Sometimes it takes a stranger to introduce us to our good fortune. This truism hit me recently when I helped lead a tour of civic leaders from Botswana through some of our city's most creative projects. They were here to pick up ideas to help them respond to the AIDS epidemic now raging through their country, one of such scale and scope that it's testing the immune system of society itself.
Confident, well briefed and conservatively dressed, considering that we're going to spend the day tromping around community gardens and kitchens, the reps from South East Council, an area around the capital city of Gaborone, reflect the modern style of Botswana's government.These leaders have come to see projects fostering local development, caring and the minimizing of stigma, as part of a tour hosted by the city and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which is partnering with South East Council.
We start with a tour led by Toronto's master gardener, Solomon Boye, and gardening youth coordinator Julian Hasford, who take the group through the community gardens stewarded by local residents nestled in parks across the city. High Park is first. The three of us are nervous that our guests will see our garden tour as an insulting diversion from the epic challenges they face.
It's a way to provide fresh organic food to people with weak immune systems who may have a negative reaction to pesticides, I begin. Polite nods. And a way you could create local employment instead of importing food for the home-care food boxes your government provides. Still nodding.
Solomon Boye, originally trained in his native Ghana, takes over. Gardens are wonderful for young people who are feeling lost and angry, he says. "It's not adults who are demanding obedience. It's nature demanding cooperation."
They're all hanging on his every word. "And we would like to help them so they can sell the produce in local markets." Boitumelo Kgaodi, South East Council's economic developer, breaks into a grin. Boye shows them some yellow plum tomatoes.
"We have to find a way to bring him back with us," I hear one of the delegates whisper.
The Botswana government has always been proactive. No European colonizers of the 19th century realized that the land of the Kalahari Desert was a diamond in the rough, so the country was spared the heritage of full-blown imperial domination. Diamonds weren't discovered until 1966, the year after the country became independent; the mines were thereafter used as a cash cow for social programs that gave Botswana's 1.7 million people the highest standard of living in sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the last decade, when more than 29 million Africans died of AIDS, life expectancy in Botswana dropped from 70 to 30 years. Around Gaborone, the HIV infection rate is about 40 per cent among people aged 15 to 40. Women suffer higher rates of the disease, which means that subsistence agriculture, mostly women's work, has almost ground to a halt. There are at least 55,000 orphans in the country, and the fastest-growing demographic group is child-led families.
Hospitals can't cope, so the government promotes community-based home care. The government provides a food box for every household and pays a token honorarium (about $16 Canadian a month) to volunteers who help with patient care. The government also takes responsibility for the care of orphans, few of whom can be absorbed in extended families also ravaged by AIDS.
It's this infrastructure for caring that this delegation hopes to boost.
At the site of the old Queen Street Psychiatric Hospital, Community Gardening Network coordinator Laura Berman shows how an old greenhouse is being used to grow sprouts for a food box sold at cost by FoodShare, mainly to people on limited incomes.
Over at Stop Community Food Centre on Davenport, Rhonda Teitel-Payne takes the delegation on a tour of the community dining room and kitchen, where the chef works with volunteers. The delegation is soaking it all in but taking it calmly.
I don't get to sense the impact until we stop at FoodShare's Field To Table warehouse, where street youth and others pack the Good Food Box for FoodShare's 4,000 customers in return for a free box to take home. Field to Table manager Mary Lou Morgan explains that some of the young people found their way to her warehouse after their parents, afraid they would be hunted down as political dissidents in the former Yugoslavia, saved their kids' lives by getting them a one-way ticket to Toronto.
"I cannot believe this," home-care nurse Gamodimo Thonkana says to her colleague Boitumelo. Boitumelo is choking up. "They take in people they don't even know," she said. "This city is so full of love."
Their next day's tour was tougher on them. They visited Casey House to learn about that model of palliative care that supports people with AIDS so they can live and die in dignity.
Barbara Emanuel, assistant to Toronto's medical officer of health, organized the Botswana tour. When, during a trip to that country, she noticed orphans at Shining Star, a community garden and recreation centre, playing soccer and "kicking away, literally, at a piece of rubber," she decided to bring over a proper ball and set of team uniforms, donated by a Toronto soccer league.
This gift has since morphed into two projects to send interns to Botswana to organize soccer leagues that include AIDS prevention programs.
"It's an exciting expression of globalization," Emanuel says.