Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Better in Africa.

Last summer, I took a team to Zambia to visit Mulenga. Over the course of the first few days, there became this catchphrase that the girls on the team applied in all manner of circumstances...."You're ____________ in Africa."  I'm not sure how it started but it became the sort of backhanded compliment/criticism  that we would give someone whenever possible. We were smarter in Africa. Kinder in Africa. Better drivers in Africa. Grumpier in Africa. More unreasonable in Africa. Prettier in Africa.  Somehow we found a way to figure out our best and worst qualities in Africa. 

This photo from Ethiopia that one of the guys from my last team sent me yesterday brought that right back. Look how funny and engaging I am in Africa! I'm definitely funnier in Africa.  This was just a snap as we were waiting for a ride...a few kids on the street apparently found me quite engaging. I'm saying this knowing full well they could have been laughing at me as easily as I interpreted it as laughing with me. If I'm this funny in Africa, maybe that's why I just keep being drawn back.  I can't imagine sitting, waiting for a ride in Saskatoon and engaging a group of passersby in this manner. 
I must be funnier in Africa. 
I loved my second time in Ethiopia. Gone were the firsts of figuring out language and culture and traffic and my own quirks. I felt like the learning curve on this trip was rapid for me. This day especially was pretty meaningful. Another phrase came out of this day for me. The boy closest to me is Renando. He just kind of hung around all day wondering why there was a feringe (foreigner) perched next to a latrine with her feet up over the sewage draining out to the street. Not something you see everyday, I guess. Several times he'd bring friends by to peek in the gate of the tight little yard we were working in and they would chatter and practice what little English they knew. At one point, I went out and sat with them and just listened to them chatter. Hours later, they had dispersed, we were cleaning up the remnants of the construction materials and tools and sat on the main road waiting for a ride. Suddenly, Renando showed up again with more boys in tow and we chatted for a bit with the help of Getu, who would interpret when language failed us. At one point, Renando spoke the line that has stuck in my mind since. In English, he asked me, "Where are you born?"  I replied, "Canada. Where were you born?" And he pointed, with his full hand, around the corner into the alley we had just come from, and said, "Here. In this slum. We are all born in this slum." Regardless of our short lived interaction, I know that when I see this photo in years to come, I'll remember these boys, their laughter, their curiosity and their natural charisma...and I'll continue to hope that one day they are able to rise above their humble beginnings and reach their full potential. I want their lives to be better in the truest sense of the words.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thank You.

This week, I've been thinking about and praying for a brain. Specifically, my big brother's brain.  Ironically, growing up, I would pray that he would GET a brain. Or USE his brain.  And 7 years ago, I finally had proof that he HAD a brain. He had a Vespa accident and went to see a doctor about some symptoms he thought were a result of it. Instead, they found a tumour, tucked deep into his hippocampus...which is not a university for hippopotami. For real. I looked it up on the Wikipedia. A few months later, they operated to remove it.  I saw the video from his first surgery and had to admit that he did indeed HAVE a brain. For years, I was convinced of the contrary. I hate being wrong. 
But, in all seriousness, these past few months, my brother and I have had those kind of conversations you don't want to have about your sibling's brain.  The tumour had grown back and filled in the space of where they had removed it last time and was now needing to be removed again. This is brain surgery, people. The tough thing is that it means that they have to go BACK into the area where they already removed a tumour and do it again. It affects his ability to work and having time off and being the Dad sort of feels like you're just in limbo and not really contributing regardless of the fact that you are recuperating and healing so that you can be a Dad and work and contribute....

So, the other day, I'm in my office and chatting online with my brother in Japan, in the middle of his night before surgery...he's listening to other neurosurgery patients on the ward snore and he can't sleep. It hits me that I'm on the other side of the world and feeling pretty useless to do much for him when I tell him I'll ask people to pray for him. And so, I throw out a photo on Facebook and ask a few people around me to be praying for him and the thing lights up. Friends from South Africa and from Zambia, from Australia and from all over North America and Europe...basically, there's someone on every continent but Antartica praying and sending good thoughts and lighting candles and projecting positivity for this guy and I was overwhelmed. I know that tough things help people come together but people stepped into this with not only me and my brother, but his wife, Masayo...his son, Eito...and my parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and his coworkers and his beer drinking buddies and his Vespa riding club... and it's so good. And it's a good reminder to me that we're never really alone unless we isolate ourselves. Thinking that there, in a hospital room in the middle of the night, there are all sorts of messages flying into the night sky on Dero's behalf that are being spoken in cars driving to work in the mid morning commute in Saskatoon, in the late afternoon heat of a Zambian wet season and in the misty evening of a European springtime.  There's a friend in Melbourne from 20 years ago in my past who is speaking my brother's name and there's an Ethiopian driver that I met last week who messages me to say that he is praying for Dero. And so, I leave them in your capable hands...or hearts, to remember them when you can and do what you do to bring them up to whoever you believe to be in charge of the universe. And I hope one day I can repay you for the overwhelming support we've felt in these past 24 hours. 

Masayo and Dero.

My favourite Japanese creation....the sushi monster that is my nephew, Eito. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Need To Chase

This weekend, I was able to do something that I have wanted to do for a very long time. I took a photography course. Not just any photography course,  but THE photography course I've pretty much been daydreaming about since moving back to Canada and landing in Saskatchewan. Moving back to the prairies meant moving back to the place where tornadoes were a possibility, however remote...but enough to have me watching the sky, yelling at my neighbours (Sorry again, Deb) to get in their basements and generally just twitching at the sight of mammulus clouds forming overhead.  Now, I love a good summer storm with thunder and lightning but the idea of a tornado really does make me want to put on my ruby slippers and hide out in the basement for about a week.

Enter the Tornado Hunter team. Now, seriously, what on earth would I have to gain from watching a team of guys race towards tornadoes, or more specifically, intercepting tornadoes in order to photograph them? And yet...I found their website, the online streaming of their chases and suddenly, I began a fear based love of following their adventures as they chased tornadoes across the prairies and into the southern USA. The team consists of three of the most mismatched yet perfectly suited personalities to climb into an F-150 and follow the Doppler radar wherever it leads. I'm addicted to their adventures, simply because when the three of them get into a truck somewhere, it really is what you could call a dream team. These guys are in their sweet spot - one driving, one capturing video, the other photographing the craziest conditions.

One of the guys in the truck is photographer Greg Johnson. He taught the course on photography this weekend but he taught me much more, whether he meant to or not. He gave up a 10 year career years ago and started chasing storms full time before storm chasing in Canada was even considered a "thing". He's not just a storm chaser, he's a dream chaser. He's one of those guys that was passionate about something and then just started, literally, chasing down the dream. I started following this guy on Twitter and on Facebook and then took his workshop. He's the kind of guy we all need to spend time with. Follow him around. Well, maybe not literally. I'll tell you one thing I learned early - if there are clouds in the sky and I'm driving on the highway and see "Flash" (his truck)...I'm not going to follow him. In fact, if I'm not driving in the opposite direction, I'll be crossing the meridian. Stat.
But in truth, maybe more people should follow his example. I picked up his book, "Blown Away", this weekend and it just fuelled something in me. We need to chase our dreams. Those back-of-our-mind, if-only-I-had-the-time, if-I-ever-win-the-lottery type dreams that come to use in times of frustration as escapism and in quiet moments as inspiration. These aren't throw down everything and run out the door type dreams, these are the dreams that we quietly inch toward even though we doubt they'll ever come to fruition. The book written on napkins and conference handouts. The photographs taken while others are watching football after Thanksgiving dinner. The details of boardroom catering finessed when no one will even notice. Those are the indicators that a dream is worth chasing. If you've caught yourself working towards something with the faintest of hope that the spark you've chapped your fingers striking flint against stone for will fan into a flame.

We all have dreams that we would work hard to chase to fruition if we just have the most minute hope that they will come true. Sometimes chasing one dream leads you to a better one. Chase a small one. Take the course. Learn the language. Book the ticket. Take those first steps. Listen to those who are cheering you on even when you think they're just being polite. The voices saying you should do that. You're so good with this. You should write that. You should start that.

There's a guy in a big orange F150 that drives towards tornadoes when everyone else is fleeing them. There's a girl who drags anyone and everyone she can to see what she has seen in an effort to support those who are caring for some of the world's most vulnerable kids. There's a woman meeting with the Prime Minister of Cambodia's wife simply because she followed the dream planted in her to care for the orphaned children of Cambodia. There's a young man in net in the NHL because he gave up years of teenaged sleeping in for early morning ice times. There's a school in a slum in Kolkata because two amazing coworkers decided to forgo their careers and chase a new one.

Is it costly? You bet. Often it is. If it isn't, is it a really a dream or just a notion? High risk. Huge sacrifice. Sometimes isolation. Single mindedness. Pursuit at the cost of comfort. Weigh the risks. Make the sacrifices. Embrace the loneliness. Persist in the dream. Keep chasing it down. Inch by inch. Step by step. Leap by leap.

There is a small picture that hangs in my bedroom. It says: it costs much to dream but it costs everything not to.

A small girl in Gindo, Ethiopia carrying water for her family (Canadian

The school in Khalpur, a slum in Kolkatta, India (

The kids who are cared for daily by volunteers in Zimbabwe (

Marie Ens, not sure she could have ever dreamt how many children she would save in Cambodia.
Over 500 under her care right now. A hero and a dream chaser. 

Listening to these guys in the locker room - big dreamers. We lose that along the way somewhere. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

When I Think of Ethiopia, It's Her Face I See.

About a year ago, I was invited into the home of one of the girls who is part of the program that Canadian Humanitarian offers in her community. Bea* is a vulnerable child who lives with her father and sister in circumstances that I can honestly say I've thought of nearly every day for the year since I first met her.  The story of our first meeting is here on the blog.
Bea and her Dad, Bela, in doorway of their home

This is their home. In its entirety. The blue wood is the door. The bike box is part of the back wall.
It's no wider than you can see. 3 people stay here. Every single night.

This year, I was excited to return to the community where she lives. As we waited for the kids to return to the centre for dinner after school, I was wondering if I would recognize her or if she would recognize me. Then, she came in through the gates and her eyes took in our group and when they met mine, they got so wide. I waved and called her name and she shyly came over and greeted me. It was so good to see her, looking healthy and happy, with her school bag and holding the hand of her friends as they came through the gates.

With the help of one of our interpreters, I asked her about school and how her family was. I asked about her sister and her dad and told her that I think of them often, and was so glad to have met them. Over the afternoon, as we treated to a program by the kids of the centre, I would glance over and find Bea's face in the midst of the kids. I asked one of the program directors how her family was doing. He told me that things were getting worse for them. The tiny lean to that she shared with her father and her sister was attached to the house of relatives, making it possible for them to stay there for very little money. Unfortunately, their relatives were moving out of the slum to another area and that most likely meant that they would be unable to stay where they were. Regardless of how small or cramped or unprotected their home was, it was their home. Bea's father is deaf and makes a little money either begging or when he can afford to, making injeera to sell at the market. The little money that he makes can not support the girls and himself and he has relied on his relatives to help care for the girls and to provide them with a place to stay. Now, everything may change. The directors at the centre are working together to try and ensure that wherever Bea and her family end up, that she will still be able to be part of the program, for it is the only way she will have access to one meal a day and to school. Without the program, this family will become increasingly vulnerable to their poverty and perhaps plunge them past the point of help.

When I look at Bea in these photos, I'm so aware of how beautiful and vibrant she is. She represents Ethiopia to me. The beauty and the struggle. If you were to meet this girl walking into the centre with her school bag of books in hand, friends surrounding could hardly imagine the place where she lays her head at night. I've seen it and can still barely reconcile it. The idea of her losing even that little stability is unimaginable.  The truth of these trips is that it's a double edged sword getting to know the children and their families and their stories. In the midst of such beauty and joy, there is always the undercurrent of struggle and poverty and pain. Or perhaps, I need to look at it differently, that in the midst of such struggle and poverty and pain, there is such beauty and joy. When I look at Bea and watch her play and run and laugh with her friends, I see both sides now, knowing where she lays her head at night. If things change for her in a few weeks with her relatives moving away, I can only hope that she remains able to stay with the program and have access to meals and education, regardless of where she lays her head at night. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Over Their Heads

There are so many stories that are floating around my mind and heart upon returning from Ethiopia. I wish I could bring back something tangible to show you and have you feel and experience and smell and touch what we felt while we were there. Alas, luggage allowances aren't what they used to be and  even if they were, they wouldn't suffice so I'll have to rely on words to bring you as much as they will for now.

I'll start with a photo I shared on Instagram that seems to have touched a lot of people pretty deeply. It's a young boy, named Teddy, who shyly gathered 7 adults together to thank them for putting a roof on his home.

Teddy lives with his mother, behind a corrugated fence that hides about 6 or 7 families living in small mud and stick constructed shanties. Stepping over the small ditch with sewage and water running freely, into the small compound, I immediately felt claustrophobic. It was a tight little space with piles of tires and bags and plastic on one side of the wall, allowing only about 2-3 feet to walk through to get to the back of the compound where Teddy lives. In the corner, last doorway on the left...a dark little 9x9 shanty where his mother and he share a bed, cook their meals on an open fire with no chimney, the smoke filling their home until it dissipates through the door or the holes in the roof. The mud walls are covered with blackened soot and the floor is covered in ash, though you can tell it's been swept just recently.

Teddy and his mother live alone, and are only able to live here because their home is owned by a relative who has agreed to let them stay here. The roof is corrugated tin and it has fallen into such disrepair that it actually allows the only light into the room that Teddy and his mother share. Sunlight streams through, illuminating the dust in the air, and while beautiful in a photo, imagine it in the rainy season when daily downpours rain virtually unhindered onto the heads of those trying to sleep or eat or cook below. We tear off the roof and there is an indescribable amount of dust, debris and rat droppings that we are inhaling as we go. There is no health and welfare department here to ensure the safety of children in their own homes. The roof comes off, the cross beams are dismantled, nearly dust themselves after years of heat and rain and smoke have had their way with them.
Sunlight through the holes in the roof

They've lived with this roof through too many rainy seasons

In the confined space, the guys tackle taking off the existing roof
Frank and Murray and Pete - and a shower of rat feces, dirt and debris that has accumulated over the years

The guys on our team, Frank, Murray, Pete, Keith and Henry work alongside two graduating students from the vocational program, to come up with a plan to support and rebuild the roof, despite the crumbling walls and cramped workspace. We were worried that the guys being on the support beams may in fact cause the walls of not only Teddy's house to crumble, but also that of the other child headed household on the other side of the wall. We had to move cautiously and constantly reassess the situation. There are no building codes in these slums. Most of the time that the guys were working, I sat outside the pit latrine, on the only free real estate I could find, with my feet up on bricks, hovering above the stream of sewage flowing through the yard. As I sat, I tried to imagine dark nights and rainy days turning the dusty yard to mud. I tried to think of how a mother would keep her son safe and fed and dry when everything around them seemed unstable and unsafe, the very home they shared showering them and the mud walls crumbling into the already cramped space. I tried to think of how I would keep my wits about me if these were the circumstances I was handed, my life to be lived out in this cluttered alley shared by other families, no privacy even in the suffering. I watched Teddy's mother as she watched the guys rebuild her roof. She was a solemn and serious woman and yet, her hands would touch Teddy's back when he walked by, she would stand next to him and watch alongside him, her love for him evident in her mannerisms and body language, though her face remained stoic. Apparently there's no room for emotions in this crowded alley. Maybe they're a luxury that can't be afforded to those trying to survive. I know as I watched her and Teddy, my eyes filled with tears several times but I hid them in an effort not to embarrass them or myself.
Cross beams are cut from local hardwood poles

Keith and Frank spacing out the cross beams for adequate support

Hilo, a recent carpentry graduate is happy to be working and gaining experience. As a result of his work on this site,  we are able to write a credible reference for him to aid in his job search.

Frank learned quickly that you need to oil the nails to allow them to penetrate the
hard wood poles.

Teddy pitched in to clear away some of the fallen roof from his home

With the room cleaned out and the roof off, it was still just a 9x9 mud shanty
shared by Teddy and his mother.

Teddy's mother looks on while demolition of the original roof takes place. 

In the end, the guys were able to secure the roof and also to make a place for the smoke from the cooking fire to be vented, without allowing water into the home. Teddy and his mother were incredibly grateful and she shared their gratitude with us after the construction was completed.
A few days later, when we visited Teddy at the centre where he receives a daily meal and help with school work, he asked the program coordinator, Tillahan, to ask if he could speak to us. Standing there, with Tillahan as his translator, this small boy spoke with such eloquence and gratitude, he moved us all to tears. He told us that in the rainy season, he felt he could never sleep and that he cried each night as it rained. No one should have to live in the kind of conditions that Teddy and his mother live in. Even with the roof fixed, I asked myself if I would feel confident enough to sleep there with one of my boys and I know that I wouldn't. Although Teddy and his mom have to live in difficult circumstances, I know that when the rains come in the next few months, they'll know that they will think of a group of new friends who came halfway around the world to do what we could to provide them with a dry place to sleep and the knowledge that they are loved and missed and prayed for by us.

Teddy and his mother outside their home.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Taste of Ethiopia - Until the Words Come

A construction worker and his work horse bring tiles to a home under construction
The sunlight capturing the dust in the home where we replaced a roof. Imagine this boy and his mother trying to sleep during the rainy season where daily deluges filled their home. 
A new friend, Renando, centre, I met while sitting in an alley in the slum.
Everywhere there is beauty if you just look for it. 
A woman carried injeera, the local staple bread, to market to sell.
The street light.
Container garden in the alley leading to Solomon's house
Large Ethiopian Orthodox and Muslim churches dot the landscape and call to prayer rings out several times daily.
The components of a traditional coffee ceremony. If you're invited for coffee, be sure you have about 40 mins to spare, it's not a quick process but worth the wait. 
I met Stephanos and his father in this bakery in the slum. His father has been out of work for months. His mother works daily to feed the family. Stephanos is beautiful, happy and well loved.
Even in the dry season, beauty blooms.
Beautiful water bearer.
Ethiopia is a land of texture and colour and vibrancy.
A rural scene played out over and over.
This comical monkey seemed to pose for me when I approached. 
The beauty of Ethiopia
Colour and crossed wires.