Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Season of Beauty

I know I often make statements on how much I love the work that I am doing right was one of those days where enthusiasm and work ethic didn't really motivate me. I woke feeling a little "under the weather" - literally.  Today was one of those days where the sudden plunge to minus temperatures threatens the mental wellness of even the most stalwart Saskatchewanite. I woke to sunshine and blue sky and while lovely, I knew the moment I stepped outside and sat on the rock hard seat of my frozen vehicle, that that false sense of spring that we'd been issued over the past week was again gone.

Seasons don't change quickly here in Saskatchewan unless you count summer, which I don't, because it never feels quite long enough for you to tire of it. So today, I wrote out my list of things to get done at work, knocked them off one by one and then retired to my bedroom for a day of reading and rest. I needed it. If winter must linger, then I have to be diligent in reminding myself that there is beauty in every season. Don't we all?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hands at Work - An Invitation to Be Part of It

Come and join us.  There are three ways you can get involved with volunteering in sub-Saharan Africa with Hands at work. One of those is a team that I will be leading on July 19 - Aug 3, 2014 (approximate dates). We will be travelling to Zambia to work in the community of Mulenga, where many of the stories you read here take place. Hands at Work has been partnering with the care workers in Mulenga for years and they are exemplary in the way that they care for and love those who are most vulnerable in their community.  We will also be working in a new community, called Kalende, rural and just at the beginning stages of developing a community based organization to care for the sick and the vulnerable in their community.

If you'd like to learn more about serving in Africa, please feel free to email me at or check out the links on

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Future of Ethiopia

The first week we were in Ethiopia, the guys and I were hanging out with kids at the Alemgena Care Centre. The nurses were in full active mode, providing medical assessments and educational clinics to the kids and guardians. Seated in a group of students watching the nurses' demonstrate different types of viruses and bacteria, was a young man who caught every one of our group's attention. His name is Trevor.* He is about 16 years old, has a smile that catches you off guard with how wide and bright it is. He is just one of those charismatic personalities that even when he's sitting still, there's an energy buzzing about him that seems to draw your eye back again and again as if you're waiting to see when it's going to erupt. Before I even heard him speak a word, I was so intrigued by this effervescent boy that I wanted to know his story.

I half expected that Trevor was the son of one of the care centre staff or perhaps a student on a work placement, he was that out of place in a centre that cares for orphaned and vulnerable children. Trevor looked well put together, like a million bucks, seriously...the kid has style oozing out of his pores.
He sat like a doctor or a counsellor, leaning earnestly into every conversation and absorbing what those around him were saying. His mannerisms were that of a well brought up young gentleman.

Later in the day, as we were leaving, Trevor took up a drum and began to lead the kids in an impromptu dance party that involved young and old alike, singing and dancing and following his lead as though he had choreographed the entire event in his mind before ever picking up the drum. He sang out chants and the group repeated them with such enthusiasm and laughter, I asked one of the drivers what he was singing about. He laughed and told me that the words were nonsense, things like, "We're going to eat bread and jam!!" and that the others were singing it just because he was leading it.

We left that day and as we drove away, I just couldn't stop thinking about this young man and his joie de vivre. At dinner that night, I asked Dr. Northcott about him and he told us the story of Trevor's life.

Trevor was born to a mother who was the mistress of a very wealthy, well known businessman in Addis Ababa. His mother became sick when he was still just a young child and she passed away. Trevor's father washed his hands of the young boy and so Trevor was sent to live with his mother's sister. She took him in when he was about 6 years old but she mistreated him, having him in the home as a slave not as a son or nephew. She neglected and abused him so at the age of 7, Trevor left the home. He negotiated with a security guard at a local business to allow him to sleep in the guard shack at night while the security guard was out at work. A guard shack is a coffin sized metal box that sits just off the side of the road in front of businesses in need of 24 hour surveillance. It offers little protection from the elements and even less from the heavy traffic passing by. He attended school during the day and slept in the corrugated tin box at night, alone. A small boy, with the courage and strength to make a way for himself, yet so small that he was still incredibly vulnerable on the street. He scrounged food where he could find it and began to work shining shoes to make some money. A 7 year old. By the time he was ten or eleven, he had fallen behind at school and was not making enough money to survive on. It was then that the care centre received a referral for Trevor from the local town council. Trevor came to the centre, was given a meal everyday and began to do better in school. When he was eleven, he rented his own small 4x6 shanty and lived alone, again working as a shoe shine boy to make ends meet. Eventually, he grew his business into repairing shoes and then selling shoes to make a living, all the while going to school.
Around this time, Dr. Northcott had Trevor in his makeshift clinic at the centre for a medical assessment. He asked Trevor what he would like to be when he grew up and Trevor told him that he was going to be the leader of Ethiopia. That was ten years ago.

Today, at 16, he's in about grade ten and still working hard to complete his education, while supporting himself. This boy, who has been on his own since an age where my children were learning to tie their own shoes, now pays rent on his own home, goes to school, and works to support himself. Dr. Northcott says that at one point, he had thought about adopting Trevor and bringing him back to Canada to allow him to have an easier life. He asked Trevor why he was always so happy and optimistic and Trevor said this, "It's because I have a choice. I can choose to be happy or be sad about my life. I choose to be happy. I choose to believe that things are going to work out. How could I not?"

The Northcott's then felt that if they pulled Trevor out of the situation he was in, they would, in essence, eliminate the struggle that was actually shaping him into the mature and genuine character that he is today. For me, meeting Trevor was such a gift. I felt like he lives just as we all should, with optimism and hope and a work ethic that doesn't quit when things get difficult. I'm not going to forget this boy anytime soon. I'm also going to be cheering very loudly when he announces his run for the leadership of Ethiopia.

*name changed

Friday, March 14, 2014

Humbling Invitations

Last week, (was it really just a week ago?), I was invited into the homes of children that were relatively new to the Canadian Humanitarian program in Gulele, Ethiopia. The kids we visited were less than three months into the program and were already benefitting from the after school program, nutritious meal a day, and medical assessments. The first home I went into was the home of a sweet nine year old girl, her sister, and her father.

Over the past few years, I've been invited into the homes of children living without adults, with grannies, or with just one parent or guardian. I have seen the varying degrees of poverty as it applies to housing, and though I'm not hardened, I definitely didn't think I could be surprised by anyone's living conditions. I was wrong.

I have a rubbermaid shed in my backyard. It's a slanted little shed, about four feet high on the back end, three feet on the front, and about five feet long. We keep our lawnmower in it during the winter and a few of our outdoor cushions. I do not exaggerate when I say, it was a better structure than what this father and two girls were living in.

I can not really express how small their lean to was. It basically was a tarp for a roof attached to a neighbouring shanty, that they paid rent to. The walls were corrugated metal sheeting and the floor was mud with some cardboard laid on top. The sticks that held up the tarp hit my head when I sat on the floor across from this family. I crouched on the floor and tried not to let claustrophobia overcome me. The door didn't close all the way and from what I could tell, it hadn't for a while, it hung so deep in the mud. Three or four small plastic grocery bags held what the family counted as belongings. As I sat with my head touching their roof, and listened to the father tell how their lives had changed since his daughter's life had changed since being part of the program, I realized that when we see these kids in the yard of the care centre, surrounded by others, playing games and being kids...we often forget the circumstances they live in.  This father was deaf and partially blind, both conditions that could have been prevented had he had access to medical help when they occurred. He walks several miles to buy injeera, the staple bread that Ethiopians eat, and resells it in his own community for a tiny profit. That is what he does when there is a little extra money to be used. When there isn't any extra, he begs for money on the side of a busy road, scraping what he can together for food for his girls. The care centre that his daughter attends also has an income generating project that he will be able to get involved in, to allow him to work within a cooperative of guardians and to make a steady income.

We literally take a bigger tent that offers more protection against the elements camping than this family spent their days and nights in. They cooked on a small fire just outside the door of the lean to and the smoke from their fire evidently filled the lean to because the telltale scent of charcoal smoke permeated their home. Their home. When it rained and water ran through the mud and cardboard, the neighbours in the shanty next door would allow the girls to sleep on their floor where at least it was dry. Imagine a father, sitting in the dark, knowing at least his girls were dry but fighting the cold and wet alone, indebted to his landlord for that small mercy shown his daughters.

And yet, I was honoured to be invited. And humbled.  The most beautiful part of their home was the welcome they gave us when we arrived.  We were made to feel most welcome and that it was such a pleasure to have us visit. I can't imagine what a father feels when he sits in the dark at night, his two daughters cramped up beside him, with his feet against a door that doesn't close. I can't imagine how his daughters get up and look as beautiful as they do and clean themselves up to get to school and to the after school program with little to eat or drink. If this was a camping trip, I would have packed up and gone home. But that's just it, isn't it? This is their home. And it's humble. And it was humbling. To sit with five of us in a lean to that barely could contain us and to know that this was their living room, bedroom, upstairs and downstairs all in one. The bare lightbulb above us worked when the power was on and paid for but there was no telling how often that occurred.

And now, a week later...just one short week...I'm half a world away and I can't stop thinking about the tiniest home I've ever been in. And I think about the fact that there is a father doing his best to provide for his girls and I remember how thankful he was to know that his daughter was receiving a nutritious meal every day and access to education and medical visits. This family has not been out of my thoughts since I sat on their floor and listened to their story and received their smiles and their friendship. It is often in the most difficult situations that people really show their true values, and this family values one another above all else. I'm thankful they have the opportunity to be part of Gulele Care Centre so that they can be part of a bigger family that cares for them as well.
Dad and his 9 year old daughter, who has been attending the after school program provided at Gulele
Care Centre - with access to homework help, time to play, a nutritious meal and health assessments.
The care centre plays a crucial role in making sure this family can survive and thrive. 

Their home...the blue boards on the right side of the photo is the broken door. The cardboard bike box is their back
wall. It's no wider than what you can see. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Did You DO?

This trip to Ethiopia, for me was very different from other trips I've been involved in. We signed up as part of a Canadian Humanitarian Expedition which meant that we were travelling with an organization that has been working in Ethiopia for the past 10 years. The founders, Dr. Dick and Deb Northcott, have been travelling to Ethiopia over the past 21years, since adopting three children from there years ago. 

Canadian Humanitarian is an organization that I wouldn't hesitate to send people with. The trip was well organized, their local partners were amazing and did a great job of figuring out logistics with a large team of nurses, doctors, audiologists and construction workers all in the mix. Our guys were able to have supplies ready and available for the most part, and when they needed something extra, men like Bisrat and Ketema were able to take them to the best places to find what they needed and to get them back to the worksite in a timely fashion, which is no small feat in a congested city of millions.

Our role in this expedition was to refurbish a couple of the care centres that were falling behind in maintenance and getting run down. Stick and mud constructed buildings with 70+ children coming through on a daily basis...imagine the wear and tear. The guys did a great job patching and putting in supports for doorways, filling holes and filing down doors that no longer would close due to the shifting foundations. My role in all of this was to make sure the guys had water when they needed it and to paint when they had finished patching and pasting. 

One thing about working with guys like Ken and Wayne and Dan and Dave...they never felt they had done quite enough. They worked hard from the moment they got on site and would have continued to do so had we not literally cleaned up their tools from under them and sent them back to the vans at night. There was much work to be done but they took it on and did a really great job. It's quite something to watch skilled workers look at something that has been left undone for so long, simply because it's beyond what someone could figure out to repair, and just get it done, not just done, but with a pride of workmanship and skill that really stood out. 

The funniest part about working in Ethiopia with these guys were some of the circumstances they found themselves working in. Like painting an entire, windowless room in the pitch black by headlamp because the power was out. Or, arriving to plaster and paint at a care centre that was preparing meals and a birthday party for over 70 kids on site. We laughed at that one, who would invite kids over for a birthday party and then decide to paint the room while it was going on? And yet, we got it done with minimal painting of children...and honestly, having the laughter and shouts of children in our ears reminded us exactly who we were working for.

It's not often on a trip that I get home and am able to pinpoint a tangible contribution but on this trip, though my skills didn't really come into play, I do want to just leave you with some photos of the work that these guys took on. The care centres play an important role in the work that Canadian Humanitarian does in Ethiopia. Children are able to have a safe place, where they are equals, to come and play, get support with homework, have an adult to listen to them and help them with the struggles of their often difficult lives, and to get a nutritious meal every day. The guys on this team left these places better than they found them. Safe. Bright. Clean. Welcoming. 

I would be remiss if I didn't thank again, those who donated supplies to our trip. There were several of you who just passed along a ten or a twenty dollar bill and we used that to buy paint and brushes. There were companies in our city who wish to remain anonymous, that donated all the tools for the work we did, and we left those in the hands of Canadian Humanitarian in Ethiopia for their future use. There were those Pier 1 girls, again, who just continue to be supportive and gather painting supplies or money or just write me a note to let me know they're with me...I love that you're with me when I go. Especially, a little friend of mine in California, who prays for me every day that I'm gone or as I'm preparing to leave...Sienna ~ you are changing lives already. You are such a great prayer buddy and I'm so thankful to know that when I'm travelling far from home, you're thinking of me and praying for me. It means so much! You're the best. Enjoy the're all in every one.

Ken and Wayne reinforce the doorways at Kality Centre in Addis Ababa

No saw horse or power tools but Wayne gets the job done.

Ketema and Ken cut in at Kersa Care Centre

Diana, our Ugandan travelling buddy paints alongside us

Little ones around the care centre in Kersa pitch in when possible

Dan finds his height an advantage at times, and at others....not so much

Painting at Kersa Care Centre

The Kality Care Centre - this was a building left to Canadian Humanitarian by another NGO that left the area
several years ago. 

Ken and Dave being to repair the mud and stick built centre at Kality in Addis Ababa

The quarterly birthday party for kids at Kality Care Centre that had birthdays in the past three months

Pineapple Fanta and Sprite make it a party!

The kids with birthdays sit at the place of honour and are treated to fruit, pop and cake!

Ken stabilizes while Wayne drills into the mud and stick doorframe

Some of the many tools donated for Canadian Humanitarian Ethiopia

More tools for Canadian Humanitarian Ethiopia

David patches plaster

Ebenezer and Wayne provide the counterweight so Dan can saw wood

Green is the colour!

I've learned these things make construction guys very happy.

Finishing touches at Kality Care Centre

The crew with the local care centre workers

The finished product!

The care centre staff were very appreciative and excited about the space.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Aster's Front Door

During our time in Sheshemane, Ethiopia, our group of 21 was hit hard by some norovirus-like illness. The benefit of travelling with nurses and doctors is that you also travel with a mobile pharmacy. One morning, two of our smaller team of five were down so the other three of us decided to head out on our own to the centre at Kersa and finish up some of the outdoor jobs that remained. We spent the morning clearing some land where a long abandoned soccer field once lay. It was hard work and we weren't sure at times whether our labour was making any significant difference. When we were done, or felt we had exhausted ourselves, we weren't sure what the afternoon would hold. It was then that we heard that a widow we had met a few days earlier had had an incident at her home in which her metal door had been broken and she was no longer able to secure it at night. Her name is Aster and she lives with her young teenage daughter and at night, they were taking turns sleeping against the door to protect their goats (and themselves) against a small pack of hyenas that roamed through their community.

We knew where Aster lived, having been there just a few days earlier, so we grabbed some tools and went to see if we could fix her door in the downtime we had before our arranged pick up. When we got to her place, she showed us the door and it became evident that the door would need to be welded. We weren't even sure there was a local welder but one of the guys travelling with us told us that at the local school, there was a welding shop that quite possibly could help us.  Dan took the door off what was left of the hinges and Dave picked it up, and we began what we thought was a short walk to the welding shop. We walked out of the community and onto the main road and suddenly we became a spectacle. We were a parade and Dave was our parade marshall, carrying a large metal door on one hip, followed by Aster in bright orange and carrying a large bag of tools, then myself and Dan and Diana, our Ugandan travel mate. We walked down a long hill and crossed the river and then began a long ascent up a hill towards the location we'd been told. We were joined by numerous small children and curious onlookers and our numbers increased as we went along. We climbed the hill against a steady stream of uniformed teenagers heading home from their school day. We received all manner of greetings from shy smiles and eyebrow lifts to shouts and high fives. We were anything but inconspicuous. 
We approached the school campus off the main road, down a long, tree shaded lane. It was there, at the security gate, that we left our guide, a large entourage of children, and proceeded in much smaller numbers towards what was labelled as a machinery shop. We arrived to find it was lunch time and the door was padlocked. We sat in the shade and waited. After a long while, a passerby told us that the welder would return around 2 pm. It was just past 1 so we decided to just wait it out in the shade. After a while, a passerby came and insisted that we move to the shade of a tree in the middle of the road. We sat there, on the curb, and once again, we became the centre of a lot of attention. School children returning from lunch risked the wrath of teachers to linger longer than usual in the schoolyard. Several men and women from the area greeted us and welcomed us to their campus, either by gesture or broken English. A small boy, Samson, introduced himself to us in English and stayed with us for the afternoon as our interpreter. He was the son of the Dean of Students and took us on a tour of the campus while we waited for the welder to return. 
Finally, some machine shop employees showed up and unlocked the shop, though none were the welder. Dan decided that he knew enough to weld the door so with many witnesses and Dave along for support, they attempted to figure out the welding materials at hand. Thankfully the welder showed up as the equipment was in various states of disrepair and Dan would likely have electrocuted himself and probably others had he attempted to take on the job. With much consultation, the guys and the welder, the shop workers and Aster, all figured out a way to fix the door to the best of their ability. Once the door was done, we offered to pay them and all they would take was 100 birr, or the equivalent of about $3.50. 

 During the long journey back, we heard a bit of Aster's story. She was married to a nomadic livestock herder for many years. When they arrived in Kersa, they were to stay for just a few days and then move on but when Aster woke one morning, he and all the livestock were gone, leaving her alone with her young daughter and not a possession to her name and no one she knew in any proximity. Aster began to canvas the community for work and a place to stay and over the years, found herself part of the community. She and her daughter were given a small piece of land and a couple of goats by the fathers in the community. She wisely grew her goats into a herd, instead of sacrificing and eating them at the many festivals throughout the year that call for a celebratory goat.
She has several goats now and also grows wheat on her small piece of land, carving out a small living for herself and her now teenaged daughter. Lately though, her goats have been threatened by a group of hyenas that come through the community, feasting on any unattended livestock. Though she has a small, stick built barn, she brings the goats into the house at night to protect them from the hyenas. Once her door was rendered useless, she and her daughter would take turns sleeping against it in order to provide a little more protection against the hyenas. It's unimaginable. Aster is all of about 4.5 ft tall and probably 80 lbs soaking wet. She's tiny but so feisty, but even a woman of twice her size would be more than vulnerable to the force of a hyena with an appetite. As we walked back to her home through the adjoining community, many people thanked us for taking the time to help Aster, as they knew her well and how difficult her life was.

Our return trip took us through the rural backroads of the community and it was absolutely breathtaking. The countryside is gorgeous but difficult. The landscape is rocky and rough, though the river running through the community is absolutely beautiful. It used to serve as the main water source for the community until a water pipeline was installed in recent years. Now, each yard in the community has water piped to an outside spigot...a luxury for those that live in Kersa. There are still those that come from surrounding communities that don't have piped in water, and you can see donkey carts loaded with yellow water jugs travelling in to load up with water in the morning and out in the afternoon. 

When we arrived back at Aster's home, it didn't take long for the guys to reassemble the door and secure it with a lock. Aster and her daughter would be able to not only lock the door when in the home, they could also secure the lock when they left the home, something they had been unable to do before. Aster's joy and gratitude was more than we could take in. We knew that that night, Aster and her daughter and their goats would be safe and able to sleep soundly. 
Aster and her daughter pose in front of their new, secure, front door.

Gratitude in any language~so beautiful.