African Connections

Those who have reached out to Africa tell a powerful story of hope amid despair.

November 18, 2008 | | Back Issues

Africa – a continent, according to news reports, all but lost: 17 million dead from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, another 25 million HIV-positive; in Darfur, 500,000 dead from violence and disease, and over 2.5 million displaced; in Zimbabwe, five million face starvation; in Congo, the Rwandan conflicts re-emerge and a quarter million flee their homes. Each day, 3,000 children under the age of five die of malaria. There will be an estimated 18 million orphans by 2010; a generation of children are being raised by grandmothers or live in child-headed households.

 

The statistics can be numbing, but they do not nearly tell the whole story. For the many people in our hills who have been drawn to Africa, there is another, equally powerful storyline. Without exception they confirm that hope endures; that the African people exude a contagious sense of joy and will to survive; that they have a keen sense of community and will do whatever it takes to improve their children’s lives; and that youth are the promise for the future.

These are some of our neighbours who have gone to Africa, not to impose solutions, but to reach out supporting hands in common humanity through the mostly small, but swelling number of grassroots organizations wherein lie the continent’s best hope. And without exception, they say they return from the experience humbled in the belief that they have received more than they give.

 

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There’s a little blacksmith shop in Kenya that consists of not much more than a bicycle wheel on a stand and a plate-sized hole in the ground filled with charcoal. One person spins the wheel to fan the flames while another heats iron to fashion struts for bicycle carriers. They sell the struts to people who use their bikes to provide taxi and haulage.

It’s a micro-business-to-micro-businesses model that offers hope and change. “If you have a bike, you can have a business,” says Bridget Lawson. “This making of something from nothing is something I’ve seen all along. The people are so creative and innovative. There is never any garbage because every little bit is used.”

Bridget remains committed and excited about Africa, even after thirty-five years. “Africa has blessed and enriched me and has changed the lives of my children and grandchildren,” she says.

Now 83, and living in Orangeville with her husband John Duncanson, Bridget has worked in fifteen African countries since her first experience in Malawi in 1973, when she accepted a job with an ecumenical organization shortly after her first husband died. With her two youngest children in tow, both still school aged, she managed a workshop to help women – usually single mothers – learn a craft and earn a living.

“There was a wonderful factory there that produced locally-grown in cotton in all colours,” Bridget recalls, “so I started a workshop for silkscreen printing.” The women boiled the cloth in cauldrons in a former beer hall, then created shirts, tablecloths and other goods to be sold on the overseas tourist routes.

“I was particularly lucky working in that workshop because I was the only white person, so I got to know the African people very well,” Bridget says.

She returned to Canada when her two-year contract was up, but by then Africa was in her blood. “Coming home was difficult,” she admits, and she jumped at an offer to work for AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation) Canada, serving first as a board member and eventually as executive director from 1980 to 1993. During her tenure, she travelled to Africa twice a year to observe health projects that included community-based health, research and AIDS education. “At that time the Canadian government seemed open to creative innovative ideas and we were able to get quite a few projects going that are still running,” Bridget says.

Now retired, she is still travelling to Africa as often as she can as a volunteer.

Bridget is focussing her efforts on Uzima (Swahili for “abundant life”). The small, grassroots organization was started by Kenyan doctor, Miriam Were, a friend of Bridget’s from AMREF, and aims to empower young people through music, art, sports, and educational and work opportunities, and with an active philosophy that encourages peace, gender equality and justice.

“I’ve been told that by the year 2010, 60 per cent of the population will be under twenty-five. In Uganda, it will be 80 per cent. So you’ve got this tremendous potential for good…or not-so-good,” Bridget says.

The little blacksmith shop was an Uzima-initiated business. The organization uses the “Merry-Go-Round System” to help kick-start micro-businesses in rural communities. Ten local people contribute 100 Kenyan shillings each for ten months. Each month one of the contributors receives the total 1,000 shillings (about $15 Canadian), so he or she can buy seed, chickens, a bicycle, or whatever their business requires. The next month the money goes to another person. After ten months all ten people have an enterprise established, supporting each other in the process.

Bridget visited Dr. Were in Kenya earlier this year and is continuing to fundraise for Uzima. She already has plans to return to Kenya in two years.

“To have lived and worked in another culture is a special gift and to have made friends from that culture is even more precious.” Bridget quotes a Canadian friend, Jim MacDougall, who set up the medical school at the University of Nairobi. “It is no longer a question of why I am involved, but how long I will have the privilege.”

 

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In a conversation punctuated with “Aren’t I lucky?” artist Lynn Connell describes her dramatic whirlwind love affair with Africa. It began two years ago at her Creativity Art Retreat in Dunedin near Creemore.

“Sister Virginia Varley, the chair of ICA Canada, was here for an arts retreat,” Lynn explains, “and I offered to drive her into Toronto to attend the HIV/AIDS International Conference.” Lynn accompanied Sister Virginia to the conference. Overwhelmed by the presentations of two African women, Lynn decided she must do something to assist.

ICA (Institute of Cultural Affairs) provides funding and support to the African HIV/AIDS crisis and does not accept volunteers, but Lynn’s background, which included organizing a trip to Canada by Nelson Mandela, as well as other work with anti-apartheid, environmental and native groups, convinced ICA Canada to let her go.

“It was a miracle,” Lynn says, “I was in Zimbabwe by October.”

There, as well as in Kenya and Tanzania, Lynn gave dozens of two-day art workshops, using latex house paint and any available paper, to HIV/AIDS-positive people, home-care workers, artists and students of all ages. “Art is the gift I can offer them,” she says humbly.

To connect HIV/AIDS issues to their artwork, Lynn hangs a paper on the wall at the workshop’s conclusion and writes the names of people in her life who have died of AIDS, asking participants to do likewise. A group of thirty might add 110–150 names. “Then, as a show of respect, we place their paintings around the names and they are usually overwhelmed and thrilled.”

Lynn also attended HIV/AIDS-related projects held by ICA Tanzania and ICA Zimbabwe, and was soon co-facilitating HIV/AIDS workshops.

Like Bridget Lawson, Lynn found herself restless and unfocussed on her return to Canada – until she was asked to present her story to a University of Toronto women’s group. Now she makes three or four speeches a month to any willing group, using the speeches to spread the word and to fundraise for the two organizations that have become her primary causes: the Masai Tribal Girls’ Secondary School Education Fund and the Huruma Orphanage.

In the Masai village of Mto Wwa Mbu, Lynn and ICA Tanzania project co-ordinator Charles Luoga conducted information workshops and volunteer testing for HIV/AIDS. They noticed that, although many schools are being built, it is mostly boys who attend. Lynn and ICA Tanzania are now sponsoring nineteen girls through five years of secondary school.

“There is a saying in Africa,” Lynn says, “that if you educate a boy, you educate the boy, but if you educate a girl, you educate the girl, her family and the whole community.”

Lynn was introduced to the Huruma Orphanage in the final days of her last trip. “I saw fifty-two little kids, ages two to six, singing songs and learning in a building with a mud floor – no desks or chairs,” she relates in her African blog. “There was a blackboard propped up at one end, one window with little light… Ten of the children live-in (sleeping five kids on two single beds, width wise). One for the girls, one for the boys. The rest of the children live nearby with grandmothers or relatives. All have lost parents to HIV/AIDS.”

With the help of a Swedish couple she met at the orphanage and a large donation from a Minnesota Rotarian who stumbled upon her blog, Lynn has raised enough money to renovate and furnish a larger house nearby and relocate the children. Their plan is to build a permanent facility.

Lynn has now spent six months in Africa over two trips and plans to return in January to conduct more art workshops and oversee developments at the Huruma Orphanage.

 

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Nestled in the Caledon hills, King’s College School caters to bright and gifted children from grades 3 to 12. Run by co-directors Barbara Lord and John Eta the school of thirty-five students incorporates what they call the “Sky” curriculum – a “reach for the sky” learning philosophy with a “pay it forward” social philosophy.

“Each year the students undertake a project that is a contribution to their school, family, community or the world at large,” says John Eta. In 2004, the senior students decided to supply books for a reading room in Kumba, Cameroon. John was born and raised in Cameroon, so this project was close to his heart.

The project was so well received that a year later a group of students, parents and faculty travelled to Kumba. “It was a life changing event,” parent Pat Long, recalls. “The sights and sounds get under your skin and the people are energetic and optimistic with an entrepreneurial spirit. They are struggling and your heart goes out to them.” The group came home determined to construct a new school.

Pat and her husband, John Lorriman, contributed a substantial portion of the funds to get the new Cameroon school up and running and continue to help fund operational and construction costs.

Pat is chair of the project’s six-member board. They have applied for charitable status “to support leadership education in sub-Saharan Africa” and hope to open similar schools in Cameroon and eventually in other sub-Saharan countries.

The school, Eta Colleges Kumba, is for ages ten to seventeen (equivalent of Grade 7 to grade 12) and is built on a compound that belonged to John’s father.

“My father was among the first handful of students to attend secondary school in Cameroon,” John says. “His dream was to start a school but he passed away before that happened.” Now John and King’s College have undertaken the dream.

Eta Colleges Kumba held its first classes in a renovated building on the compound, but students are now attending classes on the main floor of the new building, even as a second floor is under construction. When it’s complete, the school will accommodate some 400 students. With more books, computers and microscopes, and generally much smaller class sizes than any other school in the Cameroon community of 500,000, school fees are slightly higher than the average community school. But, at about one-third the cost of boarding school, tuition is attainable by the middle class, including local farmers.

“We want students whose families have the means to send their children on to university. The purpose of the school is to raise African leaders to solve African problems,” Barbara Lord says.

King’s College holds an annual “Tastes of Africa” dinner to raise funds for the project. The meal is made and served by students, staff and parents – some who learned to make the dishes in Africa. Smaller fundraisers include bake sales by students in grades 3 to 8 that have raised $3,000 in the last two years.

Pat’s son and former King’s College student Fraser Lorriman went on the 2005 trip and sums up the impact of his experience, “I now know how hard I have to work to deserve the life I have.”

 

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Chris Elms was fighting her own battle with cancer when she attended the 2006 International AIDS Convention with her daughter and learned about the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. It was the same conference Lynn Connell had attended and it proved to be the positive distraction Chris needed.

A member of the Orangeville chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women, Chris had already been inspired to action when the local club hosted a presentation in 2005 by SLF executive director Ilana Landsberg-Lewis who talked about AIDS and its impact on African women. Chris held a couple of “accessory parties” in support of SLF, but after attending the convention she “decided to create a ‘granny’ interest group as part of our local club.” The CFUW, she explains, advocates for women’s issues and education, “so it was a perfect fit.”

Chris is a British-Canadian who relocated to Canada in 1973 when her parents moved to South Africa. With two brothers, nieces and a nephew also living there, and a daughter whose studies in Swaziland had focussed on the AIDS pandemic, Chris has a long-standing empathy for Africa, reinforced by her occasional trips to visit her parents.

The grandmothers’ campaign is about women helping women, specifically African grandmothers. In some sub-Saharan countries 40 to 60 per cent of orphans live with their grandmothers – sometimes as many as ten to fifteen in one household. The campaign provides grandmothers with food, school fees and uniforms for the children and helps with income-generating projects, counselling and social support, as well as addressing the persistent fears about the children’s welfare when the grandmother dies.

Today the twelve to fifteen Orangeville Go Go Grannies – who are not necessarily grandmothers themselves – are fundraising in earnest for the African grandmothers. Three local stores now sell Lucinda Women’s Pins with proceeds going to the Grannies. The group has also held raffles and film nights, and, after the sell-out success of this year’s fundraising concert by the folk group Tanglefoot at the Orangeville Opera House, a repeat performance is planned in February.

Last year, Chris also organized a five-day exhibit of the Great Canadian Quilt at Dufferin County Museum. The red and white, flag-like quilt was the brainchild of Sue Cooper, a CanGo Granny from Kamloops, B.C. Signed by over 200 Canadian celebrities and sponsored by UPS, the quilt travelled across Canada, stopping in galleries, airports, universities and museums to raise awareness about the plight of African grandmothers.

Orangeville’s Go Go Grannies are one of 200 grandmothers’ groups across Canada that have collectively raised $4 million since 2006.

 

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Amaranth resident Ruth Cruikshank is a member of the Dufferin County chapter of KAIROS Canada – an ecumenical social justice group. Several of its members, along with local churches and other individuals plan to sponsor an African refugee family in the new year, setting up the family in an Orangeville apartment and being responsible for them for a year once they arrive.

Last April, the 65-year-old, retired home-care nurse experienced Africa first hand when she travelled with her friend, Jane Little, to Liberia to visit the Theresa Dainsee Orphanage, an orphanage Jane supports. There as a guest, Ruth listened to the poignant stories of the civil wars that changed Liberia from a “have” to a “have not” country.

The orphanage, run by 57-year-old ‘Grandma’ Theresa is home to sixty-four orphans and was forced to relocate four times during the upheavals – three times the children walked to their new refugee location and once travelled by truckloads.

The children loved the books Jane and Ruth brought and proved to be eager learners, quickly picking up the rules to card games. They were beside themselves with delight when Jane hooked her camera to a small generator and showed videos she had taken of the children.

“They are a beautiful, spiritual people and I can’t imagine my life without this wonderful experience,” Ruth says.

 

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Tiffany McCabe of Amaranth bubbles with excitement as she recalls her recent Kenyan experience. Along with twenty-three other students from Canada and the U.S., the University of Waterloo student spent three weeks constructing two classroom buildings and a library building for grades 1 to 6. The trip was co-ordinated by Free the Children, a youth-driven charity created by Canadian child-rights activist Craig Kielburger.

Because the improved educational facilities are new in the Kenyan community of Emori Joi, students as old as twenty-one were attending the school. “They were so eager to get a grade 6 education they were willing to be in a classroom with young kids,” Tiffany says in astonishment.

The student volunteers were told to use water sparingly when mixing cement for the buildings, but Tiffany admits it was difficult, because their buckets were full of holes.

“After the first week a community leader, took us on an hour-long hike to the banks of the Mara River,” Tiffany says. As they approached they saw animals drinking the muddy water and families washing their clothes and bathing.

People were filling water containers about the size of a Culligan jug and they gave five students the opportunity to carry a jug to the village. The jug was tied to Tiffany’s head and, as she stumbled back over the rocky terrain, “I thought my neck would break,” she says. “All the while the young twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls walked along as if they were carrying nothing.” The students made sure they never wasted water again.

The twenty-four students remain in touch after their Kenyan experience and are raising funds in their home communities to bore a well at the school compound. The group is called “Well Worth It” and, under the auspices of Free The Children, they hope to expand the project to other African communities.

Tiffany continues to pursue her social work degree on an international level. Her next overseas semester will be in Madurai, India, but she says she will definitely return to Africa. She turns to Swahili for the words to describe her love for Kenya: “Pamoja kama moja. It means ‘Together as one.’ That is what Kenya is to me. We are one, working as one, being one, working toward a common goal.”

About the Author More by Michele Green

Michele Green is a freelance writer who lives near Belfountain.

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