Life imitating art. Or is it the other way around?

I got an unexpected and sad reply from a friend in Africa when I sent him a birthday greeting this weekend. And it all resonated particularly harshly because of the theatre piece I saw last night. 

Tobias is the Beach Management Unit Chairman at the Kamin Oningo beach on Lake Victoria, a small fishing community in Kenya where I have visited several times.Through The CanAssist African Relief Trust we have been able to build up a small school there. The school, in fact, is named after my Dad as is one of the kids in the community!

Tobias responded to my cheery birthday note with the sad news of the death of two relatively young people in the village.  

Now I will take one step back.

Last night, I attended the Theatre Kingston performance of What a Young Wife Ought to Know.   The show was really well produced and there were some very funny and intimate moments. The general theme was a tough one, however.  It centred on the desperation of young women in Canada in the early 1900’s to limit their family size .  Living in relative poverty put them at increased health risk and they were simply not able to care for either themselves or their children adequately.   Their family planning choices were limited and sometimes the only choice was abstinence, a solution that strained their marriages. Desperate attempts to terminate the pregnancy were life-threatening and distressing. The show was dramatic and intense and personal and, for us in Canada now, it was “historical”.

Well in some parts of the world it is not history. 

One of the deaths at Kamin Oningo was a 35 year old woman who already had four kids and who delivered the fifth two weeks ago.  She must have been anemic during the pregnancy or, like many there, had some post-partum bleeding that was not fully addressed.  Like many African mothers, there really was no time to recuperate and she had to take up the usual household tasks immediately.  Apparently she had been given some iron tablets for the severe anemia  but she collapsed on Saturday and died at home.  Three of the older kids go to the SP Geddes school from pre-school age to grade 2. The husband, a fisherman with a meagre and unreliable income, is left with this young family. 

So this news drove home the message of the play even more (not that it needed any more driving home).  It was not that long ago that this conundrum was being played out in Ottawa.  It still is a concern in Africa and with people I know there. And women die. Less than two years ago, another young mother that I know died with a post-partum hemorrhage.  The baby survived but without a mother. 

The other fellow who passed away in the community this week, a 32 year old fisherman with three young children, died of what sounds to me like an Upper Gi Bleed.  Here, he would likely have had access to the medical care to prevent or manage this.  In Kamin Oningo there is no medical care in close proximity and most people can not afford transport to the nearest facilities that can deal with this or the meagre fees that are charged for health services.  So they leave it too late.  

Tobias has reached out to his friends for financial help so the families can achieve  release of the bodies of these two community members from the mortuary and to help to provide a funeral and burial for them.  I struggle to imagine what it is like to lose your wife, have a newborn baby at home and four other children and not have enough money to retrieve the body from the mortuary. Of course, the families will also be distraught by the deaths and suffer even more financially.

If anyone feels they want to reach out in support, I will be pleased to receive any donations and forward them directly to Africa where they will be used in support of these two bereaved families.  Even $10 will help.   An online transfer is best ( or give me ten bucks when you see me next.  I promise that every cent will reach this community and the grieving families.

(This is not a CanAssist request, by the way, but a personal one from me.)

I would also recommend you seeing What a Young Wife Ought to Know at the Baby Grand – playing from now until February 16. And when you see it, realize what many women/families around the world are still going through and how it is not that long ago that this was the situation here in Canada.

The Kamin Oningo fishing community is suffering this week more than usual.

It’s about giving …

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Giving Tuesday 2013 50

Planting seeds in the Oasis of Hope garden

Today, our associate in Kenya, Kennedy Onyango posted this message on the CanAssist African Relief Trust Facebook page. I want to share it. It read:

“Yesterday (6th August, 2013), I found myself thinking about all the seeds our friends, well-wishers and supporters has sown down through the years. The CanAssist African Relief Trust family have given an enormous amount of money to help hurting children of Usare Village, Mbita District, Kenya. There’s no telling how many lives we have touched through your infrastructural support. Beyond that, for nearly half a decade, Hope School has been a lighthouse, not only to our own community but beaming a message of hope and encouragement to people all over the world as it provides an opportunity to lend a helping hand of caring for the poor. 

There is never a quiet day at Hope School, and every day is different. It is most certainly an exciting and challenging place to be. It is amazing to watch as seeds of hope are planted, nourished and encouraged to grow. Teachers and counsellors plant these seeds, the little angelic girls plant these seeds for each other, sponsors plant these seeds, donors and other partners plant these seeds. It is a wonderful privilege to both plant and to watch the seeds grow.”

This classroom was constructed in early 2013 at Hope School, Mbita with CanAssist funding (helped greatly by the Sasamat Foundation)

This classroom was constructed in early 2013 at Hope School, Mbita with CanAssist funding (helped greatly by the Sasamat Foundation)

In 2012, the CanAssist African Relief Trust partnered with Kennedy and the ETDC organization in Mbita Kenya to help them with development of a school for vulnerable young children in their community. The school is called HOPE SCHOOL. Our first project with them was to fence and irrigate a garden at their rural school property. The school said that they would name this garden The Oasis of Hope. It has turned out to be just that.

In Africa latrines are hand dug, often to a depth of 40 feet, through sand, gravel and stone.  A long labour-intensive job.

In Africa latrines are hand dug, often to a depth of 40 feet, through sand, gravel and stone. A long labour-intensive job.

Later in the year with significant help from CanAssist donors and donations to CanAssist from the Sasamat Foundation in British Columbia and the Toronto Rotary Club, we were able to build two new classrooms for the school. Right now we are in the process of installing latrines at the two school sites.

Kennedy Onyango sent me photos last month of the garden that is thriving and will be able to offer nourishment to the children at the school. Prior to CanAssist’s involvement here, this was a barren piece of land. Last year there was a bumper crop and Kennedy anticipates even better this year. Here is what he reports from the yield last year :

Kennedy Onyango outside the school gate in early 2012.  Along with CanAssist he was ready to "plant the seeds" of development that will help his community.

Kennedy Onyango outside the school gate in early 2012. Along with CanAssist he was ready to “plant the seeds” of development that will help his community.

“Last year we harvested 900Kgs of sourghum, 360Kgs of beans and 120Kgs of Maize in the Oasis of Hope Garden. The sourghum was mixed with cassava which we bought to make porridge for the children. We bought 4, 500kgs of cassava and this served from July 2012 up to April 2013. It served the two campuses of Hope School with current enrollment of 275 children in total. Thanks a lot to CanAssist Relief Trust and Donors for having made this possible. We look forward for a similar or more Kgs of sourghum this year.”

(Sorghum is a cereal crop that is not common in Canada but a staple in many tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. It is relatively high in fibre, iron and even protein and is a whole grain that is added to other carbohydrates to supplement nutritional needs. Cassava is grown as a bush-like plant with large white tubers that are harvested and cooked like potato as a good filling source of carbohydrate. Cassava may be filling but contains little protein so admixture with sorghum or beans is important to avoid protein malnutrition, a common problem in poor tropical areas.)

The thriving school farm - CAART fundedThe children who attend the Hope School come from very vulnerable situations. Many are orphans or partial orphans and most live in poverty. Many come to school on an empty stomach so the bowl of sorghum and cassava or maize that the school provides may be the only sustaining nourishment the children get. Provision of a school meal has proven to be beneficial to African children and has been one of the strategies endorsed by the Millennium Village Project, initiated by Jeffrey Sachs. The prospect of receiving what may be the only meal of the day is a vital encouragement to them to attend school where they are able to receive an education..

I hope that donors to CanAssist can feel as satisfied as i do that the gifts that they give to CanAssist are being used effectively to improve the well-being of many, many people in East Africa. I am proud of the work we do and also proud of our African partners who work hard to make ensure a successful outcome for our joint projects.

The Oasis of Hope garden in February 2012 and April 2013. Seeds that flourished.

The Oasis of Hope garden in February 2012 and April 2013. Seeds that flourished.

What would you do?

Peter Singer starts a recent TED talk with a dramatic video of a small child in China being knocked down by a car on the street. As she lies there, injured, three passers-by totally ignore her. The incident is reminiscent of the Good Samaritan story from the Bible, where a priest and a Levite ignore the plight of the injured traveler on the road before the Samaritan stops to help.

Singer asks the audience – “How many of you would have stopped to help?” Not surprisingly, most of the hands go up.

African Child - can you overlook her needs?

African Child – can you overlook her needs?

Singer then says something like “Well, there are children all around the world who live in poverty, vulnerable to preventable violence and disease – millions of them. Are you paying any attention to them?”

“Unicef reports that in 2011 over 6.5 million children under age 5 died of preventable poverty-related diseases.”

Singer is an Australian philosopher and humanist who writes and speaks out about many ethical issues including poverty and animal rights. In 2009, he wrote a book called “The Life You Can Save”. In the book he encourages readers to commit to helping developing communities with a small portion of their income. If you can afford to pay $2.00 for a bottle of water that is free from the tap, do you not have money to spare – to share, in fact, with others who are living without many of the necessities of life that we take for granted?

His message is not a guilt trip. He encourages us to enjoy the fruits of our labours and our good fortune at living in a community where there is law and order, fresh water, social responsibility and enough food but to share a portion of that with others who must live without those amenities.

We are constantly bombarded in the media with photos of children in North America who have perished in the natural (or unnatural) disasters like the recent tornado in Oklahoma City or the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Our hearts go out to the families of these children and we feel sad and that these deaths seem unfair. These are a very few children whose stories touch us because they are in communities like ours.

Nairobi slum

Nairobi slum

But what about the mothers of the 19,000 children who die in the developing world every day from preventable poverty-related problems? Do we give them much thought? Do we pour money into the developing world to help these 19,000 like we do to help families of the few North American families touched by tragedy?

Think about this for a minute. It is sobering. 19,000 per day.

The CanAssist African Relief Trust is attempting to so something, however small to help these families in East Africa. Rather than pick a few children for special attention, CanAssist funds community infrastructure projects like school classrooms, water and sanitation improvements, food security through local agriculture and health care facilities. We have funded around $300,000 in projects since 2008. Our Canadian community helping communities in Africa.

If you are interested in what we do, please look at our website We are always happy to receive support, moral or financial, for the work we are committed to do to lessen the effects of poverty for vulnerable East African families.

(If you would like to participate in what CanAssist is doing to help communities in East Africa you can donate using the Canada Helps link below.)


Here is a link to the Peter Singer TED talk. If you have 15 minutes please listen to what he has to say.

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.

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!Faire un don maintenant par!

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

Donate Now Through!Faire un don maintenant par!