Thursday, April 17, 2014

Fighting the Dementors

The wind is howling. Literally, it is screaming its way through my office window like a Dementor from Harry Potter's realm. It's not the wind or its inconsistent screeching that continues to distract me this morning, but the sound is certainly laying down the tracks of an appropriate soundtrack.

I've admittedly watched too much news this week, not all of it good. Over 100 Nigerian school girls abducted at gunpoint from their classrooms by armed extremists. A ship sinking in frigid waters with students texting their parents as the ship fills and traps them.  A inexplicable stabbing rampage at the end of the year celebration of university students in Calgary. A couple's young daughter feeling tired and restless and worn down in the midst of her third chemo treatment.

These are the Dementors that are grabbing hold of me today. I don't mean to give credence to the existence of these dark creatures that are written purely as fantasy, but listen to how Harry's professor describes them and tell me that these aren't the things we deal with daily:

"Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, a Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life." - Remus Lupin to Harry Potter 

There are always things around us that are looking to suck the life, energy, peace and hope out of us. The only way to combat that is to avoid those things where possible and to fill ourselves of as much life, energy, peace and hope that we can in an effort to sustain ourselves.

So today, one of those that has me wanting to crawl back under the covers and stay in bed till spring truly arrives,  I'm taking a few moments to find the good stuff. The photos on my desk of my boys sitting in the dirt in Africa, talking to other boys and playing games. Some brightly coloured paintings from Cambodia that remind me that somewhere in the world there is warmth and there are literally hundreds of children right now being cared for by their house mothers at Place of Rescue, with food in their tummies and homework to be done. And particularly, I can bring to mind the nighttime routines of our care workers and kids in our community in Zambia, and I can picture more than a few of their homes as they settle in for the night. I think of the floors I've sat on, the beds I've shared, the places of honour I've been seated at throughout Mulenga, and my heart fills back up with hope and energy and peace.

It's not easy to stay filled with good things. It takes intention. So, this morning, that's what I'm repeating over and over, as the wind rattles the windows. I'm rewriting the soundtrack to make it something I can dance to or sing with.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Looking Forward, Looking Back

I'm in the midst of a Saskatoon spring storm. It's snowing and I'm getting a team of 10 organized for a  trip to Zambia this coming July. It's hard to get my head around it in times like these. The dirt paths we'll walk, the warm nights under mosquito netting, the squatting in dark homes with the smoke of cooking fires stinging our eyes. And then, I remember this video. And I have watched it several times today. None without tears, I might add. I can't wait to get back to our family and friends in this community. I know that prayers and thoughts and translated messages have sustained that friendship over the past years but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, more hopeful than being in the presence of those that live out love every single day to those that need it most. Somewhere in this video, I have expect to see an image of the trajectory of my life changing, because this? This is exactly where and when.
I can't even imagine my life without that change.

Zambia 2009

Friday, April 4, 2014

Not "Never Again"

The thoughts I have today are heavy and more than a little overwhelming. My ideal day would be to self medicate with an oversize hunk of chocolate and then curl up in a ball and nap on my office floor.  Alas, I don't have that luxury so I continue to work, desk covered in post it notes, printed lists with additional tasks hastily scribbled underneath.

The thoughts I've had today started with a reminder that today has been 20 years since the beginning of the genocide in Rwanda. That day, started with an airliner carrying government leaders being shot down and sparking smouldering hatred that raged through the country leaving death, dismemberment, torture and rape in its wake. It was weeks in which radios identified vehicles filled with fleeing Tutsis as cockroaches and ordered the Hutus to annihilate them. The voice of authority coming out of thousands of radios, voicing aggression, pandering hatred, demanding murder. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands until the very country was dismembered. Family members betrayed family members, neighbours attacked neighbours, teachers severed the limbs of students, men who sold produce to customers became their rapists. Whole families were killed and those who were not, were left to flee, leaving the bodies of their loved ones where they fell. In spite of the presence of peacekeepers from outside countries, the world went on with their lives with minimal response to the atrocities. It wasn't due to lack of information, it was due to lack of empathy. Rwanda reminded us that after all the outcry after the Holocaust, that really, "never again" was just rhetoric.

Even now, people hear about Rwanda and have the audacity to say "never again" while the same hatred and terror runs rampant throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the Central African Republic's Muslims and Christians slaughter one another senselessly, entrapping innocent people in communities to starve or forcing them to flee with no where to run. In case, you're one of those that believe that these are African issues, then turn your eyes on Syria where three years in, millions (I want to scream that number for emphasis) are displaced either within the borders or in neighbouring countries because of a conflict that really has nothing to do with the common person on the ground. Men, women and children lived lives extraordinarily similar to ours, taking children to school and then to music lessons, working in the business sector and then shopping at the market on the way home, until their government and others decided that these ordinary citizens should be used as collateral in a war that has everything to do with greed and corruption and nothing to do with bettering the lives of those they purport to serve.

Never again, in deed.

And then to Afghanistan. We've watched the footage of Canadian troops withdrawing for the last time in Afghanistan and the preparation for elections. These should be signs of hope and progress. And then today. The cover of the NY Times features a photo by the Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Anja Niedringhaus. And a report comes in across the wire that this amazing and gifted woman, was shot multiple times from metres away by an Afghani policeman yelling some misguided homage to his god. And that, is life today.

So for all the post it notes and added scribbles of to do's that could bury me on their own,  today can not and will not carry on until I take some time, as I often do, to peruse again, the amazing photography of one of the greats, Anja Niedringhaus. And I do so, with prayers for her coworker and our fellow Canadian, Karen Gammon, who was injured in the same attack.

These women did not have to use their skills for this particular type of photography. The world clambers for photos of beauty and joy, for easy inspiration and visuals to simply feel good about.  I would challenge you today, for we are all busy, but don't be too busy to take a moment and look at the beauty and the joy, the inspiration and the kind of life we should all emulate - that which involves risk and injury, even to the point of death, in the hope that we could make our world a better place to live. For that, that is the legacy that we've been left. There is no "never again" in a world that continues to live unto itself and ignore that which goes on around them.

Anja Niedringhaus Photography

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.