Under the Roof of Africa

How a Whitby woman is helping a community 12,000 km away.

By Charlotte MacDowell | Featured image courtesy of Pixabay | Updated April 21, 2020

Louise Berube’s gentle nature is contrasted by her platinum blonde hair, tinted pink lips and eyes boxed by thick black glasses. She seems to always be smiling and have a black coffee in hand.

Berube grew up in 1960s Oshawa, a town driven by the working class and General Motors. Like many of her peers, her first job was delivering newspapers on her bike. Her main stop was the local retirement home, Hillside Manor, now called Hillside Estates. She always went the extra mile, often stopping to chat with the residents or keep them company while they ate their breakfast.

About 60 years old, she now lives in Whitby and drives her cream-coloured Mini Cooper five days a week to Toronto for work at Nabs charity. At Nabs they are dedicated to the well-being of those working in the marketing, media and communications industry in Canada, as many people in the communications field have a poor work-life balance and suffer from stress. Nabs offers them tools to cope with mental health issues as well as financial support, should anybody suffer trauma or injury.

Nabs is a completely self-funded charity, so it uses creative ways to raise money. In 2015 a team of 18, including Berube, traveled to Tanzania to fundraise for Nabs. Their goal was to climb the highest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro, often referred to as the Roof of Africa. All 18 employees summited. It was such a success that the following year Berube and a team of 10 ventured to Mount Kilimanjaro again with the same goal and, once again, they summited.

During the climbs, Berube got to know her guide, Elias. Elias was struggling to support his wife Costansia and their three children. With Berube’s help, Elias was able to become a farmer. She then realized that vanilla was going to be grown in the Kilimanjaro region for the first time. This was a major opportunity because vanilla is more valuable than gold as it is so hard to come by. Berube helped Elias make connections and now he is on track to be one of the top 10 vanilla farmers in the area. Elias has worked tirelessly, hand-building greenhouses and tending to his vanilla plants. In a few months, the first 100 plants will bloom and be ready to sell.

On a detour in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, Berube met Jennifer, a young woman selling handmade jewellery, bags and shoes. After talking with Jenifer, she was motivated to help with her business. She took Jennifer’s business card and contacted her when she returned to Canada. Jennifer sent Berube crates filled with product. Impressed by the amount Jennifer had sent her, Berube looked through her contacts and began selling. She sold to friends, family and associates; eventually the stock was gone. Berube was able to send $30,000 back to Jennifer to buy land for a school for orphans.

Now, Berube is helping to refurbish Kyomu Primary School in the town of Moshi, in the region of Kilimanjaro. The school’s many needs are things Canadians take for granted. Desks are falling apart, and walls are barren and have chipped paint. The teaching supplies are limited to a beaten-up chalk board and not much is given to make learning a fun and interactive experience.

For lunch, students are served beans cooked in a large pot. There are not enough dishware for each child, so they share. This is a major aspect of the school Berube hopes to change. She wants to collect enough dishes for everyone and, at the same time, add more protein to the lunches. According to Berube, to feed a single student lunch for a month would cost $8.96 Canadian.

Loraine Brown, Berube’s friend of 10 years, has joined her on her journey as they both share a love of Africa and the people who live there. “Louise follows projects through.” Brown says, “Visitors come and see the dire straits they are in and say they will help. Then when they get back to their western culture lives, they forget. Louise commits to a project and sticks with it. She is totally committed to making a better world for this community and the children in Africa.”

Berube hopes to have the school completed in the next three years. Her next steps are reaching out to larger corporations who could help. She is offering to name each classroom after the companies who help with restoration. She has also received support from local dentists who have donated toothbrushes and toothpaste for students and teachers of the school.

Last September, Berube and Brown went to Moshi to visit the school, bringing gifts for the students. As they trekked the dirt path to the school Berube was determined to change, they were met by a solemn young boy. He was a student and escorted the two women the rest of the way to the run-down school. Upon their arrival, 300 children applauded them. Children sang them songs and each student proudly wore a Timmies jersey and waved a mini Canadian flag. The children played with the soccer and basketballs they had brought them. For these students, school is slowly but surely becoming a place of fun and enrichment.

Berube and Brown hope to return to Moshi in the fall with supplies to refurbish the school. Sadly, COVID-19 might delay their annual trip. Regardless of the obstacles that Berube faces, she is determined to enrich the lives of the students at Kyomu Primary School.

Charlotte MacDowell, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at charlotterosemac@gmail.com.

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