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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.

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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Canada Day challenge met!

A huge THANK YOU is in order for everyone who responded to the Canada Day Challenge I wrote about in this blog on July 1. Through your generous donations and a bonus from the Sasamat Foundation in British Columbia, CanAssist has secured the money to build the two needed classrooms at Hope School in Mbita Kenya. Everyone is delighted. I will be sure to provide updates as the school classrooms rise from the dust.

Kennedy Onyango is our contact and the founder of the Hope School. I first encountered him in July 2010. He exemplifies the typical story of relatively ordinary Africans (but motivated ones) who see a need in their community and they dedicate their personal resources and time to finding ways to improve the plight of the people who live around them.

In Kennedy’s case this was to help vulnerable young children in his region – kids who lived in poverty or were orphaned – get a start at being educated. He founded a “school” which is divided into two locations. One is in two crammed classrooms behind a bank in the town of Mbita and another on a larger property in the hills beyond the town. There are 160 kids who come to these makeshift classrooms.

In addition to giving them education, the school also provides a mid-day meal for the children. Sometimes this is the only food that they get for the day.

Kennedy Onango holds up a sign that marks the beginning of the CanAssist Oasis of Hope Garden for the Hope School at Mbita Kenya

Kennedy first asked CanAssist to help develop a small farm where they could raise vegetables and fruits to supplement the otherwise bland gruel diet provided to the kids. In early 2012, CanAssist gave the money to start this up and very soon Kennedy had created what he calls the “Oasis of Hope” on the rurual school property.

In mid July, I got this report from Kennedy. It surpassed my expectations for success in the early months of developing this garden. Kennedy writes:

This month in CanAssist funded ‘Oasis of Hope Garden’, we take a deeper look at this farm, which is celebrating its first harvest. In a single 3 month production cycle, 480 kilograms of sourghum, 120 kgs of beans have been harvested so far from a 2 acre ploughed open farm. The same 3-month production cycle is also projected to yield a 120 kilogram of maize (corn). This has clearly reinforced our earlier thought of making the garden both food granary and source of funds to support key school operations. It’s true, a good income can be realized from the selling of sourghum.
Why is this important? 140+ children at Hope School have never had an opportunity to drink nutritious porridge from the initially barren school farm yard. Rural peasant families of Mbita don’t have the money to take a chance on unproven technologies. Demonstration farms like the CanAssist funded ‘Oasis of Hope Garden’ give families a firsthand look at the income increases they can achieve with an investment in appropriate technologies for improved on-farm yields
You can see how CanAssist’s approach of working with poor, marginalized rural communities of East Africa transforms lives on our first ever bumper harvest in this school farm.
We remain appreciative for CanAssist supporters and with special thanks to Sasamat Foundation for having donated funds towards classrooms construction at Hope School, besides nutritious meals, the children will now get conducive learning environment!”

The first step in creating a garden was to fence the property to keep protect the garden from wandering neighbourhood goats. This dry corner is the same place where the banner picture of maize plants was taken three months later.

I hope that this enthusiastic endorsement of the work that we are doing through CanAssist makes our donors smile with satisfaction. With the support of Canadian donors, Kennedy and others in his community have been able to take a barren piece of land and turn it into a veritable Oasis of Hope for the children at Hope School and those who live around it. We are making a difference to individuals and communities in East Africa. Asante sana for your help in achieving this.

Another “Big Day” for Kanyala Little Stars

One year ago, twenty Canadian supporters of the CanAssist African Relief Trust joined the children and staff at Kanyala Little Stars School on Rusinga Island, Kenya to celebrate the “opening” of the school farm. With a lot of hard work by the Kanyala team, financial and moral support from CanAssist, and a sprinkling of engineering advice from Canadian Andrew Forsyth, the school turned a dry open field into a lush garden that now produces vegetables and fruits to support the school, both nutritionally and economically. Some of the initial challenges included getting water to this dry property, fencing it to keep the hippos from ravaging the garden at night and enriching the soil to make it fertile.

This week, I received this email message from Mama Benta Odhiambo, the director of the Kanyala Little Stars School :

“I am writing to share with your honourable self and the CANASSIST-Canada Team that we are planning for a Big Event on Wednesday 25th July 2012 to celebrate the 1st Anniversary since our Farm’s launching by CANASSIST. This day-long event will bring together key local goverment officials and local groups and community members to see for themselves how the farm has changed from a drought-strickened, barren Land to a green, beautiful heaven with variety of fruits,trees and crops.

We will also hold a big celebration for the orphans and the Little Stars children, where they will be given fruit salads made from our farm produce on that day.

The Canadian flag will be raised high on that day both at the farm-gate and in the school to show our gratitude and appreciation to CANASSIST and the people of Canada.

We owe you alot and would feel happy if you allow us share this success wih the government of Kenya,locals groups community and the children.”

Val Horsfall and Erin Firlotte ride with students of Kanyala Little Stars School to the School Farm where the school and their visitors from Canada celebrated the official opening of the farm project on July 25, 2011.

There has been another remarkable surprise. The CanAssist farm and the hard work of the Kanyala team has been internationally recognized. Last month, Mama Benta attended a conference in Geneva, Switzerland to present the CanAssist Kanyala farm as a model for mitigating the effects of drought on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Quite a change for Benta to go from rural Rusinga Island to an international meeting in Geneva.

Africans know what to do to improve their lot. They do, however, lack the financial resources to put their plans and dreams into action. CanAssist is happy to be able to provide the needed spark to ignite this development. Following the Kanyala success, CanAssist has also started a second school garden in the Mbita region. The school has named it “The CanAssist Oasis of Hope”.

Congratulations, Kanyala Little Stars, on your success.

This week, several of the Canadians in the group that visited the farm a year ago gathered for a reunion of their own. They were happy to record greetings and messages of congratulations to their friends at Little Stars in Kenya and send them through is short YouTube video.

CanAssist supporter, Susan Potvin, interacts with children at the Kanyala Little Stars “Big Day” on July 25, 2011 when the school celebrated the official opening of the Kanyala CanAssist Farm.


A Canada Day Challenge

Every year around July 1, I unfurl a big, red and white Canadian flag over my balcony with pride. I consider myself fortunate to live in a country where people value the notion of respect for one another.

Collectively, we respect our democratic government process, even if we don’t always agree with our politicians.

We respect and protect the rights all Canadians despite religious, cultural or ethnic differences. Diversity makes up the colourful fabric of our nation. On Canada Day, new citizens from around the globe are welcomed to Canada in ceremonies across the land. I remember attending one such occasion a few years ago when the family of one of my co-workers from Bosnia and Herzegovina officially became Canadian. At that ceremony, the Mayor of Kingston had been born in Scotland, the Governor General in China (both were women, by the way) and the Ontario MP was born in Holland. That tangible recognition of our varied backgrounds reminded me of what it is to be Canadian.

And we are generous to the rest of the world with our support – military, moral and financial.

This week I was reminded of this generosity when I received notice that the Sasamat Foundation in British Columbia will donate $10,000 to the CanAssist African Relief Trust to be put toward building two classrooms for the Hope School in Mbita, Kenya. This gift is being given with no strings other than the accountability of CanAssist and the recipient community to use the money for their school. It is independent of other obligations and given without cynicism or suspicion, cultural or religious bias, but with trust that the community in Africa will utilize it to benefit their children. I think this is a very “Canadian” gesture.


In addition to their generous $10,000 donation, the Sasamat Foundation has presented CanAssist with a challenge. They will donate another $5000 to the school, matching donations that CanAssist receives 2:1. But this has to happen within the month of July.

Are you be willing to support this initiative with a donation of $50 to CanAssist and the Hope School? You can make a secure, tax-receiptable donation online now with a credit card by following the Canada Helps link below. You can even select a small monthly donation option through the Canada Helps link. Indicate that your gift is to bolster the Hope School Fund.

Donate Now Through CanadaHelps.org!Faire un don maintenant par CanadaHelps.org!

CanAssist is always happy to receive a donation by mail.
CanAssist African Relief Trust, 562 Sycamore Street, Kingston, Ontario. K7M7L8

Happy Canada Day!

Check out out the CanAssist web page about Hope School at http://canassistafrica.ca/Mercy.html

Donate Now Through CanadaHelps.org!Faire un don maintenant par CanadaHelps.org!