It’s a tale of two cities, with a happier ending.
Or, to be more accurate, two communities a world apart, separated by massive income gaps and expectations of life.
Thanks to a growing band of activists in the well-heeled Ontario town of Whitchurch-Stouffville, the people of impoverished Igoma, in Tanzania, have seen a rise in their meagre standard of living and found a spark of hope for the future.
One of the project’s prime movers came out of a comfortable retirement to enter the front lines of volunteer work.
“So many retired people spend their time at the golf club, or in front of the television set,” smiles Peter Neufeld, chairman of the Stouffville-Igoma Partnership. “I couldn’t see sitting around when I saw so many people who urgently need help.”
For Neufeld, a former vice-president of H.J. Heinz Company of Canada, a visit to Igoma two years ago with a local church coalition was a startling eye-opener. And it convinced him that the link between the two communities must be strengthened.
“For years, I’ve travelled first class,” he admits. “I drove by scenes of terrible poverty in expensive cars. I stayed in luxury hotels. I was really insulated from what was going on in the lives of the people of poor countries.”
Once Neufeld understood the immensity of the problems faced by those in the east African country — famous for its spectacular safari tours but less well known for its poverty — comparisons with life in Canada were even more stark.
Stouffville, one of Canada’s plushest communities, has an average household income of $90,000 a year, and Igoma $300. Stouffville’s life expectancy is 79, Igoma’s 44. Stouffville has abundant electricity, good medical services and safe, clean water. Igoma’s social services are negligible, its electricity sporadic and its water dangerously unsanitary.
One in 10 children in Igoma dies in the first year after birth.
“It’s terrible to think that children you’ve met may not be there on your next trip,” Neufeld says, shaking his head. “There is nothing you can say that explains it.”
When Neufeld first entered Igoma, which at 40,000 has nearly double the population of Stouffville, he found AIDS was running rampant, malaria was killing young and old, and crippling diseases were common.
The Canadian church groups had built a clinic, but it was sitting empty because there was no money to get it up and running. Medicines were lacking and no health care was available.
When Neufeld returned to Canada, he was determined to make the aid project work. He and his colleagues made a pitch to the Whitchurch-Stouffville town council, which unanimously agreed, to his surprise, to create a partnership with the Tanzanian town.
“We decided to work on safe drinking water first, because without that, there is no way of fighting disease,” Neufeld says.
“We want to install about five filtration systems to purify the water that comes from Lake Victoria. Local people will be trained to look after (them). For now, we’re putting in two water tanks that will give the clinic clean drinking water.”
If the level of sanitation rises and improves the standard of health, Neufeld says, there may be a chance to fight the poverty that is at the root of Igoma’s troubles.
Another vital project is fighting malaria. During the past three weeks, Neufeld and his colleagues returned to Igoma and walked through the town distributing special netting that repels malaria mosquitoes, which are most dangerous during the nighttime hours.
“We bought 500 nets locally and hung 200 of them ourselves,” he says. “It wasn’t good enough just to say, `Go and pick them up.’ We wanted to make sure people knew how to use them effectively.”
The exercise also brought Neufeld face to face with the grinding poverty afflicting the town.
“Most people live in masonry huts with two rooms and a blanket for a divider,” he says. “They sleep on dirt floors and there are no windows, so it’s very dark and hot. Cooking is done outdoors and toilets are outside, too.”
The aid project has frustrations as well as successes, he admits. A container of clothing, hospital equipment and school supplies was held up by Tanzanian customs authorities, who demanded detailed descriptions of the contents.
Still, the clinic is thriving. A roof has been built over the sun-baked waiting area and a concrete floor installed. The hours are being extended to 24-hour care and a dental facility will soon be added. The clinic’s staff of 10 will also be expanded by two people.
In the long term, Neufeld says, the partnership will provide medical equipment and supplies, recruit professional volunteers and train medical assistants for the clinic.
It also aims to provide scholarships and vocational training, and collect more supplies for destitute students from Stouffville schools.
“Here, children work with computers,” Neufeld says. “But there, even pencils are a luxury.”
Reproduced with permission – Torstar Syndication Services
By Olivia Ward
Staff Writer, Toronto Star