Canada, Burkina Faso, Ghana and all the in-betweens


An update on the Ghana Cleft Care project...Three more smiles have been changed!

Two years ago Katie Ruf and I were involved in a project in Ghana that helped provide very needed cleft palate surgeries to two adorable little girls from Sandema, Ghana. Many of our friends and family were involved in covering the costs of the transportation and lodging in Kumasi for the families of Angelina and Margaret. 

At the end of our stay in 2013 we fundraised extra to provide for the costs of a follow-up surgery for Margaret. Regretfully, the arrangements we'd made for her surgery fell through, and over the past two years we've been unable to set it up again. Katie and I have tried to reconnect but the distance between us & Sandema has made it impossible.

We've finally surrendered to the idea that we might not be able to directly support Margaret's second surgery (though we hope it's gone ahead!) and have opted to donate the remaining funds to Operation Smile an amazing organization that provides cleft palate surgeries for children around the world, including those in Ghana. 

The funds our friends and family contributed over two years ago ($820) will pay for 3 surgeries and/or support the education of local surgeons who will perform cleft palate surgeries in their own communities. We believe this is the very best Plan B around for the use of these funds, and remain deeply grateful for all those who supported this project. The impact of these donations is more than we'll ever know. 

Please connect with Katie or I if you have any questions. If you want to hear more about the story of how this project came to be you can find the whole story here.

Thanks for supporting us, to support Operation Smile. 

Happy #givingTuesday! 


There's no place like...

I am currently immersed in paper writing about my internship in Ghana. And simultaneously struggling to sum up all that my internship held. Development, NGOs, cleft palate surgery, program development, Ghana, Burkina, elsewhere. It's been...a summer.

Though I struggle to find words to articulate all that the summer has been I am grateful.
At the same time I grateful for all that Calgary represents. There really is no place like home. And I am so overwhelmed by thankfulness for the people that make this place home. It has been such a joy reconnecting over these past weeks.

I'm signing off on that note. Until my travels take me to Africa again that is.


The Thing About TOMS

Over my two weeks with Sheltering Wings (SW) this August I had the fantastic opportunity to volunteer in three TOMS Shoes distributions. I loved the opportunity to see TOMS on the ground and the whole time I was taking in all the information I could. As a 'TOMS wearer' I wanted to know if I would continue buying TOMS after seeing the 'flip side'. 

I am well aware of the criticism TOMS has come under in recent years, including being termed 'one of the worst development ideas ever'. And I get it. I have some critiques of my own to offer, and questions of my own to ask about TOMS, but let's be honest too. A lot of us have critiques based on what we've heard, or what we think, but most of us haven't actually done the research to know anything about TOMS policies or what their efforts look like on the ground. 

So I took this as my chance to do my own 'investigation'. Over the past two weeks I have had many conversations about TOMS with internationals, and Burkinab√©. In all of these conversations I asked about their general impressions of TOMS, presented some of the critiques, and asked their thoughts on the critiques. There were, of course, some common themes. Here's a glance: 

Reasons for buyingToms
Does it matter why people buy TOMS? Do the good intentions make buying them okay? Should they not buy TOMS because of the flaws in the 'One for One' model? 

When I asked this question to a Burkinab√© friend he simply asked: "Do you like them? I'm going to buy shoes I like." 
I then suggested hypothetically you could have shoes you liked equally but one is 'One for One' and the other isn't. His question back: "is there harm in choosing something that may help another person?"

TOMS & Sustainability 
A lot of the critiques of TOMS comes from the fact that it's aid not development. What do you think? How should it be done? 

The suggestion: isn't aid a temporary solution while the long-term solution is being identified? Does that disqualify the aid? How many people will buy shoes vs how many would actually put in the work to get a long-term solution? 

Lots of questions there. I personally think that's a hefty question to boil down to a simple answer, but I do think the response should factor into the discussion. When I asked about what the villages need most that would contribute in the long-term: increased food security initiatives in villages. 

Other things to take into consideration when asking this question is about the TOMS model. TOMS isn't 'helicoptering' in shoes. Instead, they partner with local NGOs (giving partners) 

TOMS & the Economy
Do you think TOMS is going to negatively affect the economy? Are local shoe vendors being negatively impacted? 

This question came with many different responses, but none of them affirmed fears about the local economy. Some suggested shoes are primarily being distributed in villages where many children aren't wearing footwear regularly and their families aren't buying footwear. Others suggested many of the children are saving their shoes as school shoes, or "good" footwear, and day-to-day will continue wear the flip flops their family can purchase locally. This last argument seemed valid as most children chose to carry their shoes home from the distribution for fear of getting them muddy on the way home. 

Wouldn't it be better for TOMS to build a factory here and employ local labourers? 
This question was perhaps the most fascinating to me. The response was in essence: sure, in theory. However, the vast majority of shoes are being distributed in villages far removed from anywhere a factory would be constructed. Most of the families in these villages are subsistence farmers, and building a factory would have no impact on their day to day life. So then, the question was posed: is it bad to help these families? 

An interesting thing to note is that TOMS often does create local employment through their in-country giving partners. 

TOMS Shoe Quality 
What do you think of your shoes? Will they last here? Are they durable? 

We ask this question of our TOMS at home. I wore the same pair of TOMS for more than 2 years before I couldn't wear them anymore, which to me is acceptable, but I was curious what people thought here. 

I asked one friend what he thought about his shoes and he commented on how nice they are to wear - 'like wearing air'. When asked if the shoes would last here most everyone said they were good shoes. Admittedly, this question would be better asked a couple months down the road. 

One thing I can attest to is that the TOMS shoes being distributed are not identical to the shoes we purchase. Typically they are black (the colour most accepted for school uniforms, although TOMS will send another colour if requested). And the sole is much thicker (check out my photos!). The stitching looks a little different & the fabrics (or just the lining?) may be different, but all in all they're TOMS. 

Another thing to know is TOMS ships regularly to their giving partners (dependent on their needs) so kids who are outgrowing their shoes receive a new pair that fits. 

Critique vs. Action 
The question asked of me: those who critique TOMS shoes, what do they propose? Suggesting it is okay to critique, if you are willing to act on your critique and work towards something better. 

It was also then suggested that many of the 'long term' development initiatives are plagued by issues of corruption and the work they are supposed to be doing isn't happening on the ground. Isn't it then, the argument continues, good to support something where the intentions are actually being realized? TOMS shoes are on the ground, getting to the people, isn't that what they are supposed to be doing? 

And Then 
Finally, my favourite comment in all of these discussions came from a wise Burkinabé man and local leader. He said: 'I am a firm believer that in all things there are advantages & disadvantages. There is nothing that is without flaw.'

And so, it all boils down to this: the thing about TOMS. TOMS isn't perfect. Maybe though, that doesn't disqualify them. It's up to you to decide for yourself. As for me, after what I've seen and heard, despite some reservations, I'll continue wearing them. 

***This discussion represents my own opinions and personal conversations. In no way does this represent Sheltering Wings or TOMS. 


When All Is Not Enough --Here

A quick update on my time in Yako is here.

As I sit to write this post I am sipping a hot cup of tea, listening to the rain pour down on the tin roof, and reflecting on a morning spent with the babies. I introduced the toddlers to zerberts (or raspberries? whatever you call them!) and wound-up surrounded by 8 toddlers shouting "Mama moi! Mam, mam!" (mama me, me me!). Every time they'd shout they lift their tshirts up to reveal tiny bellies, and grin from ear to ear. When one toddler received a zerbert he would shriek, and the rest would gigle at the rumbling noises before once again shouting "Mama mam!". Later some of the older toddlers discovered they could tickle me (not just me them), and soon Gille and Mariam were seated on my legs tickling my toes and laughing hysterically. Tickles have now become tickle fights that inevitably end in giggles and hugs. And as I think about all of this there's no doubt in my mind that these are beautiful, loved and loving, precious, children. 

Being back around the babies was good for my heart today. Even if it was different today. 
And so begins a story I don't know how to tell. 

Last week I spent time teasing and tickling the toddlers, but mostly I spent time with Cyrille: a 12-month-old with severe medical problems. When I was here in May he was sick, and was sick again this past week. In fact, he has spent all of his 12 months of life in, and out, of the hospital. The doctors released him last weekend and told SW there was nothing they could do; after running every test possible they could not determine the cause of his illness and had no idea how to treat him.

And so, last week we spent time with Cyrille recognizing it was the end of his time. I cuddled him, held him, and loved him whenever I could, the nurses checked him often, and the tantines fed him even when he tried to refuse food. When Cyrille had a raging fever and difficulty breathing I sat up with him in the night holding him so he could sleep better. Often during the day while I held him a toddler would approach Cyrille and offer their love: Mariam and Monica would come sit by us, and stroke Cyrille's arm as he laboured for breath, while Gille and Steve would gently kiss and stroke his cheek. And as I think about this there's no doubt in my mind that Cyrille was a beautiful, loved, precious, child. 

And on Saturday Cyrille's short life came to end. I had a chance to hold him one last time, kiss his forehead, and say goodbye. And though I had a brief cry, I had prepared my heart as best as I could to lose him. I cared for him (like I believe most people would) because I believe a dying child should be held and loved, not because I was hoping for a miracle. In all honesty I wasn't even praying for a miracle, just simply praying "your will be done".  Somehow I am at peace knowing Cyrille finally has the healing that wasn't possible for him here. And I know I was blessed by the short time I got to spend with him (recognizing fully my part in his life was just a snapshot - the true work came from those who cared for him and loved him for all 12 months of his life not just the final days). 

And though I have found comfort and peace in all of this, it is not without struggle. How do you come to grips with the fact that all that can be offered isn't enough? All that the Burkina medical system has, all the resources that Sheltering Wings has, all the love and care that Cyrille had, simply wasn't enough. And how do you come to grips with the fact that this was the outcome here. How can I not help but believe this would not have been the outcome where I am from? Even, I think, if it had been the presence of palliative care, would that not have been better? 

This summer has been an eye-opening experience with medical care in West Africa. It churns my stomach to recognize this past week meant not simply encountering the failures of the medical system, but that this encounter resulted in accepting these failures, and simply waiting for the end. I struggled to see the "fighter" Brittany that was around in Kumasi disappear, and yet I knew it would do nothing to fight. Or perhaps this fight simply took on another form. 

How does one find words for the failure of the 'system', for the recognition that Development isn't enough, for coming face to face with the injustice of the have and have not? How do you find words for the fact that life here just doesn't compare to life at home? How do I put words to the stark reality that this world, this place even, encompasses so many extremes? 

In this moment there aren't words, only the recognition that all that can be offered by man will never be enough here.  And while that sounds like an admission of defeat it's not. It's an acceptance of the challenge of responsibility and the acknowledgement that what we need is greater. And that, that is enough.

Then and Now

Five years ago, before I ventured to West Africa for the first time, I could never have imagined what life would look like in 2013. I certainly didn't think it would involved spending 16+ months in Burkina Faso and Ghana. Three years ago, after I left Burkina Faso for the second time, I could never have imagined what it would be like to come back again. 

And on my third (or fourth? May feels like ages ago and yesterday) trip here I still can hardly believe this is the path I'm on. Last monday I finally arrived in Yako. I was welcomed by squeals from the tantines, a shriek from the girls, and lots of warm hellos from the boys. I settled in to the house and immediately felt right at home here in Yako. 

And this past week has held a huge range of experiences. And a lot of different emotions. 

Three years ago when I was here in Burkina some of us volunteers started building relationships with surrounding villages. On Tuesday I visited one of these villages again, this time with the mobile clinic that has been started there. And later that same day I returned to another to learn more about the Widows Basket program there. It was amazing to see how the work of Sheltering Wings has grown! 

In addition to opportunities to see how Sheltering Wings work has been growing, this past week has held many tickle fights with the toddlers, cuddles with the babies, philosophical discussions with Sara and Enock, card games with Achille and Aristide, hang-outs with Biba, and a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity to see a very popular project on the ground (read: TOMS Shoes - more on that another day though!). My heart is full of many special moments. 

Five years ago I never could have imagined feeling so at home in a place so far away from "home". And I never could have imagined how much this place would shape and change me. What a treat it has been to be back.

More Yako updates to come...