Toronto Sufi community raises money to feed village in Burkina Faso
Leslie Scrivener Feature Writer
Saturday night at the Sufi centre. The families are sitting comfortably after a communal meal. Many bowls of food are left over. A dervish is preparing his hypnotic whirling. They begin their prayers and resonant chants: “Let us open our heart and enable us to serve your creation.”
The 79 families who make up the Canadian Sufi Cultural Centre are doing just that.
As famine sweeps the semi-arid countries of West Africa — on the heels of last year’s devastating famine in Somalia — the Toronto Sufi families have paired with Irim, a village of 2,000 in Burkina Faso, a tiny, landlocked country of 17 million sandwiched between Ghana and Mali. They’ve vowed to feed them through the next six months.
Mark Schemeit is among those who are helping Yacouba Sawadogo and his extended family. The Canadian and the African met as teens through Canada World Youth — a federal international exchange — in 1995. Sawadogo came to Canada while Schemeit went to Burkina Faso and, later, occasionally sent money, though as a student he didn’t have a lot to give.
“I thought I was only supporting Yacouba, but in reality I was supporting his extended family,” Schemeit says. When he revisited the village in 2003, doing research for his Master’s degree in social anthropology, the whole community was grateful. He was greeted as a returning son.
Schemeit, 35, who volunteers at the Sufi centre (Sufism is Islamic mysticism), looks after his 2-year-old and works part-time in a Parkdale store (his wife, Natalie Kemerer, is a teacher), always hoped to be able to organize even a modest campaign to offer more to the people of Irim. He is now doing that with fellow members of the Sufi centre, which lies within a modest brick building on Burlington St. in south Etobicoke but has a richly carpeted and tiled interior,.
The community raised $10,000 in six weeks. A sister organization in New York added another $5,000.
“Even though I am a carpenter, I have difficulty providing for the daily needs of my little family and my parents’ and wife’s family, who do not have any other way than to ask us for help,” Sawadogo, a 34-year-old father of three, wrote in an email to his friend this week. “In the village, everyone is hurt by the famine.”
But he remembers Canadians from his time here in 1995. “We love your country’s liveliness, the way hope can feed the spirit.”
It’s dry as dust in Irim, hard to tell the difference between farmers’ fields and desert. The village is on the edge of the Sahel, a zone that runs between the Sahara and the lush forests to the south.
The area has been punished by drought, failed crops, loss of livestock and little hope of feeding people before the next harvest in the early fall. As many as 11 million may be affected. Rainfall has declined by almost half in the Sahel since 1954, a University of California-Berkeley study reported last year.
Despite the statistics, it’s difficult to know exactly how people are managing in the villages, says Schemeit. “They are not always honest about their hardship. They don’t want to burden their friends.”
Still, he knows villagers are looking for different ways to support themselves. Schemeit has heard about another Canada World Youth friend who was scratching for bits of gold in nearby pits.
Other stories of need:
Ouédraogo Idrissa is blind, has five adult children and 12 grandchildren to support. Their harvest was bad this year. Up to now the family was managing on one meal a day. They recently received 25 kilograms of maize. His wife cried for joy. It was enough to feed the family for weeks.
Sawadogo Inoussa harvested nothing this year because of drought. One of his sons, who had been working in the Ivory Coast — as many young men had done, sending remittances home — returned with his large family. Now there are 38 people to feed, and as Schemeit heard from a community organizer, “there is nothing.”
These are the people that Kenan Zorlak, an auditor, and his wife, Eldina, both members of the Sufi centre will help. Family to family. They are donating $50 a month for six months. It gives him a sense of purpose, add Zorlak, who plays drums in the Sufi musical group.
“What is $50 to me? A coffee every day? But how much help will it give others?”
Zorlak, who is 30, knows about hardship; his family fled the war in Bosnia when he was 10.
“We cannot save all of Africa,” he says. “But this is our one contribution. This we can do.”
Even getting to fresh, clean water is a problem. Families have to walk from two to five kilometres to find water, and often it is not potable and can be a source of water-borne disease. About 75 per cent of households do not have access to clean drinking water.
It is because of their Sufi philosophy that she feels a connection to the villagers of Irim, says Isil Celikel, 40, a mother of two who came to Canada from Turkey. She and her husband, Ozan, are contributing.
“The whole world, all humanity is like one human body for us,” she says. “If you have some illness in one part of your body, you don’t feel good at all, do you? If you had a stomach ache, you would do everything to make the stomach heal. This is very simple thinking — anywhere in the world, any nation, they are all part of our body.”
Schemeit talks softly as a dervish spins, his white gown rising and falling as he turns, one hand raised upward, the other down.
“The whirling dervish’s posture symbolizes one hand receiving from heaven and one hand giving to the Earth,” says Schemeit.
“In this case, maybe we can say that it is one hand taking from Canada and one giving food to Burkina Faso.”
For more information on supporting the villagers of Irim, contact the Jerrahi Sufi Order of Canada at www.jerrahi.ca.
To donate online via PayPal...
You can also make out a cheque payable to Jerrahi Sufi Order of Canada (Memo: Burkina Faso)
and mail it to:
270 Birmingham Street
Etobicoke, ON, M8V 2E4