Three women clutching purple Christmas garlands walk towards us as a dozen or so rural farmers dressed in their Sunday best sing, clap and dance, their teeth gleaming white in the dimly lit room.
Slowly, the women put the gifts around my neck, and those of Yukon filmmaker Mitch Miyagawa and Whitehorse world-changer Susan Thompson.
At that moment, it hits me. What has brought the three of us together in this dark room in a tiny town called Khwisero, one that has taken two hours to reach from Kakamega in a pickup truck packed with 21 people?
The answer is connections.
As I learn during my short visit with Thompson, the world is shrinking.
And the power of our connections to people in the not-so-far-off places on the other side of the world can definitely have an impact.
“If there’s a way for me to connect people from Kenya to communities in Whitehorse or the Yukon, through schools, or Rotary Clubs, or fish hatcheries, that’s great,” she says.
Since 2003, Thompson estimates she has spent about $15,000 a year out of her own pocket helping these people — along with the considerable loot she raises from friends, family and Yukon organizations, and a mysterious friend in Switzerland who has slipped her $5,000 for two years running.
What she’s done with these donations, and her own money, could provoke an identity crisis in most non-governmental organizations.
Not only are the fish farmers around Khwisero supplementing their incomes, and their bellies, with the tilapia they’re successfully farming — thanks to her know-how and dedication — they also have nets, feed and, above all, a sense of ownership in their destiny.
“We’re happy you’ve come to see our efforts and judge how we’re doing,” says Mary Medovo, during a question-and-answer period.
Try hearing that at a meeting for a project financed by an NGO.
Whenever you travel abroad, you meet hundreds of the locals — people you all too quickly bid farewell to when you leave.
Their face may be stored in a memory bank, or a photo album — maybe you still tell a story that involves them — but aside from that, they return to anonymity.
Thompson has mixed her wanderlust and her tendency to make friends with everyone she comes across and simply remains involved in their lives.
Since 1984, she has been coming to Kenya to work with NGOs and, outside of her official helpful duties, she’s been causing a tidal wave of change.
She’s paid for seven students to complete their secondary schooling.
Her right-hand man, Hussein Wechuli, went to college on her dime and one day will take over the fish-farming project.
She bought several sewing machines to supplement the income of women suffering from HIV/AIDS.
But her latest, greatest project is fish.
When Thompson started working with the Khwisero fish group in 2004, a local NGO called Neighbours in Development was overseeing their projects.
The NGO stole thousands of her donated dollars and stymied the progress of the farmers.
Thompson helped organize the fish farmers into a community-based organization, which eventually told the NGO to get lost.
Thanks to her efforts, members of the group are now in charge of themselves.
And, as we gather at Elphus Okonda’s gorgeous piece of land in a valley, it’s a point he keeps repeating.
“Now we can talk together, we can share news and help each other,” he says. “When we’re more together as a group, we see changes. Before, we didn’t know each other; everybody was on his or her own.”
Nearby at another fish farm, we watch Geoffrey Atulo infuse one of his two ponds with fish feed.
Beside them are three new ponds that his friend, Stevie Mang’ula, has built to follow his lead.
Atulo used to smash granite into tiny rocks that he piled along the sides of the road to sell to trucks driving past his humble home.
Now, he’s supplementing his income with tilapia, and has bought eight cows with the extra money he’s earned for his family.
“I use fish to get more for my family and children, to pay for their school fees,” he says.
All of this impact happened on a very small budget. So could this small, more connected approach be the better way to make a difference in the world?
“Donating money through organizations is fine, but to see that connection is better,” says Thompson, who’s obviously a firm believer.
Miyagawa, who’s in Kenya doing pre-production work on a documentary about Thompson and fish farming in the region, thinks she could be on to something, too.
“Everybody wants to make a difference overseas,” he says. “Whether her way of doing it is better or worse than a full-scale, huge project, I don’t think it matters because what she’s doing makes a difference.”
What goads is that people like Thompson are making that difference, but aren’t helped by our government.
At the meeting in Khwisero, Okonda thanked “the government of Canada,” for all its help with his fish.
Thompson later had to tell him that Canada’s government hasn’t donated a dime.
We all laughed.
Over beer, though, I point out that Miyagawa’s funding for his documentary is paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency — the same group that’s turned down Thompson’s requests for funding several times.
But she just takes it in stride.
Government support or not, she’ll be here in Kenya trying to make people’s lives better, she says.
“It doesn’t take a million dollars to change lives,” she adds, as we stand by a fishpond full of life.
Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.