In case you aren’t lucky enough (ha ha) to get together with us in person so we can tell you ALL about our trip to Africa, complete with a few hundred slides, I thought I’d write a little about it in our blog!
As some of you may know, I wasn’t overly keen about going…a combination of fear of the unknown and just being a homebody. I hadn’t really talked about the trip before everything was booked because I thought if I didn’t mention it, Dwight might forget about taking me! Well, he didn’t forget. And now I have to admit, it was an amazing experience and I’m so glad I went.
We spent one week each in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Malawi. This was a work trip for Dwight. He’s with CPAR (Canadian Physicians For Aid & Relief), an organization that “works in partnership with vulnerable communities and diverse organizations to overcome poverty and build healthy communities in rural Africa”. Oh, I should say up front…just in case you were wondering (and it’s good if you were wondering)…that we paid for my trip and any associated expenses ourselves. The purpose of the trip was for Dwight to visit CPAR projects and meet directly with all the people involved, so he could most effectively represent them in fundraising appeals back here in Canada.
I have a great idea for a fundraising campaign. Buy everyone in Canada a ticket to Africa to see the situation firsthand. Okay, that may not be practical but I do believe it would be very effective. It is very difficult to come away from there without feeling you want, or rather have to do something to help people who are just like us except they don’t have the good fortune to live in a country that has the resources and social programs we do.
We met so many amazing people on this trip including dedicated CPAR staff, community volunteers who are working alongside them, and the beneficiaries of the programs.
For example, there’s Judith, who lives in rural Malawi. At 14%, Malawi has one of the highest AIDS rates on the continent. Judith, along with some other community members, recognized a need and stepped up to address it. They started by feeding AIDS orphans in the immediate area (now numbering 200+), then expanded to provide school fees for older children, then further expanded to care for seniors. They were finding creative ways to raise money to do this. For example, collecting sticks to sell as firewood. Judith matter of factly described the people they help as “less privileged”. Less privileged than Judith, who lives in a mud hut with no electricity, walks over a mile to a well for clean water, and who has personally taken 4 orphans into her home to raise in addition to her own family. There are so many generous people like her there. They made us feel like royalty when we visited…they sang for us and thanked us for the support they are now receiving from Canadians through CPAR. It was a very humbling experience.
By the way, our experience was that Canada and Canadians are very highly thought of in the countries we visited. Some people I met told me it was their “dream” to come here. I always feel proud to be Canadian but I think this experience made me appreciate our country even more.
We learned some of the basic greetings and a few other words in the languages of the countries we visited, although it seemed just as we got the hang of it, it was time to move on. It surprised me to see how many people, even in remote areas, speak some English.
Sometimes while Dwight was busy discussing work-related stuff, I had the opportunity to wander around and hang out with kids. I kept forgetting that, because of our skin colour we were a novelty in some of the more remote areas we traveled to. In some cases this was fascinating for the children and I often drew a crowd. At one stop in Debate, Ethiopia I was surrounded by a bunch of children who for some reason found my name hysterical. They would call out “What’s your name?” I just had to say “Sue” and they all cracked up. In Malawi, one little boy named Biggers, passed me a piece of paper on which he had written the words “I want you to be my friend”.
Speaking of kids, I feel like I saw “millions” of them on this trip. They were everywhere. Tiny ones carrying even tinier ones on their backs was not an uncommon site. I lost count of the number of times our vehicle was chased by cheering, laughing kids as we drove away from a camp, a village or a school. We joked that we now know how rock stars feel! I actually wrote my very first song called “Little Child, Big World” based on my experiences with kids on this trip! We have actually worked it into our regular set list already.
I had an interesting experience when we visited the Gumz tribe in northern Ethiopia, a very primitive group of people that CPAR has recently begun working with. They present a challenge because their customs do not easily mesh with those of others in the region. They have lived a very isolated existence and have only recently become open to changes as they realize the benefits of education, health care, and clean water. Anyway, while Dwight was off discussing rainwater harvesting with the community leaders and CPAR staff, I was milling around with some of my new CPAR friends and a large group of Gumz people, none of whom spoke English. All at once an older woman came towards me and took my hands in hers and started shaking them and kissing them. That was cool but then she started tugging at the buttons on my blouse. Turns out, when they meet someone they like, they want to kiss their breast! Luckily my CPAR friends stepped in and politely declined on my behalf. During the same visit, one of the community leaders, through an interpreter asked me if I had something that could help him because he had a sore ear…he thought I was a doctor. I felt so bad for him. Ironically, he could probably be helped with some over the counter eardrops that we could easily get here.
I must admit I had been a bit nervous about going to northern Uganda, given that they’ve only had peace in that region for 7 months or so after 20 years of conflict. And, the truce between the Ugandan government and Lord’s Resistance Army ended while we were there so that was in the back of my mind. However, word is that neither side wants to resume fighting so hopefully that’s the case and peace talks will continue. Much of the work being done by CPAR in Uganda now relates to rebuilding a shattered society. Child soldiers (i.e. abducted children) are returning to their communities, landmine survivors are trying to rebuild their lives, and displaced person camps are slowly being deserted as people return to their villages and try to adjust to a life without constant fear of attack. While we were there, we were privileged to attend the handing over one of several new maternity health centres that CPAR and partners built for communities in the north. It was a big celebration, attended by local politicians, with lots of music, theatre, and dancing. A really wonderful event! However, over the next few days we would see things that were a complete contrast to the happiness of that event. Even so, what really struck me was the positive outlook and strength of people who have been through so much.
Let me tell you about the food on this trip…it was great!! We became especially fond of Ethiopian food (especially Injeera and sauces) and have actually craved it since our return home. Thankfully there are some really good Ethiopian restaurants here in Toronto. We happened to be there during Lent and since many of the folks we hung out with are Orthodox, we ate mostly vegetarian. The coffee in Ethiopia has really spoiled us. Even at the tiniest little rural “hotel” (restaurant) it was superb. We’ve had to wean ourselves off sugar though as it was often served with sugar already added. In Uganda we enjoyed, grilled meats (Choma), steamed plantains (Matooke), beans and a flatbread called Chapatti…Yum! The staple food in Malawi is a maizemeal dish called Nsima, which we had with several meals that included chicken, and pumpkin leaves, which were delicious! One of the CPAR staff members we traveled with in Malawi told us about Chambo, a very popular fish. We know it as Tilapia. We happened to be going to a region of Malawi that is known for serving it and were looking forward to it…except maybe the part where they serve it with the head on! Unfortunately during our three night stay there, it wasn’t available…the waters had been so rough the fisherman couldn’t go out.
I realize this is getting long so I am going to sign off for today!