Celebrating an amazing African adventure

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Part-time Dunedin resident Lynn Connell’s African story has been well-documented over the years in the Creemore Echo, and for good reason – what Connell and a dedicated group of fellow volunteers have accomplished with the Majengo Children’s Home in Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania has been nothing short of miraculous, and very little of it could have happened without the significant amount of support Connell has received from the Creemore community

On Sunday, September 22 from 2 to 5 pm, Connell will host a Majengo party at her Creativity Art Retreat in Dunedin, and she’s hoping that all who have played a part in the story, as well as any inspired to become involved, will join her in celebrating her African successes.

To recap what’s happened to date: Connell first travelled to Tanzania in 2008 to teach art to HIV/AIDS sufferers with ICA Canada, a non-governmental organization that works to better the lives of vulnerable people throughout Africa. Following that experience, she was so enthralled with the country that she volunteered at an orphanage, an experience that turned traumatic when she discovered the level of corruption surrounding orphanages in Tanzania, many of which are set up near tourist areas as a means of extorting sympathetic money from western visitors.

Upset but wanting to do something about the situation, Connell was taken by an ICA Tanzania worker named Charles Luoga to the Home Comfort Orphanage, a squalid, mud-floored building that was home to 52 children. The conditions at Home Comfort were so bad, it had been refused official orphanage status by the Tanzanian government – even though the official orphanages were little more than tourist money traps.

Luoga told Connell that someone was willing to rent their house to Home Comfort so that the orphans could be kept in better conditions, but that an investment would be required. So Connell returned home and raised $23,000, much of it from donors in the Creemore/Dunedin area.

The children were moved, the orphanage was renamed Majengo, the name of the agricultural community where the new house was located, and Connell and her growing team of volunteers never looked back.
With the help of two American families who have performed some major fundraising in their own hometowns, Connell has been able to raise $100,000 per year in operating costs and an additional $130,000 to build three new residences and a dining hall on 10 acres gifted to Majengo by the local government. Last September, the Majengo kids – now 72 of them – moved in. In addition, the orphanage supports 56 more children who live out in the community, attending public school. All of the children range in age from 3 to 14.

“It’s been an amazing adventure all the way through,” said Connell last week. “And it’s been a truly collective effort.”

The adventure, as Connell accurately refers to it, continues. In addition to ongoing operating costs, Connell and her partners are now determined to raise a further $80,000 to build a soccer field, a playground and a resource library on the Majengo property. These assets would be available to the wider community as well as the Majengo children.

The library has Connell particularly excited. In a country where a lack of access to education is the main factor contributing to systemic poverty, the chance to provide a place where children and adults alike can study English and access information is a tantalizing prospect.

The Majengo project is not without other financial stressors as well, especially given its focus on education. As the children progress into their teen years, they will be faced with the fact that high school education costs money in Tanzania – about $650 per year per student. In addition to the aforementioned fundraising, Connell, said, her team is always on the lookout for people who would like to sponsor secondary students.

“The nice thing about us is that none of the administrators are getting paid,” she said. “All of the money that’s donated goes directly to real operating costs and the real cost of students’ educations.”

The 18 staff on site are under the direct supervision of Luoga and are handpicked for their professionalism. Connell and her two American partners are hands-on involved as well – her most recent trip involved painting the new residences by hand as part of her duties – so local corruption is not an issue.

“We’re really like one big happy family over there,” she said.

It’s hoped that Luoga will be in Canada and in attendance at the September 22 party, so attendees will have a chance to talk directly with the man in charge in Africa.
“It will be a celebration and a catchup,” said Connell. “Of course, we might be doing a little fundraising as well!”

For more information about Majengo, visit majengo.org or Connell’s personal Majengo blog at lynnconnell.blogspot.ca.

As an aside, American artist Douglas Walton was attending Connell’s Creativity Art Retreat in Dunedin two weeks ago and, upon receiving an update on her Majengo activities, announced that he’d be putting her name forward for the 2014 CNN Heroes Project, an initiative by the US broadcaster that aims to highlight ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. The other attendees at that week’s retreat announced that they’d be putting in nominations for her as well. Connell is uncomfortable with the prospect, pointing out that she’s just one of many who have contributed to Majengo’s success, but she also realizes that such exposure would be great for the organization. If you’d like to put Connell’s name forward as well, you can do so at cnn.com/specials/cnn.heroes.

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