Helping Women in Kenya

In the week leading up to Giving Tuesday, CanAssist is happy to show some examples of infrastructure support work done by the CanAssist African Relief Trust in East Africa in the past several months with some short YouTube videos.  Please share them with your Facebook friends.  And on Giving Tuesday, December 3 (or any time, for that matter) please keep the CanAssist African Relief Trust in mind. Your support keeps us moving ahead and helping communities in Africa.

Today we highlight work that CanAssist has done in Nyatike District to help women and girls in that community be safer and more productive.


At a loss…

I was stunned this morning when I logged onto my Facebook page and started a chat with one of my friends in Mbita, Kenya. As we talked he received news that CanAssist’s dear friend and associate, Mama Benter Odihambo, had just died at the Mbita Hospital. Kennedy lives across the street from the hospital. I was getting the news before most of her community knew.

This is indeed sad news for everyone who knew her.

Benter was a cheerful, gentle, nurturing leader in her community on Rusinga Island, Kenya. A widow with a large extended family, she was the epitomy of the strong African grandmother who is wise and caring, not only to her family but to her entire community. I will cherish the memory of the afternoon she and I spent together in February, chatting as parents, grandparents and dear friends.

She founded the Little Stars Academy – an elementary school for vulnerable children that is on the edge of Mbita town.The school has grown from a few tin buildings with about three classes to a larger school that graduated students last year who will now go on to secondary school. Their school had top marks in the region and both the top boy and girl won scholarships to continue their schooling.

Benta banner 2

Benter was a dear friend and an adopted mother to many Canadians as well. She was always cheerful and helpful to students from the McGill Canadian Studies in Africa Program, some of whom came to know her well after their studies. She worked with the CanAssist African Relief Trust to improve her school and established the prototype school garden near her home which provides nourishing food for the children and income for the school. She worked with the women of St Mark’s Church in Barriefield Ontario to help establish a program to supply sanitary pads for the older girls at the school so they would not miss school during their monthly cycles. She, along with other members of her family, even had a part in the upcoming movie “Nightrunners”, shot on Rusinga Island in February of this year.

The sadness I feel at her passing is like losing a family member. I know that many people in Rusinga, Mbita and Canada will mourn her loss. At the same time we must resolve to continue in her spirit to help people who are vulnerable.

I will append some photos and videos of Benter that will remind us of her grace.

Mama Benter Odihambo.

Mama Benter Odihambo.

In 2013, CanAssist will continue the good work started by Mama Benter by helping to renovate classrooms at the Kanyala Little Stars School.  Friends who would like to donate to this project in her memory can do so at :

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.