Making Connections: friends on the path

I love a good story. That’s part of what drives me to travel; the people I find in new places often tell me things that I never would have learned at home in Canada.

And some of my favourite real-life stories aren’t just sitting around somewhere, waiting to be discovered. No, they’re being actively created by passionate, driven people.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these inspiring people on my travels so far. I’m impressed by people driven to challenge the status quo, step into uncharted territory, and work to improve their world. These brief paragraphs can’t capture their entire stories, but I hope you’ll see why I’ve been happy to meet them on my own journey.

Dan Ogola, as featured on CNN.

Dan Ogola is a friend I met in Nairobi, where I stayed for nearly a week with him and his young family.  Dan grew up in Ukwala, a small rural community in western Kenya, then later moved to the Nairobi slum of Kibera. These are very economically poor conditions that rarely produce movers or shakers, but Dan has become an energetic social entrepreneur. He founded the Matibabu Foundation, which is devoted to promoting prosperity through better health and education. Dan has built a hospital in his hometown and co-ordinates dozens of volunteer American doctors each year. He believes in supporting the young women who often marry and start families so young, so he founded a girls high school.  His next project is a education centre that will offer adult classes and improve community health awareness.

Dan was featured on CNN earlier this year as a global innovater.  You can watch a preview of their great full-length profile (the long one is also available on YouTube) here:

Kate McKenzie is a teacher from Alberta on an ambitious eight-month journey around the world to find positive stories of hope and share them with her students back home. Kate is traveling to some of the world’s most challenging places, including Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan.  I met her in Rwanda, where she joined our team to visit the Kiziba refugee camp.

Kate asks great questions and is really keen to find positive aspects even in the most challenging places. That’s refreshing, when our Westernized eyes sometimes focus more on the poverty and difficulties in other countries. And she seemed always interested in being with local people and learning about their lives firsthand.

Read more about her Worldviews project at

Kate joined our team to visit Kiziba and learn from the refugees living in that Rwandan camp.

You can also hear about the Worldviews project in her own words here:

And finally, I spent this past weekend with Joel Chacha. He was born in rural south-western Kenya, but was able to come to Ontario with a missionary family in the 1960s to finish high school and get his post-secondary education.

That opportunity changed his life, and he hasn’t forgotten the impact of access to education. He now lives and works in Mississauga, and has found Canadian donors among his friends and co-workers to support nearly 30 students back home in Kenya. Joel comes home at least once each year to meet the students, check their marks, and encourage their progress – with limited funds and too many bright minds to nourish, poor achievers may not have their scholarships continue!

Joel at his family's homestead near Migori, in south-western Kenya, where we met with several students he has helped support.

I met Joel in New Hamburg before my trip, and he kindly invited me to spend some time at his family home. It was a great chance to meet with these young people, who have almost all had one or both parents die from AIDS, cancer, or other diseases. With a much lower life expectancy in Kenya, orphans are a big problem, but Joel sees education as the door to a better life and a career beyond subsistence farming on the family’s plot of land.

His organization is called Teamwork Children’s Services and he has also begun managing a similar program in Zambia.

That’s just the start!  But these three examples have done very interesting things, and done them with respect and generosity.


Shooting the African wildlife (with my camera)

Yes, I really could walk this close to the zebras.

Animals! I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing creatures so far on my travels. Most of these are from Lake Nakuru National Park. I’ve since seen many other animals walking through the Kakamega rain forest or the lower slopes of Mt. Elgon, but my camera batteries are dying and I can’t upload them all!

Here’s a small sample:

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Before you conclude that all I’m doing is playing with the fauna, next I head south to Migori to meet with some students whose education is sponsored by a former New Hamburg, Ontario resident. Then I head to Sega to spend a few days with a community health project.

A refugee’s journey to the UNHCR in Nairobi

The Nairobi UNHCR office, which serves all of East Africa. Somali and Sudanese refugees line up outside each morning to file claims or change their applications. Photo courtesy of Cathy Fairley

Last week I had the privilege of touring the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At this Nairobi office, refugees’ hopes for resettlement can either sink or float, but most often they stagnate.

This UNHCR office serves all of East Africa, but staff here are kept busy mostly with Somali refugees who continue to escape their violence-soaked country and pour across the Kenyan border, just as they have for years.

The Nairobi office receives around 100 new refugee claimants each day. That total has shrunk dramatically since the height of East Africa’s famine and drought last year, when 500 to 700 new people arrived each day. The UN’s office here couldn’t handle so many, so that rush created a backlog of 12,000 applications awaiting final approval.

These days, 300 to 500 applicants line up outside the building each morning. During my team’s visit, the lineup was fairly small; most of the daily visitors are admitted inside for processing before noon.

Once past the security checkpoint with metal detectors, guards, and finger print scanning, the refugee claimants come to a small office with staff stationed at desks. It’s not a big, fancy office, but the refugees can conduct business in 25 different languages, thanks to the UN’s many translators.

Since 2008, all these applications eventually have to go through Lucie Gagné, the Canadian who works at the UNHCR as head of refugee resettlement. She approves each case after staff interviewers check if each applicant has a legitimate story and refugee claim. Kenyans have sometimes tried to register on the list for resettlement, or Somalis with violent pasts try to receive status.

Gagné will soon have some help handling the long waiting list of cases, though: the Kenyan government has sent staff to be trained in process, and eventually hopes to take over refugee approvals and registrations. It’s uncertain when those changes will happen or how effective the national government will be.

The Somalis who come to Nairobi are stepping into uncertainty. The Kenyan government doesn’t provide any support for refugees who leave the official refugee camps in Dadaab or Kakuma, but people journey to the capital anyway. The camps are extremely crowded (at one point 350,000 people lived in a space designed for 90,000) and full of violence, and the city offers some hope of income and dignity while they wait for resettlement in another country.

“I think what keeps them in Nairobi, instead of in the camp where they have food and medical care, is they want to do something with their life,” Gagné said. Even this temporary home in Nairobi is a stopgap. Their real hope is to be chosen for resettlement in Canada, Australia, or some other country.

Unfortunately, the dream is a long time in coming, if it ever arrives at all. It can take one and a half years for a refugee application to be approved by Gagné and her team, despite the staff’s frequent 12-hour days.

There are an estimated 100,000 refugees, mostly Somalis, currently living in Nairobi. Only one per cent each year is chosen for resettlement in a new country, and more arrive each day, so most will spend their lives waiting here for a ticket to a “promised land” that may never materialize.

“There’s no prospect of integrating [in Kenya],” Gagné said. “There’s no prospect of going home. You have a lost generation.”

I was surprised at a few things during my visit to the UNHCR office. I had a preconception of the UN as a mostly European or North American organization, but that wasn’t the case. Staff seemed to be mostly African.

But especially surprising was the level of compassion I saw from the people we spoke to.  I expected a cold, bureaucratic machine but instead found people who seemed to offer genuine compassion for refugees and struggle with no being able to help more.

Gagné was even sympathetic of those who try to lie, cheat or bribe to speed up their claim: “It’s desperation, it’s survival,” she explained, and added she would probably do the same in their position.

“As a humanitarian organization, we try to be inclusive rather than selective, but be consistent,” she said, and deciding which families among many worthy cases should be approved for resettlement was an obvious dilemma for her.

Of course, talking later with Nairobi refugees who are waiting for the UN’s help reveals an entirely different opinion on the office’s compassion and mercy. For them, the process is slow, unfair, and dispassionate. But for me, the tour was a remarkably candid and revealing look at a refugee’s search for peace and good people’s efforts to provide security through the world’s flawed systems.

New to Africa: a visitor’s pictures

I am in Africa, and noticed some things that are different from life in Canada. Yep, it’s true. Here are a few things that aren’t quite like back home…

I ate five variations of carbohydrates for lunch at a buffet: ugali (corn maize), chapati (flatbread), rice, cassava, and some type of mashed banana that apparently tastes more like a potato.

A tasty African lunch buffet in Kigali, heavy on the carbs.

















These guys are big! And they like to swat you with their head if you annoy them.

Wildlife: I saw one of these!  They have a really long, rough tongue that sticks out to grab treats offered by tourists. I’ve also since seen elephants, warthogs, and baboons, but that’ll have to come in another post.


Tough life at the Nairobi giraffe sanctuary: stand around near a viewing platform and wait for people to feed you.

Breathability: I haven’t really been enjoying walking along Nairobi’s smelly roads.  I don’t think there are emissions standards in Kenya! The air can get pretty polluted here in the city centre, especially with big trucks and buses struggling up hills, combined with general dustiness.

I don't think this photo truly captures the truck's belching black cloud of smoke.

Going places: I also tried some of the local mass transportation; Matatus are little mini-busses that pack people shoulder-to-shoulder and travel all over the country.  Without a guide, it can be hard to know where to get off, but the drivers helpfully shout out their final destination to get you on board.  Some of them are also upgraded with music speakers and odd names painted on the front. One matatu I rode had pounding hip hop music, and stickers with slogans like “Ambitious Hustler” and “Pants Hang Low” plastered on the inside.

Riding in style, if you can figure out the right one to take.

Security: Rwanda had some police officers with big weapons walking around as a peaceful presence on the street, but Nairobi takes security to new levels.  Almost every building seems to have a high fence topped with barbed wire, and a gate with security guards watching who comes in and out.  In both countries, I’ve often been scanned or patted down by guards to enter shopping malls.

Typical wall and barbed wire around an apartment complex.

I've seen this type of sign several times in Nairobi...real estate buyers beware.

A Kenyan security guard at my guesthouse's gate checks incoming cars.

I could probably keep adding to this list, trying to give you a complete picture of life in an East African city. But that’s enough for now.  I’m loving the new things I’m learning and appreciating the good and bad in both my homeland to my host country.

Portraits of a Rwandan goat

Because, why not?

You didn’t think this blog was only going to be deep and thoughtful, did you?

It's a goat, who looks a little surprised to see a mzungu (white person) hanging around his stable,

It's another goat! There were a lot of these in Rwanda.

These pictures were taken at a small Rwandan community where International Teams has dug a well and provided a new pump so local residents can get clean water without walking for hours. That frees up more daily hours to work, and iTeams is working to teach improved farming techniques. The goats will add revenue in this rural area.

Ubuzima: New life

I recently met some men and women who gave the word “life” a new meaning: Ubuzima.

Ubuzima is a small community of Rwandans infected with HIV. More literally, it’s the Kinyrwandan word for life.

The group of mostly women meets each week at a church in Kigali. Last week, my team and I had the privilege to join them. We sang worship songs together (well, they sang and the Canadians tried to hum along). And when the worship turned into a dance circle revolving around the meeting room, the Canadians happily participated.

Singing and dancing with the Ubuzima HIV support group

Even if dancing for God isn’t a normal activity for this Mennonite guy, the group’s energy and passion was irresistible. Our circle of new friends each greeted us enthusiastically with hugs, and the aura of warm love and community support was strong.

“Do we look sick to you?” asked Mama Deborah, the group’s organizer. She was right, our hosts had an abundance of energy and it was a lot of fun to spend time with these vibrant women as they sang, talked, and prayed together.

Ubuzima has grown to around 60 people, much to the surprise of Mama Deborah. She began the ministry by simply sitting and crying with a few infected women at the church. Although she didn’t give them any material support to ease their lives, the group kept multiplying.

Living with the disease has left many members weak and unable to work most jobs or lift heavy loads. In a country where people carry heavy objects for long distances, that makes daily life extra difficult. As a new way to support themselves, several of the Ubuzima women have begun spending their days creating colourful jewelry, purses, and other bags with newly-bought sewing machines.

One of several sewing machines used by the group's growing business.

My Canadian team and I bought several of their creations. Much as I dislike the dollar signs that inevitable hover over my head as a visiting North American, I was happy to invest in a new business that offers a livelihood to people who would otherwise have little. I hope more customers come and the business thrives.

Having HIV still carries a real stigma in Rwanda, although attitudes are shifting in recent years.  Some of the women who come to the group haven’t told their families and attend Ubuzima secretly.  Earlier this year, a woman died from AIDS. Her family didn’t even know she was infected. But in this small weekly community, they could relax with no shame and no condemnation.

Some of these women were infected through rape during the 1994 genocide. We asked their leader if there was any bitterness or depression resulting from the injustice that changed the rest of their lives.  That depends on the person, she said, but many have decided that they can’t change what has happened to them. They can only look ahead to the future.

Around 170,000 Rwandans are living with HIV, according to the most recent estimates I could find. That’s 2.9 per cent of the adult population; certainly not the worst rate in Africa, but a far greater problem than Canada’s paltry 0.3 per cent.

Note: this is a reflection on my Rwandan experiences, but my team has actually been in Nairobi, Kenya for several days.  More updates coming soon on all we’re seeing and learning here.