“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek proverb
My wife and I recently attended a cocktail party/reception in honour of the good works of Margaret Trudeau, the mother of Canada’s current prime minister. For over twenty years, she has been an integral part of a charity called WaterAid Canada, once called WaterCan. It’s an organization that raises money for projects that provide access to safe water and sanitation in developing countries.
The reception was in the poshest private club in Ottawa and though I was wearing my best suit and nicest tie, I still knew I didn’t really belong. I’d never been there before and was unlikely to return but in the two and a half hours I was there, I think I learned a little something.
My wife worked for WaterCan for a few years more than a decade ago. She was the event coordinator and any time there was a fundraising event, I was always enlisted as a volunteer, so I was well-acquainted with the hard work involved in such endeavors. But that was a long time ago and the efforts of this organization kind of slipped off my radar. But listening to Mrs. Trudeau speak brought it back to my attention and gave me a brand new perspective.
Clean water in struggling African nations is the single biggest predictive indicator for the health and education of women and girls. Water is women’s work there. To travel from remote villages carrying litres and litres of water everyday, women are unable to do much of anything else. Their daughters, who need their care, accompany them. Hours upon hours of walking with unimaginably heavy loads. They are habitually attacked by animals and humans. Robbed or raped. However, when a well is built within their own village, it allows the women to feel more security and affords them the time to become empowered. They can start earning incomes and their daughters can be educated. Where wells are built, schools are built.
Mrs. Trudeau said that on her third visit to Africa, she was a different person because she had just lost one of her children and though she was still deep in her own anguish, she now had a better understanding of the anguish of the mothers she was trying to help in these impoverished countries. Where one in five of their own children die from preventable diseases caused by the lack of clean water. The simplest and most elemental of things. That which we probably take for granted the most – safe water.
As I stood there in my finest clothing, drinking free wine and eating fancy appetizers, it struck me that, in spite of the way I think, I don’t actually do much of anything that makes this world a better place. I try to vote conscientiously but I doubt one of my votes has ever made a difference. I try to think and speak thoughtfully whenever social issues are at hand but I can’t recall changing anyone’s mind about anything important. To sit at my computer and lament the actions of Donald Trump doesn’t do anybody any good. To post links on Facebook about the latest atrocities or cases of injustice doesn’t improve things. It all becomes noise after a while and I find it’s destructive.
My wife has been a monthly donor to WaterAid Canada (WaterCan) for fifteen years and for whatever reason, I wasn’t. Now I am too. Positive action instead of the negativity of paralysing inaction.
Almost thirty years ago, I was a tree planter. I wasn’t very good at it but I probably planted 40,000-50,000 trees. I never did see them grow but I like to think they grew tall. Like planting a flower you know you’ll never see or a garden that you know will never feed you, I hope my tiny contribution to these water and sanitation projects provide health and education and empowerment one day. And perhaps the world, a world that I will never see, will be a slightly better place. And while it’s never too late to help others, I wish it didn’t take me so long to learn that. As I imagine what’s already been lost.