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Letter from Africa: Image of Thomas Inspires Kingston Family to Take Action

JOHN GEDDES
Thomas with his plate of beans and rice.

Sometimes it is easier to turn a blind eye to poverty and suffering than to do something about it.

In Canada, because we have social assistance programs funded by our various levels of government, we tend to let others provide the help rather than deal directly with the people in need.

Do you know that a single person receiving social assistance (we used to call this welfare) only gets about $650 a month to sustain them? Could you find accommodation, food, clothing and transportation for that? How could you find a job if you have no phone or a computer connection to communicate with prospective employers, or transportation to go to an interview? If the social assistance recipient finds even a part-time job to supplement their income, that money is deducted from the social assistance cheque. This must remove any incentive to find low-paying work, often the only jobs available.

Now, imagine what it is like in much of sub-Saharan Africa. There is no government social assistance or employment insurance or social security or pension plan. Unemployment rates approach 40% in Kenya (in Canada it is 6.8%) and the food inflation rate in Kenya in 2014 was 8%, compared to ours at 3.9%. Although primary school education in Kenya is claimed to be “free,” many families cannot afford the required school uniforms or additional payments needed to support poorly paid teachers. Classrooms may have 60 or more pupils per teacher, no desks and no books.

The burden of illness in much of Africa from infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS and Ebola far outweighs ours. In Kenya, one child in 14 dies before the age of five, and the chances of a woman dying of a complication from pregnancy is one in 250, compared to one in 9,000 here.

Despite their poverty, patients are required to pay a small user fee for health services, and medications are often not available or too expensive.

Those of us who have visited communities where this is the situation come home wondering what we can do to help. This is poverty beyond what we, in Canada, can comprehend.

When faced with these overwhelming statistics, it might be natural to feel sorry but give in to the thought that the problems are just too great and vague for individuals like ourselves to do anything about it.

Let me tell you about one Kingston family that decided to help.

Last year, Marcia O’Brien, her two young sons and her mom, Gabriella Zamojski, travelled to Kenya. During their trip, they visited some rural community schools supported by the CanAssist African Relief Trust.

While visiting the S.P. Geddes Early Childhood Development Centre in Osiri village, they were impressed by how the community was attempting to provide early education to the young children at the school. They also saw that many of the pupils (and teachers, too) come to school hungry. One young fellow named Thomas caught their attention and represented the rest. His father is deaf and mute and his mother had died the day prior to their visit to the school. Yet, the child was at school, his best opportunity to receive some caring and support. He was, like many of the other children, hungry.

The image of this child haunted Marcia and Gabriella for months after they returned home. They decided to do what they could to help Thomas and the other children at the school.

In February, I took money from this Canadian family to the school in Kenya to start a weekly lunch program. CanAssist bought plates and spoons, the children will bring sticks of firewood, parent volunteers will help stir the pots and serve the food, and their Kingstonian friends will provide $100 a month, money that will allow the school to feed 120 kids a nutritious lunch once a week.

Although it may be tempting and more appealing to our hearts to provide individual help to one needy child, at the CanAssist African Relief Trust we believe that by helping the community with infrastructure such as classrooms, clinics, latrines and water tanks, we are contributing to the well-being of many rather than just a few. Marcia and Gabriella have also adopted this stance with their direct donation to the Kenyan school to feed the whole group, even though their hearts were particularly touched by one student.

What can you do to help? Realize that your support, however meagre it may seem in the big picture, does make a difference to the people in need who live in our own community, or to those who are even more impoverished in developing nations.

Published: April 8. By John Geddes
© 2015 The Kingston Whig-Standard

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