At the young age of 22, Squamish resident Ian MacKay has done enough humanitarian work in some of the world’s most troubled regions to last most people a lifetime.
The Douglas College nursing student began his humanitarian work four years ago through a Squamish-based organization, The SAM Project, which was founded to honour one of MacKay’s schoolmates, Sam Eves, who was murdered at a house party in 2006. MacKay traveled to Zambia with the group in 2008, and has since done humanitarian work during three visits to Africa and five to Haiti. He’s been in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since Jan. 5, his second visit to the troubled Central African nation, where he’s working on obtaining funding for the construction of a school and a women’s centre in the eastern city of Bukavu as part of the Peace Life School Project.
“My main task on this trip is to develop a detailed proposal for the school project, so when I go home I can apply for large grants to meet the $150,000 budget,” said MacKay via email. “Currently on the same plot of land the school will be on, my organization’s country director has begun construction on a women's centre. The centre will house and protect abused teen mothers, feed them, provide counselling, and provide textile training, so they can establish a source of income later on.”
Funding has run out for the women’s centre, preventing phase 2 of the project, the planned school, from going forward.
“Right now I will take any sort of funding I can get,” said MacKay in the email. “When I am home I usually do a few speaking engagements all by donation to help raise funds. I have had kids do fundraisers at school to help me with costs. I ask people to get creative with ideas and not just raise money for the cause, but also raise awareness.”
Eastern Congo has been rife with conflict for decades, with some recent estimates putting the death toll as a result of armed conflict in the past 10 years at over 5.5 million. More recently, the mineral-rich region has seen tensions rise with the seizure of the city of Goma by the rebel group M23, thought to be made up of former members of a political party, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, who are asking the government to respect a 2009 peace treaty granting their members positions in the military. The rebels have since retreated from Goma, a city that provides much needed resources to nearby Bukavu, but have yet to dissolve.
“The M23 rebel group has had a drastic effect on the area,” said MacKay. “Some locals support the M23 organization more then their own government forces and for good reason. Much of the raping taking place in the area is from men in uniform … (M23) will not disassemble until the government respects the March 23, 2009 peace agreement.”
Human Rights Watch accused both military forces and M23 rebels of committing war crimes like rape — a constant threat for women in the Congo.
“Eastern DRC has held the reputation as being the most dangerous country to be a woman for years running,” said MacKay. “Rape is used as a tactic of war out here and has been for some time.”
In a country riddled with so many complex issues, MacKay admitted it can be frustrating doing the work he does, but he still sees the benefits on a regular basis.
“It's tough being here and seeing how large the issues really are, while back home many people are still unaware that there was ever even a war in the DRC, let alone multiple wars,” he said. “A little bit goes a long way out here. When I visit the small village I am working in and see the smiles on everyone’s faces it makes everything worth it. I know the project I am working on out here will have a lasting effect as we are giving these people the gift of education and skills to pass on to others.”
One smile MacKay won’t soon forget belonged to a teenage boy he met on his last trip to the DRC named Ntaboba, who spent seven years hobbling on a long metal pole he used after his leg was severely deformed by a grenade. Through fundraising efforts, MacKay was able to get the boy reconstructive surgery.
“Last week I saw Ntaboba for my first time since his surgery walking around with the help of a brace alongside his friends,” said MacKay. “That was very rewarding to see.”
MacKay returns to Canada at the end of the month, when he plans to work on acquiring a grant to complete the Peace Life School Project.
Check out The Sam Project’s initiatives at www.thesamproject.ca.