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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 1, September 2007

Africa, a continent of stories

By Julia Johnson

Vanity Fair (VF) magazine, with guest editor Bono of U2 fame, created a special issue on Africa (July 2007) for the purpose of raising public awareness about the efforts made by many people who have created organizations and foundations that are helping to find solutions to the African problems of debt, AIDS, unfair trade practices, and lack of immunizations. The magazine abounds with stories of hope from business people, entertainers, politicians, and public figures that have some active connection to Africa, which is a welcomed perspective from the gloom and doom that is portrayed by most media coverage regarding the poorest continent on earth (Guest, 2004). To be sure, the fact that 25 million people have died from AIDS since 1981 is not something to be taken lightly; nor is the fact that many of the African countries, because of their colonial past and their historically corruptive and abusive governments, have suffered horrific civil wars something to be forgotten; nor the fact that 12 million children orphaned because of AIDS to be neglected.

As a newly retired teacher concerned about social responsibility, I could not ignore the call to become better informed and involved in African issues, especially with my newly acquired freedom and my interest in humanitarian pursuits. Elizabeth Taylor on www.keepachildalive.org said "It is bad enough that people are dying of AIDS, but no one should die of ignorance." As a result, I joined a crew of 27 from my community, who travelled to Uganda (June 1–16) to build a house for eight orphaned children and their house mother, to see firsthand the reality of these statistics.

Our story began two years previous to our departure date, when the Watoto Children’s Choir from Uganda came to Quesnel. The choir consists of children aged 7—13 years and is an outreach ministry of the Watoto Childcare Ministries, funded by the Pentecostal Church in Kampala Uganda and the Watoto Foundation. The Watoto Foundation supports projects that correspond to the UN Millennium Goals and the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) five priority sectors, which are healthcare, education, creating healthy family environments, post-secondary education, and job training. It is the mission of the Watoto Foundation to build villages of 150 brick homes, constructed by local tradesmen and building teams from around the world. These brick homes consist of three bedrooms, a kitchen, living area, and bathroom with running water. Eight homes are built in circular clusters creating a strong sense of community and support among families for the 1,200 children who will live in the village. The cost of building this home, complete with infrastructure, is $30,000, which the visiting building team is required to raise. Each village also includes a medical clinic and an educational complex made of square buildings that house four classrooms.

Seeing the link between the statistics and the reality of our venture made a significant impact on each of us. Each child in the village comes traumatized with a horrific tale of emotional or physical abuse, resulting from experiences related to dying parents, poverty, hunger, abandonment, or civil war. I was told that older children within a household comfort the younger ones through their nightmares when they first arrive and within six months the nightmares diminish. As I watched children playing with each other I was in awe over the sense of joy, peace, and gratitude these children feel in the safe environment of their home and school.

A Grade 1 teacher told me a story about a new boy she received earlier in the year. His black face pink from burns, his yellow eyeballs, his white tongue, and his distended belly were improved by the medical attention he had been receiving. Surrounded by his classmates looking at the suitcase filled with school supplies we brought, he was visibly like all the rest.

In the school setting, it is evident the children are grateful to have a safe place to be and are eager to learn. They work on their chalkboard or curriculum text assignments in notebooks with quiet diligence; they patiently wait for assistance from their teacher when confused; without disturbing those around them, they respectfully help each other. There is no question that their primary purpose for being there is to learn; they know that learning is the journey they take to fulfill their dream of becoming like the role models who care for them.

In the playground unsupervised, they run, play ballgames, skip, and gather in small groups–all without incident. As I walked around the grounds during recess, I spotted a group of six girls all lying down on their bellies in a circle facing inward, their elbows firmly planted on the ground as their hands held their heads. Curious, I approached them and found that one of the girls was reading a chapter book while the others attentively listened. Their pleasure at being entertained by one of their peers was a sight that needed to be seen to be fully appreciated.

At the end of the day they linger to continue their play before they walk the tree-lined paths to their homes. It is here that the African saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," becomes crystallized. Each person involved in this Watoto project is connected to each other as brothers and sisters, all looking after and caring for each other, all learning the significance of what it means to be socially responsible.

While the Watoto projects are solely funded by evangelical churches worldwide, there are many non-political, non-religious groups that do receive financial support from the African governments with whom they are partnered. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the very personal stories shared in the first three web sites listed below.

Truly, the work of people making a difference by transforming the lives of children without hope for a future is a commitment of humanitarian love. The African term for this is Ubuntu, described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Brad Pitt in Vanity Fair in this way; "Ubuntu is the essence of being human... We say a person is a person through other persons. You can’t be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships... We are interconnected... I need you to be all of who you are in order for me to be all that I am." Within the concept of Ubuntu is the miracle of salvation and peace for us all.

If you are Interested in other stories about Africa where Canadians are making a difference or if you are considering a class project, go to:

Julia Johnson is a retired learning resource teacher in Quesnel, and a BCTF PD wellness associate, livingjewels@shaw.ca, 250-747-3650.

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