Frank Smith goes to Africa

In January, Frank Smith went to Africa. For three weeks the retired art teacher and 1972 York grad taught children to draw, repaired classroom walls, helped build a health dispensary. Pockets filled with US$2,000 in donations, he not only dispensed much-needed funds to a vocational school and orphanage but goodwill from Canada. The three-week mission was an unforgettable journey for the Mount Albert artist and the first of many for the newly retired high-school teacher.

"It was an inspirational journey," says Smith of his trip to communities on and near the legendary Mount Kilimanjaro (right) in Tanzania.

Smith taught visual arts for 30 years in Markham. After he retired last year, the 58-year-old artist devoted even more time to painting. Last fall, a local gallery exhibited his work. But his life is not confined to his studio.

Smith was looking for volunteer and humanitarian projects to get involved in. He gives private art lessons to children and seniors in his village of Mount Albert, plans to start a local chapter of Amnesty International and has signed up as a counsellor at a summer camp for cancer victims and their families. Still, he was looking for more. One day during a casual conversation at a Newmarket hospital where he doing committee work, he heard about the Rotary International’s sweat equity projects, which organize building and education initiatives in Africa through a non-governmental organization called CACHA (Canada Africa Community Health Alliance). Smith was intrigued and wasted no time getting involved. Within weeks he was bound for Tanzania.

"After taking a deep breath and with my wife’s support, I signed up and paid my fare to join the first team of 10 people leaving for Africa on Jan. 4," he wrote later in a letter of thanks to all who sponsored his three-week trip.

Before he hopped on the plane, he and others filled their bags with art supplies, toys, school supplies, books, tools, clothing art and medical supplies – and the $2,000 (all amounts in US dollars) donated by friends, family, colleagues, students and Rotary Club of Newmarket – for an orphanage, school and health centre run by nuns.

The 17-hour flight included a stopover in Amsterdam. "It was a long journey and we arrived in the dark of night, but when I stepped off the airplane onto the tarmac I knew I was in Africa," remembers Smith. "The warm, humid air, the lush foliage, the hum of insects, and the vast expanse of stars overhead told me so. That was when I learned my first word of Swahili – hujambo, which means ‘may you have no problems’, or simply ‘hello’."

Right: Kisuluni Public School before renovations

The first night the team lodged at Omoja Lutheran Hostel near the town of Moshi, close to the northern border of Tanzania. "These were pleasant accommodations: mosquito netting on the beds, local fruit such as pineapple and papaya for breakfast, small lizards scurrying everywhere, and huge maribu storks in the garden. In the morning I saw for the first time the beautiful peak of Mount Kilimanjaro not far off in the distance."

Smith spent his first week in Kilema, 5,000 feet up on the slopes of the legendary mountain. He and the other Canadians were housed at the regional hospital, a sprawling compound run by the Roman Catholic diocese and featuring a large church, dwellings for the nuns and priests and lay hospital workers, a vocational training centre and dormitories for teenage girls. "Nearby there are also elementary public schools," he writes. "Lush forests, banana and coffee farms and small village communities, all connected by a network of narrow, dirt trails and roads, surround the entire grounds."

Left: Doing art for the first time

In the mornings, he and other Canadians renovated classrooms at the dilapidated Kisuluni Public School and helped construct a new AIDS/HIV clinic on the hospital grounds. In the afternoons, Smith taught teenage girls at Kilema Vocational Training Centre how to make greeting cards to sell to local tourist shops and hotels.

"The girls seemed to love this activity," said Smith. "It was very inspiring to see the efforts of these girls who had never had any art instruction." Before he left, he donated a third of the art supplies he had brought to the school and $350 of donated funds to the training centre to buy knitting machines and a freezer to preserve meat the nuns raise to feed the children.

Left: Proud of her art

During the second week, Smith and the other Canadians lived at the Uhuru Lutheran Hostel in the town of Moshi. For the first part of the week, they helped local workmen build a small infirmary at St. Francis School for Disabled Children, an orphanage for blind, deaf, and albino children. Smith also used drawing to try to teach the children a few words of English. "It was very surprising to learn once again that these children had never been exposed to art education," writes Smith.

In the second part of the week, the Canadians worked at the Imani Vocational Training Centre located in the countryside near Moshi. They helped construct a small maize-grinding building, which will produce flour for the school and be sold to the local community.

Right: Maize-grinding building Frank Smith helped build

The enterprising Sister Placida, director of Imani, is committed to self-sustainability and has started many fundraising projects, such as a piggery, maize grinding, tilapia fish ponds, wood and metal working shops, brickmaking and vegetable gardening. "I was very excited to see the fishpond and to donate funds for the construction of a second pond," writes Smith of his $500 gift. Again, before he left, he gave $350 to the orphanage to buy food and clothing for the children and classroom furniture, and left art supplies.

Of his experience of East African life and culture, Smith lists the following among his best memories: "smiles and laughter on children’s faces; warm, triple handshakes from passersby; colourful kangas (wraps) worn by women as they walk while carrying immense loads on their heads; friendly ‘hujambo’ (hello) greetings from everybody; loving and stoical grandmothers caring for their own groups of orphans; beautiful ebony carvings; elegant giraffes eating from acacia thorn trees; immense water buffalos grazing a few feet from my dwelling; black and white colubus monkeys; waking to the sound of roosters and the Muslim call to prayer."

Left: Frank Smith and African teacher

"I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to go on this venture, and grateful to the many people who supported me with donations," concludes Smith. "It was a special gift for me to be able to contribute in a small way to the improved well-being of the people I was privileged to meet. There is so much work to be done and I do intend to return."

In fact, he’s already set the date – January 2008 – and begun fundraising.

Photos by Frank Smith