Thursday, November 30, 2006

On Adoption

As many of my close friends know, I can't wait to have children. For me, I consider the most important job anyone can have is the job of being a good and responsible parent. A few nights before I left for Africa, I was having dinner with some friends who jokingly asked whether I intended to adopt a child while in Africa.

Long before it was "en vogue" to adopt from Africa, (a strange concept to consider), Jess and I had talked about adopting as part of our family. I had rationalized that it was the "responsible" thing to do. After all, even as a middle class family, we could afford to give a child much more than what they would receive in their home country. The quality of education, health-care, all the usual things we compare when talking in this way.

I had always thought that if/when we were to adopt, we would ensure that their culture, their heritage would just be melded into our family. We would do everything we could ensure that our child wouldn't assimilate but would develop their own identity formed from a mix of their new culture and their heritage.

Sure, the devil is in the details but between Jess and I, with our hearts and heads and resources, we would find a way.

And then I went to Africa.

Now I look at the attitude I expressed above as the best example I can render of "good intentions run amok." Controversial as this may be to say, I think taking a child out of their country, especially out of Africa is robbing not only that child but that whole country.

First and foremost, my very limited experience in Africa tells me (as I have said throughout the blog entries I made while traveling) that Africa is the richer continent. I'll try not to belabor a point I made many times in those entries - suffice it to say, I think that the culture in the countries I visited is well... I said I won't belabor it. No matter what we might do to emulate, recreate, honor their culture, it will never suffice, not even with Madonna and Angelina's money combined.

Second, it's unlikely that an African child raised in A western country will return to live and work in the country they came from. Talk about the ultimate "brain drain."

Critical to the economic development of any country is its human capital. We all have high hopes for our children. So by defintion, we're taking that country's best surgeon, politician, entrepreneur, scientist, community leader, whatever away from that country almost guarenteeing the only involvement (s)he will have is as a visitor or volunteer traveller.

The better, harder and ultimately more selfless goal is to invest in ensuring that we take up the responsibility of investing in excellent orphanages, in providing funding for well developed child-headed household initiatives (the number of teenagers who are the heads of their families, responsible for their brothers and sisters is staggering and one of the issues I personally want to get most involved in supporting), and other initiatives that support the long-term care and development of Africa's future.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Arrived at Heathrow

I have arrived at Heathrow airport, having flown out of Nairobi late last night and arrived here at around 5:50am local time. This trip to Africa has ended. My journey has just begun. Here, in the most summarizing of summaries is what is in my head:

1) We must understand the difference between relief and development. Too often, otherwise intelligent people make the mistake of thinking that a donation to relief efforts is sufficient or for that matter in any way helpful to the long-term recovery and development of a community affected by war or other disaster.

2)Development-oriented "Moody's" assessments - a major need and opportunity: What we as donors interested in supporting projects in African countries need most is a set of trustworthy, credible and informed assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the components that impact a community. Education; Economic indicators; Agricultural productivity; Food security; Women's security; Health infrastructure and major diseases; etc.

Borrowing from my days writing equity investment research, I see a similar model here: An analyst initiates coverage on a community with a detailed assessment and report on each of the aspects of that community. The analyst then publishes quarterly reports using the initial assessment as the indicator of progress and identifying failures and weakening areas.

Imagine the power this would give donors of all sizes and how helpful it would be in making truly informed decisions. This research has to be written independent from any NGO working on the ground but hopefully could eventually gain enough value to be relied upon by NGO's working in that community at least as a baseline.

Ultimately, such a "research firm" could tackle the most one of the most unmet needs in the donor community. A true measure on a NGO's program effectiveness. Imagine being able to read a report and know exactly what each NGO is doing in a specific community and what it's practices are.

What could be built on top of such an assessment and reporting facility could be revolutionary.

3) We must rid NGO's and donors of colonial attitudes: I have seen glaring examples in practice and in discussion with otherwise well-respected aid and development organizations that are guilty of the following:

a) buying equipment and materials from their home country as opposed to purchasing from local or regional suppliers.

Beyond the environmental issues of shipping containers half-way around the world when many of these resources could be purchased within the continent, the obvious economic loss is itself enough to be reason for changing the model.

b) bringing in high-priced "experts" and "consultants" to show communities "how it's done" as opposed to finding local experts and supplementing and supporting their skill enhancements through consultants acting in a resource role.

I am in no way diminishing the need for specialized knowledge and the obvious value that passionate, intelligent and entirely decent specialists can bring from outside the continent. I'm simply taking issue with the organizations that structure their local operations as being primarily lead by foreign experts who make insufficient effort to find similar knowledge workers within or near the communities they are serving.

c) Imposing conditions: This is where I have myself been most guilty. Thinking that I'm being a responsible donor by making it a requirement for the local government to co-invest in a project, or to generate user fees or other income generation to support the ongoing costs of a project is often doing more harm than good.

Looking at things in the most straight-forward and logical terms, these kinds of conditions appear entirely reasonable and responsible. But I'm increasingly of the mind that the most responsible thing for us to do is to simply find and fund the most responsible local community organization largely on their own terms. Some will think I've lost a bit of my intellectual edge saying this but in fact, I've only sharpened it. Who are we to say what the conditions should be? We should only ask for accountability, for measurement, and for results.

4) The key to making development "sexy" is to start "adopting" entire villages: The child sponsorship model has proven to be an incredibly successful fundraising tool. It has made organizations like World Vision, fundraising juggernauts because of the ability to make each individual feel as though they can make a contribution to the greater problem.
It's time to up the ante on the sponsorship model
. Jeff Sachs has been promoting the concept of what he calls Millennium Villages but has failed to communicate the power and attractiveness of this to the small donor. Ultimately, in order to succeed at acquiring and retaining sponsors for a village, something like my Moody's model needs to be in place so that a donor can receive a "report card" on the village's progress once a quarter.

The "adopt a village" program works because it overcomes the worst aspect of donor-driven philanthropy. When a donor can choose to fund the most attractive aspect of a community's needs (e.g. building a school), ignoring the less "sexy" but equally if not more important needs of that community, no one wins. Everything is connected in a community. Failing to recognize this has fatal, devastating, and totally wasteful consequences for the project-specific donor and the community being "supported."

So don't focus on building the school, focus on adopting the entire village. Using the distributed financing model of individual sponsorship, all of the needs of a village can be simultaneously met if only 1,000 people were to get together and contributed $65 a month! (about $2 a day). I intend to roll this model out at GiveMeaning in two phases starting early next year.

5) The need and opportunity for social enterprise investment is massive. Especially in Rwanda but true also of Burundi and Uganda are tremendous and compelling opportunities to invest in businesses that would stimulate economic productivity of rural communities.

I have already begun formulating an "ideal structure" for how these social enterprises should go about generating an income, whilst creating local jobs and on the job skills training, a "by the community for the community" respect, and proper incentive for attracting expansion capital and for using a portion of the profits to support both local development projects and to return capital to a "fund" that can then invest more start-up capital in new enterprises.

6) The need for the Canadian Government to actively promote a "gap year" that encourages young people to travel to a developing or under-developed country and work/volunteer abroad. To be clear, I am very much against the concept of "volunteer tourism" but see the impact that this trip has had on me, and in meeting other young people who are paying their own money to be working tirelessly day and night for organizations that they believe in and for communities that they have fallen in love with, the impact is nothing short of life-changing. Of course, at a Nationwide level, such a program has many logistical complications not the least of which is to make sure that such a program doesn't become a "developing world spring break."

Many details to be worked out, but all ideas that are not only worthy of pursuing, the potential impact if these ideas become reality is (without an ounce of ego intended), absolutely massive.

I invite open criticism, debate and question on all of the above. Ultimately, if you think I'm on the right track, or think any of these ideas is worthy of exploring, tell me so. Join me in seizing upon the massive opportunity for making lasting change in the richest, most inspiring continent in the world.

And now to my heart

Just writing "and now to my heart" makes me cry. I am filled with so many emotions, the majority of which are entirely euphoric. Ultimately, as much as I have tried to explain what I saw here and how it effected me, I can only show you my experiences. To all my friends and family, tell me when you want to come, and I'll go with you. This isn't a cop-out. I want to cut my heart out and show you what's inside it but no picture, no words, no conversation can do it justice. It would be a cop-out to show you a picture or write a blog and call it sufficient.

Here's what I can tell you though. I am entirely humbled. And this humility I speak of is not a shaming, negative sort of humbling but an awestruck, amazed and inspired form of humility. It makes me appreciative of what I have in a way that only inspires gratitude not guilt for the privileges and relative luxuries I enjoy.

There is another aspect to that humility which makes me realize my pettiness and my selfishness, especially as it relates to holding on to resentments. As I have previously written, that the people of Rwanda can even show the semblance of peace and reconciliation tells me that I have absolutely no right to hold on to any sense of being wronged, any sense of resentment I have.

The love, the togetherness, the hope, the faith of the people I have met and observed: It has grown my heart immeasurably.

The strength of the women: Makes me want to be a better man in all senses of that responsibility.

The consequences of inaction: In as much as I have witnessed these incredibly uplifting experiences, I have also seen first-hand the deaths, the destruction, the suffering, the injustice that inflicts unspeakable pain on hundreds of millions of people living throughout Africa.

If their pain, their suffering, their situation was unavoidable, unsolvable, it would be sufficient to simply feel for their suffering, to contribute a little bit of money here and there. But the point is that not only are the issues that conspire against the people here avoidable, they are entirely solvable. What better feeling than to be part of a solution that can bring real change to hundreds of millions of people?

Thank you to every single person I met in my travels, everyone who has been reading this blog, to each of the men I traveled with, to my colleagues and partners and supporters who understood how important this trip was for me to make and encouraged me to go despite the fact that this is the busiest time of year for us at GiveMeaning, thank you to my family and friends and friends of friends for wishing me well and keeping me in your prayers. I have carried your love here. Thank you to every living soul that is working tirelessly to build upon this amazing continent.

Thank you to the intellects, the poets, the journalists, the activists, the citizens who I have admired and looked-up to and have guided me here.

My final words: Please, come here. See what I've seen. Please, give money (not clothes or anything else) and give more than you can afford to. Join me in being part of the solution. Write me personally and make me an offer. Or write me and tell me what it will take for you to me to convince you.

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DR Congo

Lake Kivu
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I arrived in Goma, DR Congo late Saturday night. Goma definately had a very different energy than any other place I had visited. Indeed, many of the travel advisories I had read described Goma and surrounding areas as having a "tense calm." An oxymoron if ever there was one.

In the mountains behind me in the photograph I have enclosed in this entry, there is an ongoing proxy way being fought by tribal gangs but financed and instigated by land owners and other concerns over commercial land interests.

Goma itself was devastated by a volcano eruption 4 years ago that covered a large part of the town in Lava.

I was in Goma to visit a group called HEAL Africa, run by Joe and Lynne Luci. Being picked up at the border crossing by Joe, it was clear that he is a very respected member of the community in Goma.

We stayed at the Luci's house which is situated right on Lake Kivu. While I was thankful to be in such a beautiful home, It was incredibly uncomfortable for me to be there having visited the Genocide Memorial earlier that day. In fact, I was in a foul mood for the entire night, not in any sure what do with how I felt about what I saw at the Genocide Memorial.

Sunday morning, after breakfast, we visited HEAL Africa's hospital. It has been supported by very generous donations from many Canadians and the results are everywhere. The hospital is an incredibly impressive facility and charges nothing to the poor rural residents but charges user fees to people who "can afford to pay." While this isn't precise, I recognize that they know their community better than a means test can reveal.

The hospital is entirely an impressive operation and it receives not a penny from the government. This is in fact a conscious choice of the HEAL Africa people as they do not want to have to follow the government dictum. Fair enough, I reason. Some might even say admirable. But next is where the controversy likely arises:

Joe is an evangelist in the truest sense of the word. He is practicing missionary work in his own community, preaching the word of god to the people who receive care at HEAL Africa. Though he belongs to no denomination, HEAL Africa is an entirely faith-based organization.
He comically describes the confusion of government officials who can't understand how Joe can list god himself as the overall operations director of the hospital.

Joe is an outspoken believer in his approach and some of the way he describes his beliefs are simply offensive to me (for example, saying that "any development project that isn't faith based is terrorism." My friend Rory explains that this is purely a language issue. I'm not so sure). BUT, the evidence of his work is undeniable.

I walked into a ward full of women from rural communities, all of whom had been raped, many of whom had been gang-raped. The woman whose bed I stood in front of was emaciated from AIDS (infected by one of the men who had raped her) and was in a state of utter despair. Each of the women in this room had been so badly physically torn from their rapes that they were all needing fistula repair.

A minute later, I was standing in a room full of women who were recovering from fistula repair surgery. The contrast was vivid and unforgettable. Here was a room full of women who had experienced the same violence as the women I had just visited and yet these women were full of joy, love and pride.

Obviously, this massive change is due in large part to having had successful surgery but I can't help but think that it was also because of these women finding the love inherent in Joe's care which includes his preaching of god's love and care for these women.

As difficult as it is for me to let go of my beliefs that medical care and religious outreach should be separate, it is impossible to deny the value in what I saw. The difference in these women was remarkable and due entirely to the way that HEAL Africa runs.

I would of course prefer it if there was a hospital facility as well-run and well equipped as HEAL Africa that wasn't tied to evangelism but the people of Goma don't have the luxury of choice. To be clear, my preference for an institution that does not evangelize is only because of my belief (perhaps idealistic and unattainable) that critical medical care in Africa should be devoid of ANY requirement on the patient.

I am leaving Africa with an overwhelming realization that Women's rights are one of the most important issues that we in West should be loudly and unrelentingly advocating for.

Those who know me best know how much I respect and admire the strength of the two most important Women in my life: My mother and my wife. Without wanting to undermine the strength they exhibit on a daily basis, I must write about how I am returning to Canada totally in awe of the strength and power of the Women I have met and observed all throughout my travels here.

Women's rights continue to lag and Women's security is still one of the most under-addressed issues on the continent.

I am a firm believer that if Women were given the empowerment and security they deserve, that Africa's progress would be enhanced by leaps and bounds.

Though it is now a capital crime (thanks in part to Joe's advocating to the government ) in DR Congo to rape a woman , the majority of rapes go unreported.

The women's movement in Africa needs a lot of support and we should be applying pressure on our own governments to make Women's security and rights top of the issues for all African countries.

My flight is now leaving for Nairobi. I must go. Home tomorrow night (Tuesday) in Vancouver!

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Rwandan Genocide Memorial

Rwandan Genocide Memorial
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

8:50pm, Saturday November 18th, 2006
Goma, DR Congo

My heart is broken. My last stop before leaving Rwanda was at one of the many Genocide memorials in Rwanda. On this trip, I have spoken of the great hope, the beauty, the strength. Here today, I saw the effects of pure evil. But equally damning was the conscious apathy, the deliberate ignorance, the practiced deflection of responsibility. I want to write about what I saw today but it won't mean much to you. It will only sound awful. I was left with this opinion:

The act of bludgeoning a 2 year old child to death is as brutal as being able to stop that murder and choosing to do nothing.

I can't write anything more. I want to end this entry with a call to action. To support the counseling efforts of the survivors, to support the orphans, to give a damn about what's going on in Sudan, to do all and more.

The truth is, I don't know enough yet. This was the most frustrating way to leave Rwanda, to experience at the end of this trip. I am filled with rage, devastation and incredulity.

As I sat at the mass grave looking at the stacked caskets that each contained the severed body parts of numerous people, I told myself that these people didn't die in vain. They died for peace and for unification of their country. It seems feeble but it was nevertheless my hope. But this country has not fully healed. The need for more trained counselors, for better basic and psychological care of the orphans and for a continual promotion of peace and reconciliation is needed. I hope to identify suitable projects to finance through GiveMeaning.

I am also humbled by my own pettiness. There is thankfully nothing in my life that compares to what the people of this country have suffered. That Rwandan's are able even to provide the semblance of forgiveness is amazing. That they have found peace and a way to live with one another makes me feel a fool for thinking I have reason or rationale to hold on to my resentments.

To every single person reading this blog: Come here. See what I've seen.

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Friday, November 17, 2006

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

7am, Saturday, November 17th, 2006
Hotel Des Mille Collines - Room 127

Where I wake this morning,t one man decided to make his stand amidst a sea of apathy

Millions were killed, many felt powerless, those in power did nothing.

Here, one man made his stand. 1268 lives were saved.

We all stand for something.

Imagine if each of us stood up for what we believed in.

If we all fought tooth and nail for one thing that was beyond ourselves and our families.

If we gave more than we could and did all that was in our power and never relented.

We are each and every one of us a massive force.

To live and die without using this power, is to have wasted the very essence of life itself.

In this moment, I want to express my profound gratitude to my family, especially my parents.

Sitting here in the Mille Des Collines, and thinking back to growing up as a little boy with all of the effort my family put into ending Apartheid, I'm overcome with emotion.

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Back in Kigali, Rwanda

Last day in Burundi
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I am writing this entry at the bar of the Hotel Rwanda, the Hotel Des Mille Collines. I took this photograph at 6:30am on a beach in Bujumbura and we all left the hotel at about 830am. We arrived in Kigali by about 5pm.

Compounding the already miserable experience of a day-long drive, two of my traveling companions became sick, apparently from the fruit at breakfast. I had spent the first few hours of the drive regretting passing on the fruit. This cornucopia of beautifully exotic fruit looked so appetizing but I diligently stuck to my bread and boiled egg (my breakfast for the entire time in Burundi).

By about noon (just as we crossed into Rwanda) Kent had fallen sick and an hour later, John M (stoic as he is) reported "not feeling well" which translates into "I'm feeling as bad as Kent" (which, for the record, is a most miserable feeling). As luck would have it, both Kent and John M were riding in my truck.

Time will tell whether or not the mosquito bites I received last night will lead to Malaria. Apparently it takes anywhere from 3-9 days for Malaria to manifest in symptoms. The Malarone I'm taking will only lessen the effects. At breakfast, we were marveling at how lucky we had been to have had the whole group be healthy these two weeks. Of course, just as we celebrate our health, two of us fall sick and the mosquito bites carry the high likelihood that I will get Malaria.

Tomorrow, I'm off to DR Congo. I'm feeling pressed for time right now (I'm going for dinner with the team) and frankly am totally drained from the day of traveling.

Before I go to dinner, two things:

I am grateful for my traveling companions. We have enjoyed ourselves with relatively few tensions, shared a lot of laughs and even more spirit, thoughts and heart.

I believe that I am bringing back more from Africa than I brought to Africa. And ultimately, as silly as this may seem to some, I believe that Africa as a whole is far richer than our continent.

Hopefully I will post again before leaving Rwanda.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Riding a bike

Dorm in Rugira
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

Rugira - November 16th, driving

Yesterday, I visited a school in Musema which had been targeted by the rebels in 1996. The rebels, angry that the children attending the school didn't want to enlist in the fight, burned the dormitories and eating hall. The leader of the rebel group responsible for burning that school in 1996 is now the elected President of Burundi. No matter what rationale the President has for the then need for the war his rebel army fought, you would think that upon gaining control, the FIRST THING he would do when he gained control is to ensure that any infrastructure destroyed by his own rebel army be immediately repaired.

It infuriates me no end that it is now a full decade later and this school is still not repaired. The bunk beds that the kids sleep on were burned in the fire set by the rebels and have never been replaced. Bullet holes still pot-mark all the walls and the metal beds sag and threaten to give way any day now. The kids that sleep in the dormitories with these charred bunk-beds are considered the lucky ones! Other kids who came to the school later sleep on thin foam mattresses on the bare floor of another dormitory.

After visiting this school, the dormitories burned into my mind, I drive just up the road to the local hospital. This hospital is currently being serviced by MSF - Doctors Without Borders. I share offices with MSF in Vancouver and have always admired their work. I also really admired the fact that they were one of the only organizations that during the outpouring of donations for the Tsunami relief efforts, they announced that they had reached their budget and were not accepting any more donations. Truly admirable! MSF's mandate is to go into "theatres" where there are no other "actors" providing critical medical support, most often during active armed conflicts. They were here on the ground here in Burundi when the civil war was going on, had to leave for a while because fighting grew too intense and were one of the first organizations back on the ground as fighting receded.

But here's the rub: MSF is a relief organization. Their job is to set-up the hospital, operate it for a period of time and transition a new team of doctors and staff to take-over. This assumes of course that there will actually be a staff hired before MSF leaves. The likely reality is that when MSF leaves, the hospital - which is the only medical clinic in a 10 kilometer radius- will crumble and disintegrate into a state of disrepair. Let me be absolutely clear: I'm in no way faulting MSF. They have a clear mandate. They have done their job and cannot be responsible for operating this hospital ad infinitum. But then who will be responsible? At present time, there is no answer. And so this illustrates one of the most important points for me to communicate: That we as donors MUST understand the difference between relief and development. And as fundraisers and charities, we MUST find new ways to communicate that it's the development work that makes lasting change.

So here's the vicious circle that currently exists in international funding. A "hot spot" emerges caused by civil war, environmental disaster, whatever. The urgent need is evident everywhere expressed in images and video that can easily be captured and presented as news or fundraising appeals. Donors react because they are being told the stories and seeing the images of an entire community without any medical care. They fund MSF's appeal and MSF comes into the town, does what they do best, and more images and stories come back of the difference MSF has made, the surgeries performed, the lives saved. Job well done, the donor feels satisfied, and then literally and metaphorically the lights go out. The media is covering the next hot spot, MSF moves out of the hospital and the community is left to sort it out from there. Note, I only use MSF as name of an organization to make the point.

Putting this into perhaps a more relatable context, I remember being on my BMX bike at Vic High School with my parents, the first time my training wheels had been taken off. Learning to ride the bike, one of my parents would walk holding on to the bike, steadying me and encouraging me to pedal a little faster. Then they would let go and for a few meters, I would be doing great and then invariably fall off the bike. They were there to dust me off, put me back on and start again. Eventually, I got the hang of it, and well, my parents don't need to steady my bike anymore. Some might say that this analogy is trite and I feel a little silly even feeling compelled to include this schlock but something like this analogy is needed because intelligent smart donors continually fund relief efforts with no consideration or care for what happens next. Continuing the analogy for one more moment, had my parents turned their back at the first few meters, they wouldn't have known that seconds later I had fallen off the bike, scraped my knee and cried for help . Had they turned their back, the only image they would have known was of those first few meters. They would walk away, content that I had learnt what I needed. We all know the perils of prematurely declaring "Mission Accomplished."

So then, what's the answer? Well, ultimately and in the most ideal, the big relief organizations would be more responsible with their donor messaging and fundraising activities when responding to an urgent crisis. They would make it clear that this only covers relief efforts and either offer a separate fund to be allocated only to post-relief development (if their mandate included staying on the ground when development begins) or offer a link to a respected development organization that they intended to transition their work to, when the relief work was over. This kind of cooperation and messaging is unfortunately likely entirely unrealistic.

So then, what is the realistic answer? I'm pretty sure I've got it. I just don't want to share it yet. Not because of a fear that someone else will run with it (heck, I want every charity concerned with international development to run with it) but because I want to live with it a while and write about a few of the other issues that this potential solution should also seek to address. But this may be as big a revolution as GiveMeaning itself.

But I can tell you I'm excited. The problem is enormous and when you see the problem manifested it is saddening and maddening. But it is entirely solvable. This is not the delirium of my malaria pills talking. Community by community, solutions can be applied to make long-lasting change that is ultimately made and sustained by the community itself.

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My post from Tuesday - finally uploaded

Note: Because I had only 10 minutes to upload from an internet cafe with a terrible connection, I wasn't able to post this entry written on Tuesday. I apologize for this being out of sequence.

8:39am, driving in Ngoze, Burundi - Tuesday, November 14th

We crossed from Rwanda into Burundi at about 5:30pm last night. It was another incredibly long day of driving. We drove for a total of about 5 or 6 hours yesterday. The whole time, I was sandwiched in between John and Kent in the back-seat. Both John and Kent had no problems falling asleep on our drive, leaving my shoulders available for head-rests for my friends. We couldn't stop to stretch our legs after getting into Burundi since it was already dark. It was a great relief to get to our hotel, have a hot meal and fall asleep for the first time in a room that I wasn't sharing with anyone. At around 4am, I awoke to the sounds of beautiful chanting/singing that lasted about an hour. I don't know where it came from, but it was incredibly peaceful and really helped recharge me. Finally, this morning, I had a real shower and changed into my last clean clothes.

I worry that the above sounds selfish. It's my own account of my own experience but these luxuries are not available to the majority of people here in Burundi. I am doing my best to avoid the trap of feeling guilty for what I have, but as I write this, I am overcome with a feeling that I think I have been doing my best to suppress just tremendous sadness I feel for how much of a struggle life is here. It is then that I feel totally awestruck by the happiness and strength of spirit of the people I'm meeting. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the entire world. Devastated by years of insufficient rainfall and civil war, since about 1992, the country has been sliding into worse and worse economic shape and now about 75% of the country live in extreme poverty (less than one dollar a day of income).

But I am incredibly excited to be in Burundi because of the tremendous faith I have in Food For The Hungry Rwanda/Burundi staff that are in charge of my itinerary here. As I mentioned, I received a wonderful debrief by FHI's country director before departing Kigali. Yves Yabumujisya (Planning Coordinator for FHI Burundi) and John Nibahubahr ( Coordinator for FHI Burundi) are amazingly well-informed, passionate and intelligent and have solid grasps of the problems per each province here in Burundi.

In the briefing document that Yves prepared, he spoke about the inequitable land ownership that almost guarentees that the poorest will remain poor. The amount of land a family owns also defines socioeconomic standing in the community, further marginalizing the poorest of the poor. As we were driving last night, I thought about the potential of farm co-operatives. Then at dinner last night, I asked Yves and John about the projects they were most excited about and the first thing they mentioned was their attempt at organizing a farmers co-op in Kirundo. Bingo! FHI Burundi is currently negotiating to lease 10 plots of 1 hectare each which would support 240 families. In the structure they envision, the co-op members would receive benefits such as health care, education for their children and of course, a share of the revenue. Furthermore, because of the pooled production of the co-op, it's likely the members will receive a better price for their agricultural output and better trading conditions.

As exciting as the economic empowerment that the co-op could provide is the cultural shift that might arise from a community cooperative. I share John and Yves' hope that a model of sharing could eventually change attitudes Burundians have about class structure.

FHI's current approach for their first co-op is to lease the land from the government in exchange for a share of the revenue generated from the co-op. This is not ideal given that there are looming land-claim issues with more than 700,000 refugees currently living in Tanzania (for the most part) who will understandably want their land returned to them, never-mind the loss of equity and the risk of the government seeking to increase its share of the co-ops revenue in the future.

Still, I support starting the first co-op with a strong lease agreement and then seeking to purchase parcels of land from the wealthier (a very relative term) land owners.

We're off to Bugabira to meet with the mayor of the community. It promises to be an interesting meeting.

I am so grateful to have my time in Burundi coordinated by the amazing FHI Rwanda/Burundi team. I have a lot of respect and admiration for this team.

Also, eight years of french immersion schooling is finally paying-off! French is the second language of both Rwanda and Burundi so I am able to converse directly with the people I'm meeting as opposed to relying on a translator. I am getting motion-sick typing as we drive but this is the only time to write an entry. The schedule for my time in Burundi is so jam-packed with meetings and visits that this is the only time I might have to write. More later.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

An amazing sight

Kids at school in Rubura
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

Note: I have one minute of battery life and in an internet cafe. Will have better access tomorrow.

6:48am - Wednesday, November 15th

Yesterday was an incredibly busy day. We arrived into Bugabira (a commune in the province of Kirundo) to meet with the mayor and to witness the seed distribution program. It was an unforgettable sight. CLICK HERE to see a picture I took at the distribution. As we were driving to the mayor's office, we noticed this steady stream of people walking the way we were driving but it wasn't until we got closer to his office that we realized what was going on. Over 6000 people were convening at his office to receive maize and sorgum seeds to plant for the upcoming season. When our trucks had carefully navigated the crowd, I got out of the truck and saw just how massive this assembly was. We met with the mayor who explained how the distribution would occur and the logistics of the operation. He also gave us an overview of the needs of his community.

There are 74,248 people living in Bugabira with about 351 people per square kilometer. There is a near total lack of wells, and most people are going to the nearby lake to collect drinking water, causing disease. There are only 3 health centers and 14 schools for this entire population.

In this community and many like it, there is just a massive need for critical infrastructure. I have begun to formulate some strong opinions about infrastructure projects and in a separate blog entry I will provide my opinions which might influence a new policy for certain projects on our site that try to fundraise for infrastructure.

The mayor couldn't meet for long as he had to supervise the seed distribution program. It was an amazing process to witness. Community leaders present the list of the farmer's in their area that will receive seeds. Then, one at a time, each community leader calls the name of each farmer on a pre-written list of names that the mayor is given. The farmer steps forward to identify him or herself and the mayor then crosses that person's name off the list. Once all names have been accounted for, the mayor gives the community leader their allocation of the seeds. This entire system is designed to prevent fraud and is the reason why more than 6000 people were present at the distribution. Amazingly, the entire distribution only takes about 3 hours to complete.

These seeds will yield crops in January and February and then, the farmers will plant new crops in February but harvest will not come until June. It's during these months that people are the most food deprived. While some NGO's will step-in, I am seeing that even the World Health Organization is lacking sufficient funding and resources to cover all the hunger crises'.

After meeting with the mayor, we drove to a much smaller community called Rubura in the province of Kayanza home to about 11,000 people. In this community, it has one of the highest land density ratios in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. The average land density is about 280 people per square kilometer but here it was over 450 people per square kilometer, the highest density in sub-Saharan Africa. In this commune, I was there to see the local medical clinic and maternity clinic. I was appalled at the lack of resources. For this entire community of 11,000 people, their only piece of medical equipment was an old rusted microscope. They have no medicine, no nothing. The maternity clinic is similarly ill-equipped. I asked the rather obvious question of "well how do you treat the really sick" and the answer I got back, very matter-of-factly: "we don't." Well then what do you do? I stammered. "We hope their death is quick," was the reply.

Further sea-sawing my emotions yesterday, as I walked out of the the ill-equipped maternity clinic, school was letting out and I was immediately greeted by dozens of school-children. The kids were so happy and excited and curious about the Muzungu's (a Swahili word meaning "person of wealth") and when I stopped to shake the hand of a few kids, this surge of kids reached out, each wanting to shake my hand. To greet and shake the hands of near a hundred kids was at least presently indescribable. I feel this need to dispel the cyncism that might arise for some readers when I talk about these kids' enthusiasm and happiness, especially after I've just finished describing the condition of the clinic. Maybe somewhere this cynicism is seeping into my thoughts as I try to recollect my day yesterday. It's easy to dismiss the kids' interest in me as hope and expectation that I can help, that I can give them something. And of course, they are obviously not without that hope. But it was clear to them that I had nothing to give other than my being with them. So I just played with them, trying to talk to one another, holding hands, and playing around with my camera. I just felt this incredible gratitude for their hospitality and generosity.

But then remembering the building that hopes to grow into a true clinic, capable of doing more than just receiving patients, I become lost again, switching from heart to head, looking for the answer. And, strong opinions are coming to me. For example: At dinner last night, I asked John why Unicef had provided notebooks and pens to the kids but not textbooks. Apparently, the government is responsible for this and while the Ministry of Education has ordered the text-books, they have not yet been printed in Nairobi. Currently there are about 5 or 6 textbooks per class (the average class being about 40-50 kids). So an idea I floated at dinner which seems to make some sense is to negotiate a text-book "loan" program. Approach the government and say "look, I'll provide these text-books today to ensure that the classes have adequate resources but only on the basis that you will give me back the same number of text-books and other resources I give. When the government makes good on the terms and provides me the books, they take those books and give them to another class and so on." The books that are repaid are either donated to other schools or loaned on the same basis. It's just the beginning of one of the millions of ideas floating around my head that I intend to crystalize in the next few weeks.

Maybe I'm being arrogant or naive but those who know me know that I can't be here without at least trying to apply my brain to the problems I witness. Everywhere I go, I see opportunity. I see all the conditions needed to make long-lasting, sustainable change, mostly in that the people I'm meeting here on the ground are so knowledgeable, organized, passionate and intelligent.

I will say that when I'm back in Vancouver, I will want to apply a new criteria to anyone who submits a project proposal at GiveMeaning to build a school, a clinic or any other kind of critical infrastructure anywhere in the world: It's simply not good enough just to build the place. If you're going to build it, don't leave it until it's got what it needs to be able to properly serve the community. Every budget for an infrastructure project should have included the required monetary resources to purchase at the very least the basic necessities for that service to properly function in the community. I see it as the only responsible thing to do.

On a personal note, I miss home a lot right now. The cell phone card that I had bought to stay in touch with my family isn't working and there just isn't a place to buy another SIM card. I listened to one of Jessie's songs on iTunes this morning, a song I've listened to thousands of times before but today, her voice was just different. Further away. Tomorrow, we will reach the capital of Burundi. Hopefully I'll be able to sort out the phone and internet situation.

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Morning in Rwanda

Morning in Rwanda
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I arrived late last night into Kigali International Airport. The day of driving took it's toll on me. About an hour away from Gulu, the luggage rack on the top of our Land Cruiser buckled from the pressure of the bags and the force of the numerous potholes on the road. We had to pull to the side of the road to investigate the damage and find an alternative way to transporting 7 people's bags in an already full and crowded car.

An army patrol truck pulled up within minutes of us having to pull over. The flat-bed truck had 6 soldiers all with AK-47's and MMG's (Medium Machine Guns) slung lazily over their shoulders. These machine guns just hang on their sides pointing outwards and straight at us. I'm just hoping that everyone remembered to safety their weapons. The soldiers had volunteered to take our bags and looked at Mike who was standing at the back of our group, pointed at him and said "come with us" and patted next to where this solider was sitting in the truck. Later in the afternoon we were all laughing at Mike's reaction to being invited to sit in the back of the truck in the middle of two machine guns and 4 AK-47's. This moment became one of the funniest in our day but It's difficult to convey the humor of the situation. Suffice it to say, we're still laughing about it this morning.

I hadn't felt in any kind of danger but as the soldiers took up sentry positions on both sides of the road, I realized that even in this cease fire, sitting on the road with a bunch of luggage makes us pretty vulnerable. As luck was most certainly on our side, the next to stop was a UN truck. The UN people agreed to take our bags to Gulu in their truck.

The difference between Gulu and Kitgum was quite noticeable. More infrastructure, more cars, more shops, more pollution. We repaired the luggage rack, grabbed a bite to eat and continued on to Kampala. Janet (a Canadian from Vancouver) who had been our host in Kitgum was driving the entire time. We have now nicknamed her "Janeti" because she drove more like an Italian race-car driver than anything else. Driving between 100-120kph weaving across the entire length of the road to avoid as many potholes as possible was something I was getting used to driving with Janeti but as we approached Kampala her driving took on a whole new intensity. Vehicle congestion was getting worse by each kilometer closer to Kampala and Janet's solution was to drive head on to oncoming traffic and lean on the horn, hoping/expecting/knowing that they would yield in time. I eventually gave-up looking at the road.

I should mention that just before crossing the Nile, I saw my first Baboon (I've uploaded the pictures to flickr) and then right after the crossing, my brand new camera stopped working. The dust in Kitgum must have gotten into the camera and while I can return it for a refund in Vancouver, this would mean being without a camera the entire rest of my trip.

Having spent the week in such a rural, relatively quiet place like Kitgum, getting into Kampala was a total culture shock. It is a sprawling, bustling city complete with Times Square like big-screen TV advertisements hanging on the sides of buildings. We were planning on having dinner in Kampala but traffic stole the time away from us and we had to drive directly to Entebbe airport where our flight from London landed earlier in the week. My exact same camera was being sold in the Entebbe airport. The salesman in the duty free shop was very friendly and strangely, loved my beard. He said (much I'm sure to my wife's shagrin) "you have a magnificent beard!" and then almost pleaded to me "never shave it!" I'm quite sure my beard was what facilitated me getting the salesman to ease his absurd price for the camera. One more story about the beard. When Mike, John and I went shopping in Kitgum this past Saturday, I noticed the men outside the store laughing at me. I asked them what they were laughing at and they said "You look like Jesus Christ's younger brother!" This should be particularly funny to my friends who were laughing at the picture of me in the Globe & Mail recently.

Back where we started, we flew from Entebbe into Kigali. Kigali is a beautiful city with a population of about a million people living here. We drove to the guest house, dropped our bags and raced to a nearby hotel to eat at the Chinese restaurant called the Flamingo that is on the top floor of the hotel. The meal was really great. Though I ate well in Kitgum, it was cathartic to have a familiar meal and a familiar drink (they served Heineken!) After the meal, I just totally crashed. Driving all day yesterday really took its toll on me.

I woke up at about 5:30 this morning and took a shower. It was nice to have a little bit more water pressure and a little bit warmer water in the shower though the pressure was still little more than a trickle. I then dressed and came out onto the balcony where this photo was shot and where I am currently writing from. I'm sitting here eating a locally grown banana, sipping coffee and listening to the songs of small songbirds. I realize now that it's important to pace a trip like this. My eyes, ears, heart and brain were so open, so active in Kitgum that I need the day's rest before going into Burundi.

This morning I received a briefing from Dwight Jackson, Food For The Hungry's Country Director for Rwanda/Burundi. I sat with him at dinner last night and got some good overview statistics but this morning his briefing was really detailed. I will sit with this information and contextualize it into my blogs from Burundi (providing of course that I have access there). What I will say about Rwanda is that it appears to be a wonderful example of the transition from relief aid to development. The government has proven itself financially reliable and accountable and it is increasingly receiving direct budgetary support from the international donor community. What this means is that the need local NGO's are now focused on bidding for contracts provided by the government instead of focusing entirely on their own development projects. In Rwanda, more than 50% of the population live under one dollar a day of income and so there is still much work to be done to lift Rwanda up the ladder of economic development. Certainly Kigali is no reflection of the poverty here.

Furthermore, there is much work to be done in empowering and building local economies within the country. As Dwight pointed out, in order for a community to prosper, money needs to circulate several times within the community before leaving. In the local communities here, money leaves for Kigali, comes back and circulates maybe once or twice and then returns to Kigali. Social enterprise investment is critical to Rwanda and there are numerous opportunities here.

I'm being told that we're deploying forward soon so I have to cut this short. I am very much hoping that we will have access to internet in Burundi but I really have no guarantees.

If any of you have any questions/inquiries or would like to direct my topics to address certain issues, please leave a comment.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Just a final thought before leaving Kitgum. Last night I had dinner with a local contracting group that drills water wells for most of the NGO's in Northern Uganda.

Water is clearly a popular priority for donors and so NGO's looking to satisfy their donors drill multiple holes in one community so as to ensure equitable access.

From my discussion, it seems that there may be a bunch of sustainability issues that need to be addressed with the current method of providing water into communities here.

First, these hand-pumps are limited in yield to the manual output of the community members pumping the water;

Second (to the sustainability issue) is that the contractors were telling me that they have significant evidence that the number of wells per village is depleting the water tables and they have quantitative evidence of this that I am hoping they will send to me.

If NGO's were to focus on building one mechanized well with adequate water storage, the yield from a mechanized unit would likely dramatically increase (because it reduces the physical pumping requirement) and would reduce the depletion of the water tables.

I suppose the argument here is that it would create long line-ups at a centralized water distribution and that people would have to walk further. I think these concerns could be mitigated / addressed by good logistical implementation.

Obviously I have no idea what I'm talking about. Just my uninformed, naive opinion but as I've often learned, sometimes the dumbest questions lead to the most innovative answers!

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My last (and best) day in Kitgum

Tom & Egidio
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

Written at 7:30am, Sunday November 12th

Please read this blog entry in its entirety. It's my last post from Kitgum and you will quickly come to see why it might be the most special post of the trip.

I am leaving Kitgum this morning. Driving time is estimated to be about 7 hours but we might make a stop in Gulu. The cell phone network was down for most of Saturday and I was getting worried that I would not be able to get in touch with Okeny Egidio, who runs Northern Uganda Child Returnee Association ("NUCRA") the NGO supported by

Finally at about 6pm, the cell phone coverage was back on and within minutes of the network being on (such a funny thing to say about a cell network but such is life here) Egidio called me and we arranged to meet.

This is Egidio's story:

Egidio was abducted by the LRA when he was 12 years-old. He and a group of his fellow students were ambushed on their way into school. He and his classmates watched as his teachers were slaughtered and some of his other students were forced by the LRA to murder their teachers.

Constantly looking for an escape, he found an opportunity to do so when during a fight, the second-in-command lost his gun. He and about 10 other abductees tried to escape but it was in vain. They were captured and severely beaten. As punishment, he was forced to harvest honey from bee hives without protection or fire. The bees became so agitated and angry from Egidio's attempts at harvesting that the bees swarmed the LRA camp, and scattered the soldiers, providing a great opportunity to escape.

Egidio ran from the camp as far as he could and hid alone for days in the bush eating whatever he could to survive. After days of running, he came across a village and a village priest helped him to a Ugandan army barracks. There he was interviewed, given some food and then dropped at an IDP camp. Through a Welcome Centre (like the one I wrote about earlier this week), he was reunited with his family.

He couldn't stay in his own town (for fear that the rebels might come back) so he completed his O-Level (Grade 10) in Western Uganda. In 2001, he completed his A-Levels (graduating from high school). Shortly thereafter, his sister (his only remaining member of his family) was killed by a land mine along the Kitgum-Gulu road.

NUCRA - My best and final story from Kitgum
Egidio finally felt safe enough to return to his home here in Kitgum. Almost immediately after returning, he and six other young abudctees that he met at the Welcome Centre, started a brick-laying business for income generation. They continued to grow their brick-laying business and at the same time, Egidio secured his diploma in Public Health, and began overseeing contracts for the local districts. From a portion of his salary, he re-invested this in expanding the scope of NUCRA activities.

Now NUCRA stands at over 20 members, each of them former abductees and war affected youth. They have now grown their revenue-generating activities to pay for the education costs for three war affected young people (currently ongoing) and have gained respect from bigger NGO's and city districts to be hired to oversee local projects. NUCRA requires each member to pay a one-time startup fee of 5,000 shillings (about US $3) and an annual membership fee of 10,000 shillings (about $5 a year). This way, members are more invested in NUCRA's activities. What's amazing to consider is that these young people, all former abductees and war affected youth are investing their time and money into an organization to support other war affected youth. Without a doubt, this is the model that we as Western Donors should want to support.

GiveMeaning in action
GiveMeaning donors paid about $2,000 US for a Grinding Mill which has now been in operation for a little more than 2 months generating a net income of about 90,000 shillings (about US $50) in September and 130,000 shillings (about $70) in October. It may be difficult for some of you to imagine that this amount of income makes an impact but here in Kitgum, it is sufficient to significantly contribute to the income of the three young people that NUCRA is sponsoring.

Seeing the Grinding Mill in operation, reviewing the accounting and talking to Egidio about the impact that the Grinding Mill is having in just its first few months of operation was one of the most proud and meaningful moments of my life. It's quite an amazing concept to consider: Chris & Jeannie (people I've never met and who heard of GiveMeaning through a friend) came to the site, posted a project to support war affected youth in Northern Uganda, and a short while later had raised money amongst their friends and family and then here I am standing here seeing with my own eyes seeing the positive impact generated from these funds. It reaffirms for me everything that we are doing. I have in fact been so caught-up in my head (asking questions of Egidio and thinking about how to further support NUCRA) that I hadn't stopped to consider how I feel about meeting Egidio and seeing the project. The pride, gratitude and inspiration that I feel is just too much to even try to put into words. For now, all I can say is that everyone who has worked so hard to make GiveMeaning what it is, everyone who has supported us financially, who has promoted us to their friends and family, we should all feel incredibly proud of what we have built.

Totally shocked to learn that...

Egidio presents himself so well, is so well-spoken and is so efficient with NUCRA's activities that I had assumed he was probably around my age. It absolutely shocked me to find out that he is only 18 years-old!!! This incredibly well-organized, driven entrepreneur who is committed to making his community a better place and who has turned the horrible attrocities that have been inflicted upon him, his family and his community into such positive change is only 18 years-old!!

I am totally humbled by Egidio. Without a doubt, he is the future of this country.

It's now time to leave for Kampala. It will be more than 500km of driving today.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

On the menu today.

Hey everyone,

I have posted three separate blog entries today including a video clip that I shot in Kitgum this morning so please be sure to scroll down and read all three entries.



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Written 9:30pm, November 10th, 2006

My own editors note: This blog starts off as rather depressing / disheartening. Please don't stop reading until you get to the part where I see hope.

I'm thoroughly confused. This is not because I imbibed a lot (though easy to do with beer that costs less than a dollar Canadian per bottle) but because the conversations that I have had tonight reveal a different reality on the ground than I have heard described in the last few days.

What I have been hearing about in the last few days is that it is anticipated that the current peace discussions will soon result in a definitive peace agreement that will see a substantial number of LRA rebels allowed to leave and return to their homes. The peace talks are still very fragile and nothing is definitive.

Furthermore, even despite a broad peace plan between the LRA and the Ugandan Government, many expect that factions of former or current LRA fighters will create their own bandit militias. I worry that if this Peace Agreement is signed, that the perception in the West is that "all is good in Northern Uganda" and donor interest in the area will fade away.

Annexing of Camps
I had the privilege of meeting with and discussing the situation of the IDP camps with some of the larger organizations working on protection in the IDP camps and the stories are disheartening. Earlier in the week, I had been told that it was expected that many people would be leaving the IDP camps to return home to the places where they had left before moving to the camps. In speaking with some of the representatives of the larger aid groups on the ground, I realize that this is only partly true. Yes, some families are being invited/asked to leave the IDP camps but where many of them are returning to are essentially new "annex" camps, meant to simply make room for more people. But these new camps are not actually their homes (ancestrally) and worse yet, there is little to no infrastructure in these new camps. No schools, no latrines, no security, etc. So in fact, the IDP situation might be getting a whole lot worse.

Women's security in the camps
One of the biggest issues in the camps is rape and women's security. Because often the husbands and fathers are leaving sometimes weeks at a time to try and set up their new location, women in these IDP camps are vulnerable to rape. Worse yet, there remains little to no protection against sexual and domestic violence in the camps and the counseling and after-rape "care" often adds more psychologically destructive trauma to the woman. According to the NGO representatives I met with, MSF (Doctors Without Borders) is leading the way in terms of Gender Violence Prevention programs in the camps. They are getting a lot of respect from other NGO representatives that I speak to which is great to hear. As most of you know, we share our offices in Vancouver with MSF and I have a lot of respect for their organization.

Big agencies are leading the way
So where does it get positive? Well, the first bit of good news is that the big name agencies are leading the way. Unicef and IRC are all doing really wonderful work in building usable assessments of each IDP camp and what resources they are missing. If all goes according to plan, this should help all NGO's in the camps better invest aid dollars more efficiently. There seems to be great disparity in the resources available in each camp. For example, one of the camps that I was at today (where I met the young boy in the photo in this blog entry) was swarming with NGO's and yet most of the children under 10 that I met were all not enrolled in school because simply there was no primary school in this particular camp! Then, moving on to Padibe later that day, that camp seemed so much more resourced than the other camp.

So being able to accurately map what's missing from each camp should focus the efforts of the big aid organizations.

And now for something completely different...
The second observation that I must share (and what has become a theme of my blogging on this trip) is the resilience and strength of the human spirit despite tremendous adversity. This is exemplified in the children that I met at the camp where they have no education. They are frustrated and saddened by their inability to receive an education, and yet they hold out hope and do as much as they can to prepare for the day that they return to school.

And I can't talk about the strength of the spirit without talking about religion in Africa. First, a preamble so you know where I am coming from. I know I am not the most powerful person in the world. I know that when two people get together, their collective power is stronger than that of their individual power. This understanding formed my first belief in a "higher power." Today, I have a more spiritual concept of a "power greater than myself" but I do not belong to any religion nor do I pray to a specific god. I do pray and pray often but not in a dogmatic way. It is impossible to be in my position and not feel the need to call upon some higher power to help the people I serve.

In the work that I do as CEO of GiveMeaning, I serve the passions of many faith-based communities. For the people that I serve, their faith in their God drives them to do good. From what I have seen and experienced, their desire to serve has not been rooted in some ulterior political or religious motive. It has purely been to honor their God by serving to the best of their abilities. This isn't to say that such ulterior motives exist in some religious organizations and people. It's just that I haven't seen this in the projects funded through GiveMeaning.

Here in Africa, there is so much faith and worship in a Christian God. Whether an organization is purposefully "faith-based" or not, most every organization will be serving clients who are for the most part themselves Christian. At the beginning of this blog entry, I had promised to share good news after starting with bad news. As uncomfortable as this may be to hear for some of my readers, one of the best things to happen here is the amount of people who believe that their God has a plan and purpose for them.

What creates this hope and happiness?
As controversial as it is for me to say this, I believe a large part of the happiness and hope that I have written about in the past few days comes from the deep faith that many of the people I have visited here have. While on a purely intellectual basis, the statement that faith should cause someone to be happy, should be relatively easy to accept as logical, the very mention of "faith" and religion brings even the most otherwise open-minded people to a complete mental shut-down.

But the purpose of this blog is to share openly share my observations without prejudice and so I share these observations with you.

An understandable proposition
Putting myself in the shoes of many of the people that I have met, I look at it this way: Accepting God believing that by doing so, I will be shown a new life; That god has a plan for me and my future is incredibly desirable. Switching now to my own view of this proposition, I see tremendous concern with this promise.

Want to move a mountain? Pick-up your shovel
On this trip, I was with a young woman (now 18 years old) who had just told a small group of us about her experiences being kidnapped and forced into slave labor in the LRA, including being impregnated with her now 1 year old boy. One of the men in the circle asked to pray for her. As she is Christian, she welcomed this prayer. But in his prayer, his response to her was but to pray for her and for her situation to be improved. This rang hollow and empty for me.

There is that story about a man praying to move a mountain and waking up to find a shovel next to his bed. My point is that prayer itself is not enough to help this woman, to give her the funds she needs to fund vocational training or to buy her drugs to relieve the constant pain she feels from the torture that the LRA inflicted upon her.

And so here's the connecting point:
The Christians from the West that are coming here on mission trips are often humbled by the strength of the faith here in Africa. Many Christians that I have spoken to have said that they came here thinking they were "bringing God to Africa" and left realizing that they were "bringing God back to Canada" or the US or wherever they're from.

So my concern about the promise being made to the people here is in great part addressed by the sheer number of people coming here out of their own desire to serve their God who do their best to live up to this massive promise/expectation implicit in the faith of the people by returning home and raising funds and awareness and support for the communities that they have recently returned from. They are not just praying but feel as though they are being called upon by their God to serve the Christian people in Africa. In Uganda alone, more than 85% of the population is Christian. Eighty-five percent! That so many Westerners are coming here on Mission trips and coming back to their churches and broader communities and taking it upon themselves to raise funds, awareness and resources for their Christian brothers and sisters, how can this be wrong?

What we are talking about
We're not talking about colonial approaches to religion or political persuasian. What we're talking about is people whose suffering is eased by their faith and about people who are humbled by this devotion and are then inspired to help by whatever means they can. We're talking about everything that humanity should be about which in this case happens to be connected by a shared set of beliefs. Nothing more. This is not a blanket endorsement of all faith-based initiatives but a suggestion that those of us who bristle at the very mention of "faith-based" reconsider our prejudices.

For many people I know back home, faith has lost its meaning or been co-opted to describe what is often a political agenda. Here faith is powerful, radiant, calming and beautiful. And this faith - so far - has been everywhere I have been.

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My best friend in the camps.

My best friend in the camps.
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

Written at 2:30pm - Saturday, November 11th, 2006

This little boy came running over to me as soon as he saw me. He was the happiest, most energetic person I have met in all my travels in Kitgum.

He lives in an IDP camp. In this picture he is holding tightly in his palm a Canadian penny that I gave him.

My mum had asked me to leave something in Africa of Canada as she has never been and this was her request to me.

I had been looking for a place to put it and when I met this little guy, the decision was clear.

The unfortunate reality is that most of the youngest kids in this particular village don't go to school because there is currently no primary school in the village.

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Saturday Morning Soccer

Written @ 12pm Saturday, November 11th, 2006

This morning I walked into town to go to a peace march which I was told would start at 9 this morning. I'm realizing that things happen on a much different time here. There were a bunch of kids playing soccer so I asked to join in. After earning my credibility in a penalty kick competition, I was invited to play in their match. With all my diving, I cut myself pretty badly.

Disinfecting the cut with Purrell burned pretty badly.

I saw some of the kids later (on my way back into town for the peace march). I am now called "Goalie Tom."

I'm sure my brother Hugh will laugh at this video.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Godfrey and I talk about Concerned Parents Assocation

Godfrey and I talk about Concerned Parents Association
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I set out on a walk by myself early this morning and met with a few locals and one Italian NGO. I was conscious of the fact that breakfast was waiting for me and so came back to the place I have been staying at within about 20 minutes of starting my walk. After breakfast, I posted my first blog entry (written the night before) and then a small group of the men I'm traveling with (Kent, Mike, John and myself) set out on another walk. Within maybe 10 or 15 minutes, we walked by a place called Concerned Parents Association ("CPA"). As we walked by, I waved at one of the guards at the entrance and he waved back. I decided to walk over and strike up conversation with him.

I met CPA's project coordinator for their Kitgum Welcome Center. A welcome center is a place set up to receive the young men and women who escape from the Lord's Resistance Army (aka "the LRA") and want to reintegrate back into society. These young men and women were abducted from their communities as teenagers (and sometimes younger than 13) and forced into the Lord's Resistance Army. Some have managed to escape and/or have been captured. Now in their late teens or early twenties, they arrive at Welcome centers where they are provided counseling and care; are provided introductions to vocational training; and the centers work to help identify and locate these young people's family members. When family is found, the centers like Concerned Parents Association work with the families and the community to help facilitate the re-introduction of these young people back into their families and into the community.

The CPA was started by a group of parents at a nearby school called St. Mary's who had all 130 of their children abducted by the LRA one night. These parents banded together and started CPA on the hope and faith that their children would come back to them and would need a place where they could return and receive the support they needed before trying to re-integrate back into family and community life. The facilities then got international funding and there are now CPA Welcome centers in some of the key villages in Northern Uganda. Of the 130 children, close to or just over 100 of the children from St. Mary's have returned.

Godfrey's Story
Godfrey, the Kitgum project coordinator was about my age. He spent close to an hour with us and talked to us about the CPA program in Kitgum and in the other villages. Towards the end of our time together, I asked him why he worked here. This is what he told me: When he was a young boy in 1st grade, his father was abducted by the LRA. His father was a teacher and as I understand it, his father was abducted along with the whole class. A year and a half later, his father refused to follow the orders of his abductors so they beat him to what they thought was death. Left for dead, he crawled into the bush, badly beaten but managed to get to a nearby town. Godfrey then told us of being in third grade, two years after his father was abducted and getting pulled out of his classroom and told that his father was alive and that they would be reunited within the week.

Standing in CPA's housing unit (pictured in this blog entry) where five young boys are currently living after recently leaving the bush, and listening to Godfrey tell his own story about being reunited with his father was an amazing testimony to the work that these Welcome centers provide. There are so many other people here serving their communities with similar stories.

Seeing the need first-hand
I have now visited three Welcome centers, all established to serve the young men and women who had been kidnapped and forced to serve the LRA as both child soldiers and for the young girls, "wives" of the soldiers though calling them wives utterly demeans the word.

The Ugandan Government and the Lord's Resistance Army have been holding peace talks, following a cease fire that is now in effect and it is hoped/anticipated that within the next very short while, all the young men and women will be free to leave the bush and begin the process of returning to freedom.

This afternoon, I was in Pader at an "IDP" (Internally Displaced Persons) camp. I met with about 12 young children (the eldest being no older than 18), all of whom had been captured and had later managed to escape. These young people were at a facility run by Christian Counseling Fellowship ("CCF") and yet again, the staff I met were incredible. None of the young people spoke. They didn't need to speak in order to convey the trauma and sadness they carry with them. But one boy who throughout the time we were with him looked straight down at the ground, I caught his eye for a moment and smiled at him. He smiled a very shy smile back. Isaac, one of the coordinators at the camp, spoke about the progress in the children's rehabilitation. There is hope everywhere.

As I currently understand it, it's the job of the Welcome centers to provide often the first psycho-social counseling and services to children leaving the LRA. At all three camps that i have visited so far, they are all in start-up mode.

If the peace agreement is actually put into effect, all of these Welcome centers expect to be at full capacity. From my current understanding, these facilities will be an incredibly important part of ensuring the reintegration of these children back into their families and communities. By no means, a small task.

Unfortunately for Godfrey and the CPA in Kitgum, they have currently lost their funding and most of their staff hasn't been paid in two months. When I came into Godfrey's office, he was working on a funding proposal for being able to accommodate up to 200 people at the Welcome centre, based on the assumption that the peace agreement goes into effect. This could happen within the next 30 to 60 days, and at present time he doesn't have the funding to accommodate this influx, not even the interim operating capital to sustain operations.

A Surprise Phone Call
After an incredibly long day of driving, we got to the local hotel back in Kitgum (which I'm told is occupied almost 100% by visiting NGO staff hang-out). We were having a beer and talking about the day when my Uganda cell phone rang. It was Chris Blattman (one of the two fundraisers raising money for calling from Berkley, California.

I have never met Chris nor Jeannie but I feel like we're old friends. I have talked with them many times in the last few several months as they continue to fundraise at GiveMeaning to help the community of Kitgum. He was calling to introduce me to the local workers here in Kitgum that oversee their project.

It was great to hear from Chris and I want to get both his and Jeannie's opinion about the role of Welcome centers in the psycho-social counseling and rehabilitation process. If you check out their project and their founder profile at GiveMeaning, you will see why I trust their opinion.

I will certainly share more about the Welcome centers as a I learn more about them. One thing that no one's opinion or information will change: My impression of the people working as counselors and coordinators in these centers. They are so totally wonderful, intelligent and dedicated.

On the lighter side
Looking at the comments people have left, I realize that my family has now tuned in to my blog so I want to share some personal stories about the trip: I am sharing a small room with three other men. There are two bunk beds and I am sleeping on one of the top bunks. It's important to keep a mosquito net draped over you when you sleep so the nets run from the ceiling down to the floor. The nets on the top bunks essentially act like our sheets though Kent (on the other top bunk) seems to have more slack with his. So I'm sleeping like a fish caught in a net. Despite this, I had a very comfortable sleep.

Breakfast was great! We had coffee that was grown and picked in Uganda and it was such a good cup of coffee! Toast, beef sausages and fresh eggs all hit the spot. We did A LOT of driving today. To drive from Kitgum to Pader took at least 2 hours each way. There were seven of us packed into one Land Cruiser, driving on totally unpaved roads with massive pot-holes throughout. Driving is the incorrect term to describe the experience. More accurate would be "slaloming" the road. The entire time, we were swerving across the width of the road avoiding as many of the big pot-holes as we could.

When we got to Pader, we were very hungry and decided to eat in town. The restaurant was a tiny room about the size of my office (no not the whole GiveMeaning office, just my little office) and our party of seven filled up the restaurant to capacity. The food was beans and a white "playdo" like substance. It's basically corn flour and water. We had a big chunk of the stuff and a plate of beans and sauce. I was so hungry that I just started ripping off the pieces of corn flour and dipped them in the beans and sauce. None of us finished the corn flour we received (I wish I could remember the name of this stuff ) but I ate about half of that and all my beans.

After lunch in Pader, we drove to a town called Lira Palwo where we visited another IDP camp which was at least 40 minutes maybe even an hour drive from Pader. So today there was A LOT of driving.

It's now 12:32 in the morning here (1:32pm back in Vancouver). Everyone went to bed about an hour ago and if my internal clock wakes me up at around the same time this morning, it means I'll be getting up at around 6am. I do not have regular access to email so please leave comments here on the blog as the best way to get in touch with me. I'll now save this to my word processor and then post it when I get internet access tomorrow morning my time.

There is SO much that happened today that I have not written about that happened today. I want to write it all here but I also realize how long this entry already is. I guess I will start writing separate blog entries about individual parts of my day.

I should end in saying how truly grateful I am to be here. The people I have met have inspired me more than some of my greatest heros and mentors. I get pretty emotional just thinking about visiting Chris & Jeannie's project tomorrow.

This will be the first ever project funded at GiveMeaning that I have actually visited in person. A trend that I want to become a habit, if there is an appetite amongst the GiveMeaning community for the blogs, and media that I'm sharing on the trip.

Chris & Jeannie's project has always been one that I have said is an example of exactly how GiveMeaning works. That I am here in Kitgum and will be seeing their project with my own eyes is just so exciting for me!!!!


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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

First full day in Kitgum

Mike showing the picture
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I have just thrown away a rather long-winded blog entry that I decided was taking too much effort to present my experiences today as cemented conclusions. I don't have any conclusions. And I am totally and completely humbled.

I must admit that I know feel as though my attitude has been arrogant completely about charity and philanthropy in Africa. Despite truly, deeply caring, I went about funding projects here based on a "we need to help them. We've got so much and they've got so little, and so it's our duty to take care of them."

What I saw here today in KItgum was an expression of caring, of community togetherness, and of social consciousness that trumps anything I have seen anywhere else in the world.

There is so much happiness, so much love, so much caring here. There is intelligence, capability, commitment and resolve to solve the problems that kill their fellow citizens. There is so much hope and so much strength here.

This is but one story that exemplifies what I mean: I walked into an AIDS hospice for women this afternoon. In this hospice at the end of the room were two older women sitting on a rug on the floor in front of an empty bed with a few pieces of clothing on it. As I walked closer to them, I realized that amidst those few pieces of clothes, lay a 5 month old baby girl whose mother died of AIDS few months back. The baby is most likely HIV positive. So far, this is a story told a million times before. Here's where for me, the story changes:

First, the two older women. The baby is not related to either of them. They are there not as nurses but as concerned members of the community doing what they can to just be with the baby: Not really volunteers, just people who have come from the community to be with this baby. Second, to the strength and commitment of the staff at the hospice: They have invested a tremendous amount of money in this baby's care and health because they believe that there is a possibility that the young baby might be able to make it. And finally in the baby herself: I began holding her hand and as she got more comfortable with me, she grabbed on to it more tightly and waved her arm while holding my finger. All I can say was that I felt her strength and it floored me.

This has been a wonderful first day for me as it has shifted the way I look at practicing philanthropy. We are part of the solution but us and our money alone is not the solution. The good news is that - at least in this community - they are ready, able and willing to join in the solution. In all of these struggles that challenge life has come this strength and tenacity that feels powerful enough to change anything.

I know some of my friends reading the blog might roll their eyes in thinking that I am quick to find enthusiasm and excitement for new people, places and things. I am uploading this on the morning of my second day here in Kitgum. I went for a walk alone in the neighborhood that I am staying in and talked with many of the villagers. I am feeling so grateful for the opportunity for these conversations and for just being able to be here. My battery is about to die so I have to end this now.

Because of the slow connection, I can't upload many pictures so I'm choosing only a few each day.

Please go to flickr and search using the term "tomstrip" to see other pictures.

I'm hoping to post again tomorrow.

Take a look at, the first project we have funded in Kitgum. With luck, I am hoping to meet some of the people involved in the project over the next couple of days.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

On my way today

Just took my first anti-malaria pill. So far, feeling fine though it advises that if I throw up within the hour to take another one. Not sure that's entirely logical. Off to the meeting we came to London for and then to the airport.

It finally hit me last night that I'm actually going. Eating breakfast this morning, savoring every last bite.

I'll try to post at Heathrow.

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Arrived in London

Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

I arrived in London yesterday afternoon after a completely non-eventful flight. Most of my late teens and into my early twenties, I flew quite literally every week but I really haven't travelled much in the past few years. Somewhere in the last few years, I have developed a totally irrational fear of flying so the near 9 hour flight to London from Vancouver was a source of great anxiety.

Arriving in London, I told the customs inspectors that I was just in London for a couple of days and then on to Africa. I made the mistake of saying that I worked in the charitable sector. This drew his suspicion and of course his suspicions only made me act more suspicious (when are they going to realize that this is a vicious circle?). He finally relented and I was on my way.

The last time I was in London, it was four a four day trip to meet with an advertising agency that was handling the account of a company I was advising. I had travelled first class from New York to London and stayed at a hip boutique hotel. Here I was yesterday with my massive backpack struggling to find my way through the tube system to my decidedly less hip hotel.

Last evening, John and I set out from our hotel and walked from Picadily Circus through SoHo and then to the Parliament Buildings and Westminster Abby. It was funny to walk past the hotel that I had stayed at on that last trip to London. It served as a good reminder of the changes I've made in my life. Reading this back to myself, I'm not entirely satisfied that I've explained myself but am too tired to attempt better. Obviously, I don't mean to say that where I stay or how I travel says anything about my character. But it was that then I actually felt as though I needed to travel in First Class. There was that line from Jerry Maguire that Renee Zellweger said about First Class, sitting from her seat in coach: "It used to be it was a better meal. Now it's a better life." I used to need to be in First Class because I needed a better life. Gone is this need. There. That's what I mean.

Last night, I lit a candle at Westminster Abby. This one little candle in this beautiful, rich and storied church for all the millions of people suffering from war, disease and neglect.

Tomorrow I go.

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