Ottawa's Peggy Taillon helps to bring change to Kenyan village
At first, it was just a puff of dust in the distance, a sign that a vehicle was headed their way.
But as the dust cloud grew, so did the excitement amongst the gathered women and children in Asembo Bay, a village of about 850 families on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya.
It’s not that visitors are uncommon, but this one was special — so special, in fact, that the Asembo Bay Women for Development had put his portrait on a banner and strung it across the street.
The van stopped and out stepped Peggy Taillon, a petite, pale blond Ottawa woman returning to the village after a seven-year absence. Immediately, she was swept up in a crush of joyful tears and hugs from the singing, dancing parade of more than 300 widowed mothers, grandmothers and AIDS orphans.
But critical as Taillon is to the community — she is founder and Wendy Muckle is director of the HERA Mission of Canadacharity, which is holding a fundraiser on Oct. 15 at TD Place to support education and entrepreneurial programs in Kenya – the real guest of honour was still inside the vehicle.
Then, a little face poked out of the van. When seven-year-old Devlin Taillon finally emerged, blinking in the African sunlight for the first time since he was an infant, a roar of delight went up and he was greeted like a prodigal son.
“People were dancing and singing as we arrived. He gets out and he’s greeted by all these people, some of whom he’s related to,” says Taillon, who adopted Devlin as a newborn after a protracted court case over the Kenyan government’s bias against single foreign women adopting. (Devlin’s impoverished birth mother, Anyango Akama, then 14, and her family, had asked Taillon, who was doing aid work in western Kenya at the time, to take the baby immediately after his birth because they couldn’t care for him themselves. Akama, now 21, calls Taillon “mother” and considers Devlin her brother.) “The community was so happy and proud to see him back.”
As triumphant returns go, the January 2014 visit was epic. The village “danis” (“old mamas” or grandmothers) and widows had prepared a special feast of Lake Victoria fish. Celebrations planned for the next several days were discussed in detail and within two hours, the littlest local celebrity was doing what kids do effortlessly: getting dirty, playing soccer and making instant friends.
“This was his first trip back and although he knows his story, it was the first time he got a sense of how important it is to the village,” says Taillon, also CEO and president of the Canadian Council on Social Development. “They put on a parade and celebrations to express their gratitude for HERA sending money back and pride that their boy is thriving and doing well. I kept the promise to them that he’ll know who he is and where’s he’s come from.”
It was an important journey to make, in more ways than Taillon could anticipate.
For one thing, the village has changed in the seven years since HERA first started raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars it funnels into projects.
Initially founded in 2007 in response to a group of women who’d asked Muckle for help in 2005, HERA soon became a lifeline not only for their self-sufficiency, but local children orphaned by disease.
“In that setting, you’re asked for help all the time,” says Muckle, who returns to Africa three times a year to oversee the work. “But this time, they just wanted to learn how to run a business properly. When we started working together, it became clear the reason people were dying from HIV was poverty and lack of education. So we refocused on community economic and educational development. We wanted to transform the village and have a community where people would have better marketable skills.”
Since then, life in the village has undergone a sea change. Now with 300 orphans being financially supported by HERA and through sponsorships, the charity is also funding the education of 70 high schoolers and a handful of university undergrads. Meantime, the women themselves are becoming financially independent and able to support their decimated families.
“The transformation is happening because of these women,” says Taillon. “They’re leading poultry and bee keeping businesses. Kids are going to secondary school which was inconceivable years ago, and imagine, some are going to university. We all understand that education is a game changer. If we can get this generation educated, that will transform the village further.”
For Devlin and Taillon back home in Alta Vista, the lessons from Asembo Bay will remain, particularly the community ethos: share what little you have with those with even less. “Even when they have a terrible day and haven’t eaten,” says Taillon, “there’s this terrific optimism that the next day will be better.”
Upon returning to Canada, Devlin, a quiet, thoughtful boy, pondered what he saw for some time before sharing his insights with his mother.
“He said, ‘you know, Mom, I like Kenya but I like Ottawa better because I don’t like the poverty there.’ He was almost apologizing for it,” recalls Taillon.
“I said to him, ‘that’s why we’re raising money for your aunties in the village, to make a difference.’ I said, ‘you don’t have to feel guilty about the poverty, we’re doing our part.’ Now I have a little man who has these reflections about a life outside of his own, a world away. And that,” she says, “is a really powerful gift.”