mutundu school progressing, knowing that the sanitation (and thereby health) conditions at the school will be greatly improved. I am also glad that the community are having some opportunity to participate in the construction and even earn a bit of money as they contribute to achieving these goals.

When money for infrastructure projects like the latrines at Mutundu School becomes available, it creates lots of interest in the community, a sense of ownership of the project and employment for tradesmen in the region.

Canada Day in Africa?

We may have been busy celebrating Canada Day in Canada but would you imagine that it is a special day in some African communities as well?

I received some great pictures from the Hope School in Kenya this week.  This school is the one I blogged about last week – the Canada Day Challenge.  I spoke with the Director of the school on the weekend and advised him of the generous donation from the Sasamat foundation towards classrooms at the school and he was ecstatic. 

“We will all celebrate Canada Day and the generosity of your Canadian friends at the school on Monday when I announce this gift to the staff and students.”

Children at the Hope School in Mbita Kenya, celebrating Canada Day 2012.

On Monday the children gathered to celebrate their Canadian sponsorship and express appreciation. With home-made signs they gathered for juice and acknowledgement of the help their Canadian friends have offered. 

But there are Canadian flags flying elsewhere in East Africa as well, thanks to CanAssist.  

A group of CanAssist supporters recently returned from a visit to Uganda and sent me photos of their trip. Included was one of the Canadian flag that flies proudly over the school compound.  When I visited the school last year, the principal laughed and said “That Canadian flag is made of nylon and it flies well in the breeze. Our Ugandan flags are heavier material and it takes much more wind to get them going.  So Canada is always brightly represented even when our flags are limp.”

The St Gorety Secondary School receives a Canadian Flag, and support for two new classrooms at the school.

When I visited the St Gorety High School in Nyatike District of Kenya last year, I took with me a flag for the school – one that was sent by Virginia Puddicombe, a teacher at KCVI in Kingston.  Virginia also sent along photographs and letters from Canadian students to their counterparts in Kenya and the Africans have sent greetings back.  A kind of pen-pal relationship has begun. We hope that, in this digital age, some face-to-face interaction can happen through Skype and the Internet.

While we proudly celebrate Canada here, there are people around the world who also pause to be grateful for the generosity and support that Canada and Canadians offer to them.  

Oh, Canada!

P.S.  We have raised about half the $2500 necessary to get the Sasamat promise of another $5000 for the Hope School. If you have not yet takent the opportunity to help us reach this goal in July, more information about how to contribute is available on the CanAssist Hope School web page.

The children at Hope School celebrate Canada Day in appreciation of the generosity of their friends in Canada who have supported the school.

Images of Africa – Elephant in the room

Take a moment to close your eyes; think of Africa; form an image.  What comes to mind?

In all likelihood the image is of a lion…or a Maasai warrior dressed in red, adorned with beads and carrying a spear…or of an emaciated child struggling for life in the arms of her distressed mother.

Although these images are all legitimate, they represent only a small portion of the cultural depth and diversity in sub-saharan Africa.  They are icons.  Is Canada thoroughly represented by a photograph of a  Mountie on a horse in a red tunic? Niagara Falls? A beaver? A big bull moose with horns like a hat rack?  Chances are that a large portion of the Canadian population has never come across a moose in the wild.  And the reality is that the majority of Africans have never seen a lion.

One of Heather Haynes paintings depicting the characteristic image visitors to East Africa retain forever.

The images we get are iconic and restrictive.  Charities often show pictures of starving kids to tug at heartstrings and garner donations. But these sad images do not reflect what one sees when visiting Africa. Instead the majority of people you meet there are polite and open and generous. They smile and are often immaculately dressed, no matter where they come from.  They are friendly and outgoing and eager to interact.  They know what they need to help their communities…they just don’t have the resources to put their ideas and dreams into action.

At the CanAssist African Relief Trust we try to present an accurate description of the needs of the communities we support without indulging in what has been called “the pornography of poverty”.  Some African people may be very needy by our standards but they are still proud and deserve not to be exploited with images of their poverty being the primary focus.

Heather Haynes, a Kingston artist, has travelled in East Africa and has found beauty and colour in the villages she has visited.  Her safaris in Africa have transformed her as an artist. She paints remarkably stunning life-sized portraits of African women and children and gives part of the profits from selling them back to charities working in Africa.  Heather has become immersed in this work and along with her sister, Whitney, who makes jewellery with an African theme, has opened the Heather Haynes Gallery in Kingston, Ontario at 318 King Street – across from the market. 

I recommend a visit to the Heather Haynes gallery, if only to see an accurate portrayal of the colourful, resilient people one meets every day while traveling in Africa. It would be wonderful if these were the images that pop into your mind when the word Africa is mentioned.