Solidarity, not charity
Children in most liveable town connect with children in least livable country
October 31,st 2008
Annapolis Royal is well known for its high quality of life. The country of Sierra Leone, on the other hand, consistently finds itself at or near the bottom of the UN’s Quality of Life Index.
In 2004, while Annapolis Royal was being recognized as the world’s ‘Most Livable Small Community’ by the UN-endorsed LivCom Awards, Sierra Leone was occupied by UN peacekeepers and in the process of trying past leaders for war crimes.
One might assume, therefore, that there would be little to connect Annapolis Royal to the struggling African nation, aside from a moral obligation to share our bounty with those who are less fortunate.
Not so, says Carolyn van Gurp, who spends eight months of the year in the Western African nation working for a charity called CDPeace.
“Personally, I wouldn’t rank one over the other. The people of Sierra Leone are obviously more poor materially. But socially, in many ways, they are more advanced,” says van Gurp. “I never saw a child receive something and keep it. If you give a child a banana or a sesame treat, in every case, the child will look around and find someone to share it with. Even if it were broken in half, they break it again. During the rainy season it rains every day, and every day it rains the children run outside laughing and screaming and running and dancing under the rainspouts. They take such joy in life. They are wealthy in ways we are not.”
And, vice versa.
For this reason, van Gurp and CDPeace have developed a program to twin Canadian schools with schools in Sierra Leone. A month ago before returning to Africa, van Gurp visited Champlain Elementary School in Granville Ferry to talk to students and collect letters from children
of this most livable town to children in Mapaki, a village in the poorest region of one of the world’s least livable countries.
Lynn Winter, principal of Champlain Elementary, explains that the recent visit was not the beginning of a relationship, but the deepening of ties that began last February.
“We connected to Carolyn through her sister Hetty van Gurp (founder of Peaceful Schools International, an award-winning organization headquartered in Annapolis Royal) and our first project was to buy goats.”
During a Readathon fundraiser last February students raised $600 to buy goats in Sierra Leone. The project was a hit with the students largely because it offered results the students could understand in concrete terms. “The political stuff has to be touched on, but it does go over their heads a bit. But when a picture of a goat comes up on the screen, I tell you they’re connected!” explains Winter. “It was really great because they could see that having a goat means having an income. Having an income means having clothing. Having clothing means going to school.”
Other fundraisers and donations drives were held through the year, as well as discussions with parents during open house nights.
“So the parents could understand why their kids were coming home talking about goats and Mapaki,” says Winter.
But when Carolyn van Gurp came to speak with students before heading back to Africa last week, the connection entered a new stage.
LETTERS TO MAPAKI
Students have now sent letters to their counterparts in Mapaki. Carolyn van Gurp will hand deliver the letters, “because there is no mail delivery service to Mapaki. Hetty will bring more letters when she comes over this winter, but most of the exchange will happen through email actually, thanks to donated solar panels, satellite internet equipment, and a laptop,” van Gurp explains.
Throughout the year, communications will continue. Also, an artist specializing in African tie-dying will come work with the students to make serviettes for Annapolis Royal’s annual international supper which is to be African-themed this year. Students will hold their own African supper as well. Artists from the area, dancers and drummers from Digby and Halifax will come to work with the students also.
“This is not a one-shot deal,” says Winter. “Goats were not the end of Mapaki for these children.”
Van Gurp has already uploaded a number of videos to YouTube www.youtube.com) where students of twinned schools in Nova Scotia and Alberta can see first hand what life is like in their partner communities in Africa. In one, they can watch children acting out the scene of a rebel attack on their village during the civil war. In another they see them singing to start the school day. In another they can see their African counterparts using the pens and school supplies which the Canadian students sent by boat last year.
MAKING A CONNECTION
Winter feels the strength of this program is that her students make a connection and understand that “It is not about pity or charity. It’s not about those poor kids over there. The students see that even though they don’t have all the things we have, they live surrounded by love and family and a deep sense of solidarity with their community.”
Carolyn van Gurp agrees.
“Despite the obvious differences, we are more the same than we are different. Before I left the first time, 95 per cent of everything I read about Sierra Leone was negative and frightening. Then on my first night there, our car broke down in the most dangerous part of eastern Freetown at midnight, the part of town the [Foreign Affairs] tells you never to visit. We walked to my host’s home, and I never once feared for my safety. And, I have never once feared for my safety since. They have so much to offer us: strong and sophisticated traditions of community mediation and conflict resolution, and a deep understanding of the true value of education.”
Winter is excited for the ongoing evolution of this twinning project, and with good reason. No doubt it will offer many interesting stories and experiences and lessons over the coming months. After all, contrary to initial impressions, it would appear that pairing one of the world’s most comfortable communities with one of its least is only natural. You could say it is all about sharing wealth: Some of theirs in exchange for some of ours.
– – – –
Follow Carolyn van Gurp’s blog for more information about her school twinning projects and her ongoing work in Sierra Leone: cvangurp2.blogspot.com
Readers interested in the crucial role of Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalists in the founding Sierra Leone could begin their research at en.wikipedia.org