Tuesday, December 1, 2009

InsideHalton Article: Oakville woman helping East African villagers

InsideHalton Article: Oakville woman helping East African villagers
The Maasai, the Samburu and groups like them have called the plains of Kenya and Tanzania home for hundreds of years and now an Oakville woman is working to make sure their communities stay intact for hundreds more.  Lyn Bishop, a graduate of T.A. Blakelock High School and Sheridan College, is a key member of the charity organization Sauti Moja, which means ‘one voice’ in Swahili.

Sauti Moja, which was created by Bishop’s husband Tim Wright, is focused on improving the lives of the pastoral people of East Africa who are currently struggling to survive the destructive effect discrimination, disease, land loss and drought are having on them.  “They are on the front lines of global warming. Their lives are changing so fast and no one is there to support them,” said Bishop.
“They are indigenous groups and like any indigenous group you see around the world, they are often left without public sympathy or support within their own community and at the same time they are a people who have a proud heritage, a way of life that should be respected and an amazing innocence to the changes that are happening around them.”

One of the things Sauti Moja brings to the pastoralist communities is HIV/AIDS education.
An AIDS outbreak can have a disastrous impact on a pastoral community because the community’s survival depends on its members being healthy and being able to walk long distances to gather food and water and to look after livestock.  Sauti Moja educates these communities about the disease and how it is spread.
Young men, who travel into cities for work, in particular, receive AIDS education as they have been identified as a key transmission factor in Maasai communities.  Condom use is also promoted and aid is given to those who already have the disease. “What we’re trying to do is help them understand, through community conversation, how HIV/AIDS is spread and how it works, so they can decide for themselves how they can change some of these cultural practices (that promote the spread of the disease),” said Bishop.   “Rather than being told what to do, they make the decisions.”

Early childhood education is another service Sauti Moja delivers.  Bishop said in northern Tanzania Maasai children are at a huge disadvantage as the Maasai do not put their children into Grade 1 until age seven.  With no prior classroom experience and no knowledge of Swahili or English, the languages spoken at the schools, Maasai children are set up to fail. As a result many drop out or do not pass the exam needed to move on to secondary school.  To combat this, Bishop said Sauti Moja has established two classrooms in two Tanzanian villages for Maasai children between the ages of three and seven.  These classrooms help the Maasai children with their language skills and prepare them for entering the Tanzanian school system.   Sauti Moja intends to bring this program to other villages as soon as funding permits it.

Another Sauti Moja project sees goats, donkeys and camels provided to widows and abandoned women within some of the indigenous communities of northern Kenya.  Providing this livestock allows these women to become self-sufficient and to feed their children.  “The goats give milk and they help to nourish the children the widow is looking after. The donkey is very important in carrying water and this is important because during drought season these women are walking miles and miles just to get water,” said Bishop.  “The more water they can bring back in one trip is important because maybe that means they won’t have to go and get more water the next day and also the longer they are away, the less childcare is happening back home.”  Bishop said Sauti Moja also provides these women with training on how to properly look after this livestock and purchases the livestock locally so they are more likely to survive.  “We support them with veterinary medicines, so they can stay strong. In their recent drought we learned that a lot of the livestock actually hangs on in drought,” said Bishop.  “When they actually die is after, when the raining season comes, because they are weak and they die from chills because of the rain. So we brought extra hay in to help feed them and give them a warmer place and that really helped to sustain them.”   According to the Sauti Moja website, 50 women have received camels, 75 women have received donkeys and 516 goats have been distributed to 111 women.  Sauti Moja currently has a goal of helping 1,000 widows through this program.

Sauti Moja is not Bishop’s first charity. She previously worked with such organizations as World Vision.  Bishop said she first became interested in international humanitarian work during a T.A. Blakelock field trip to Columbia.“This was my first exposure to what is commonly referred to as Third World conditions. As a young person growing up in Oakville I lived a fairly protected life, and through my travels, I realized that I represented only a small percentage of the world's population who could access the kind of opportunities that come with good health and good education found in Canada,” said Bishop.  “Living a life in Canada has been a gift and a privilege that I felt put an onus on me to give back to the world, especially when so many others can't access the resources to even take care of themselves. Sauti Moja gives me an opportunity to share my good fortune.”

For more information, visit www.sautimoja.org.

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