Reaching Africa: Sylvia Cholodnuik's New Community
by Michelle Boulton
When it comes to making the world a better place, Sylvia Cholodnuik (BSHEC'85) raises the bar for all of us. While we might be inclined to call up a local charity or volunteer at a neigbourhood Boys and Girls Club, she's focused her time and energy halfway around the world and discovered that geography has nothing to do with making a difference.
Raised on a modest farm near the small town of Meath Park, Saskatchewan, Sylvia Cholodnuik learned early on that a community works together and looks out for one another. If you are part of a community, you have a responsibility to make a contribution; it is a place of sharing, participation, and fellowship.
While Sylvia had strong roots in her Meath Park community, she longed to experience life in other parts of the world. After receiving her BSc in Home Economics from the University of Saskatchewan in 1985, she took every opportunity to travel. Over the next few years, she explored Europe, Australia, and South East Asia. It was in 1992 that she took her first trip to Africa.
"When I got back to Canada, all I could think about was going back," she explains.
Josie and JJ Germann from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe show off their Husky tattoos.
Sylvia joined a development group called Canadian Crossroads International, an organization dedicated to building a constituency of global citizens committed to voluntarism, international development, and social action. In 1993, they sent her to Tshelanyemba, Zimbabwe, and she "just kept going back." Although she did not accept another placement, her experience deeply affected her, and she has returned to Tshelanyemba seven times on her own over the past 11 years.
"I have been really lucky and have made amazing friends in Tshelanyemba," she says. "It's very much like going home."
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country with a population of about 12 million. The region has been plagued by political unrest, drought, and the devastation of AIDS. In 1991, life expectancy in the country was 60.5 years. Today, it's 39.
The small village of Tshelanyemba is home to a hospital, a vocational training centre a nursing training centre, a number of private businesses, and both a primary and a secondary school. Most people living in the area farm small plots of land to feed their families. Farm work is done manually or with the assistance of a donkey. With limited opportunities for employment in the area, most of the men leave in search of work, and women and children are left to tend to the animals and work the fields. Of the approximately 35,000 people within a 47 km radius of Tshelanyemba, 70 percent are female.
Tshelanyemba Primary School children receive their "cow" pencils, a donation from the Dairy Farmers of Saskatchewan.
In spite of these discouraging conditions, Sylvia describes Tshelanyemba as "a magical place where anything can be achieved. The people carry with them a spark or a spirit that carried them forward despite their history or current challenges. Their sense of community and looking out for one another is alive and flourishing."
During her time in the village, she says she's witnessed incredibly poignant acts of generosity and kindness, "people reaching out and helping one another even when they had little themselves; people caring about one another and working together to resolve the challenges they face; people maintaining a sense of humor when most others looking in would see nothing to smile at; people striving to make life better for their children."
Anyone would be affected by their struggle, but few would work as hard as Sylvia to make a difference. During her placement with Canadian Crossroads International, she and Patricia Neube, a local home economist, set up a canteen and a bakery in the vocational training centre. Still operating today, it employs local people and provides fresh bread and much needed supplies to the remote region.
Acting like a one-woman development organization, Sylvia returned in 1995 to set up a playroom in the Tshelanyemba Hospital. And while most people were still considering how to spend their summer vacations, Sylvia had already made up her mind. In fact, she would use her holidays over the next four years to refurbish schools, put in showers and toilets for the hospital, replace water tanks, and set up a market garden.
Of course, support for a project of this scale doesn't always come easily. Back in Canada, Sylvia spends much of her spare time telling others about the overwhelming beauty and potential that exists in Tshelanyemba, and talking about the people's remarkable strength of spirit.
Patricia Ncube, Sylvia, and a nurse named Paul stuffed into the back of the village's 'ambulance', which is an old toyota truck that doubles as a cab
Encouragingly enough, she has been rewarded with support from a number of individuals and organizations, including local schools and church groups. Much of her funding has come from the Rotary, Rotary International, and the Canadian Rotary Committee for International Development.
Last summer, the University of Saskatchewan caught wind of Sylvia's activities and contributed $500 from the President's Fund towards her development efforts abroad. She took the money, along with the other monies she personally raised, and funded two critical projects.
To help meet the needs of schools in the Tshelanyemba area, Sylvia spent most of her money on children's school supplies - basic items we so often take for granted, like chalk, glue, markers, string, Bristol board, and thumb tacks. The government funding for such supplies simply isn't there, and they are not permitted to raise school fees to cover the shortfall. In fact, while she was there last summer, several headmasters and school board members were actually jailed for raising fees without permission.
The rest of her funding she spent on a new orphan project that's very close to her heart. Part of the project focuses on paying for orphan girls to go to school. The government is supposed to have money available to cover school fees for orphans, but the orphan population is far exceeding available funding.
Preliminary studies in Kenya on female child-mortality rates and education indicate that the longer a girl stays in school, the more likely she is to reach adulthood. Sylvia's funding has paid for ten primary and ten secondary orphan girls to go to school next year.
Sylvia's second home. Gogo (which means grandmother) Ndwini with some of her grandchildren and Sylvia.
Another component to her orphan project involves replacing a portion of the animals destroyed by the recent drought. Sylvia used her remaining funding to purchase two sheep. While this seems like a slow start, she hopes to eventually have a flock of 24. The theory is that the first born from each of these sheep will be given to an orphan. Then, the first born from the orphan's sheep will be returned to the flock. This way, as many orphans as possible will eventually have something of their own that can help them become more self sufficient.
Despite all the good Sylvia has done for her community in Tshelanyemba, she remains modest. When she received the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Community Development and Social Activism in 2000, she was pleased but humbled by the recognition.
"It's more than just me," she says proudly. "By far it is the community and their energy that is driving the development. I may have been a catalyst, but they are doing this for themselves."
She cites Tshelanyemba school as an example. The first time she went there, the students were working on the floor because they had no desks. On her next visit, she brought desks for them. Inspired by Sylvia's generosity, they soon after went looking for funding on their own. Once in dismal repair, the school now has desks and textbooks for almost all the children. They offer the only class for children with disabilities in the region and they have become a model for other schools.
"Tshelanyemba is an amazing place where I've had the good fortune to meet new people, make great friends and contribute in a way that I believe makes a difference to people and the community," she says proudly.
Sylvia credits her experiences at the University of Saskatchewan for helping her realize that there is a world out there waiting to be explored and revealed. When she was a Home Economics student, then Dean of the college, Gwenna Moss, was a "huge" influence on her way of thinking about the world. Gwenna, who had been part of an agricultural extension program in 1975-77 that taught basic nutrition, child care, and hygiene to women in rural areas of Ghana, invited a group of students to her home one evening. She showed them slides of her time in Africa.
"When I left there that night, I told my friends I was going to go to Africa to work someday - and I did," she says smiling.
Sylvia also attributes a great deal of her ambition to her student experience at the U of S. "Having the opportunity to go to university opens so many doors for people. I don't think they appreciate how much it broadens their horizons," she says. "Being exposed to people from different cultures and backgrounds, and having the influence of people like Gwenna Moss helped me build confidence and got me going in this direction."
Sylvia is a strong believer in university-sponsored exchange programs. "When you give a student a chance to experience life in another country, it not only builds their citizenship in Canada - they appreciate their own country more - it also builds their ties to the University."
As the Assistant Manager of Residences, Sylvia is now in a position to influence the students in her charge. It is a responsibility that she takes very seriously, and very much enjoys. "I love what I do. I love helping people develop the potential they don't even realize they have."
She admits that the students she gets to know the most are the ones who, unfortunately, are either having problems or causing problems, but she tries to make a connection with all of them. She talks proudly of the students who come back years later to invite her to their weddings or who send her pictures of their children.
"I get to watch them evolve into these incredible people," she says. "I don't think I could have a better job."
In between work, fundraising, and trips to Africa, Sylvia has also volunteered locally for Big Sisters, Folkfest, the Labatts' Brier, and the River Roar/Taste of Saskatchewan. She is an Advisory Board member for Leadership Advantage and sits on a wide variety of University committees.
"I think a lot about how privileged I was to be born in Canada," she explains. "People take that for granted. But I think that since I was lucky enough to be born here, I have a responsibility to give back - whether that is within my community, the city, the province, or internationally."