Couple bring joy
Kenya customs keeping gifts from reaching students

Glen Vienneau
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (May 03/00) - A goodwill effort to help needy African children has turned into an expensive bureaucratic nightmare for a Yellowknife couple.

When Marg Hudder and boyfriend Paul Laserich embarked on a dream trip to Kenya and South Africa last fall, they found the adventure they sought, and something more: needy school children.

The couple was moved to action while on safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve, two-and-a-half hours from Nairobi in southwestern Kenya last October.

They were more than just tourists on their trip however, and followed their tradition of bringing a couple bags of pencils and crayons to help children in areas they visited.

"Every time we go somewhere, we drop stuff for the kids," explained Hudder.

Their guide, Nicholas, of African Horizons, helped them visit one of the region's schools, but what the couple saw was more need than they expected to find at the school in the village of Masai Mara.

Classrooms were small and supplies were scarce.

"We started talking to the teacher and wanted to show them where we came from (on the map), and she pulled a pocketbook-size map," said Laserich.

It was then Hudder and Laserich promised to "adopt" the students and send back more supplies after they returned home to Yellowknife in November. They found support for their efforts at home, but hit a roadblock in Kenya: government officials demanding the couple pay about $1,200 in customs fees for the supplies they gathered.

It was a surprising hurdle for the couple that found an overwhelming amount of generosity and unexpected support here at home.

They had hoped to gather a few supplies, but there was an outpouring of support.

Hudder's friend, Stephanie Prpick-Boss, a RCMP G Division administrative property assistant, sent e-mail notices to local schools, generating a huge response.

Within a short period, schools donated 16 boxes full of books, scribblers, notepads, encyclopedias, pencils, pens, two cylinders containing global maps. Other new and used school supplies were also collected.

A joint effort

Laserich and Hudder could not estimate the value of the supplies, but knew every little bit would be greatly appreciated.

"There's so much doom and gloom about Yellowknife, yet there is such a will (here) to help other people in other countries," said Laserich.

"Everybody works together. That's what makes living here nice," said Hudder.

The generosity, the couple found, didn't stop in the NWT. The supplies then needed to get from Yellowknife to Vancouver. Canadian North offered to ship the items free of charge.

From there, the donated supplies still needed to go around the world, but once again, Hudder and Laserich found a business willing to give.

Normally, shipping that volume of goods aboard British Airways would have cost the couple $2,800, but the airline recognized the need and only charged $600 for shipping from Vancouver to London, England, then to Kenya.

The tab was picked up by Laserich's aircraft charter service Adlair Aviation Ltd.

Frustration abounds

"It all started as an idea. We're just happy we were able to do this," said Hudder. That happiness turned to frustration when the school supplies finally arrived in Kenya in January.

Their tour guide, Nicholas, had already offered to pick up the supplies at the customs offices at the airport in Nairobi.

He planned to take the items to the school, located about a three-hour drive from the airport. It was at this time that the goodwill of everyone involved came to a complete halt. Customs officials demanded Laserich pay customs fees on the donated school supplies.

"It's disheartening when you see schools and children giving so much, airline companies and people giving so much, yet we're getting shafted," said Laserich.

They're not letting this hitch break their promise to help the children of Masai Mara school. They will get their boxes of books when Laserich's company pays the customs bill.

This week, Laserich made a call to the Kenyan embassy in Ottawa and spoke to Commissioner Joseph Kiserema who has agreed to look into the problem.

"We're definitely going back," said Hudder, adding they have enjoyed the people there and would like to return to visit their friends.