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lama-m | building community on two continents part 2

Last month, we introduced you to community activist and Pearson alum Lama Mugabo (PC YR 2, 1977/Rwanda) and briefly outlined some of his involvement with organizations and individuals working to establish a cultural centre and neighbourhood infrastructure in Vancouver’s historical Hogan’s Alley.

This month, in Part 2 of our story, we take a look at Lama’s work promoting social justice in his homeland of Rwanda and in some of Canada’s most disadvantaged communities.

 The clatter and buzz of a busy Vancouver coffee shop forms the background din to Lama Mugabo’s workspace during a telephone interview.

Being a social justice and poverty alleviation activist – even in a wealthy country like Canada — often means alliances and working with a variety of smaller, focused organizations which may not have the most secure and reliable funding. That means offices may be overcrowded and facilities limited so, as Lama cheerfully points out, his workspace may often be the corner coffee shop — with wifi, of course.

The DTES

His work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) goes back a long way – much before wifi, for that matter.

“Way back in 1986 I managed a building at the corner of Main and Hastings – the Ford Building – it was affordable housing at that time,” said Lama. “The building had been entirely renovated inside at that time and I had the best apartment perhaps that I’d ever lived in – I lived in the penthouse and I had a magnificent view to the North Shore mountains and to the south.”

The irony of having your best apartment ever near the corner of the “notorious” Main and Hastings intersection will not be lost on anyone familiar with the DTES and the challenges associated with building community in the face of decades of multiple poverty, addictions and related issues. Not long ago, most Vancouverites and, many Canadians for that matter, only knew the DTES through the lens of sensationalist media of open drug use and occasional street crime and anti-social behaviour.

“When I came back (from Rwanda) in 2015 I had to re-orient myself – seven years is a long time…I didn’t recognize the city I once called home.

“I was looking for things to do and I came across the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP) who were working on land use, social justice and housing advocacy for low-income folks on the DTES. I came back to Vancouver from one of the poorest countries in the world to the poorest postal code in the country — going to work for CCAP made a lot of sense.”

Lama tapped into a neighbourhood in which residents took a great deal of pride and that has, in the face of challenges and the perceptions of outsiders, has a strong sense of community and cultural heritage. And, one that has, “a robust tradition of advocacy for its marginalized residents since at least the 1970s.” (Wikipedia)

“We did a campaign to raise awareness of poverty on the DTES looking at housing, social justice and income justice issues. We did an annual study on SROs and housing and gentrification – generally, how low-income residents are being priced out of communities…with developers buying up these old hotels (known as Single Room Occupancies or SROs) and flipping them to raising rents.

“In the absence of rent control, low-income folks were and are really threatened,” added Lama. “Three layers of government have (stepped back from) building social housing, affordable housing, that poor people can afford. When we talk about the housing crisis, I think the DTES is the epicenter of this crisis.”

Lama’s other neighbourhood involvements are varied but come back to similar themes of social justice.

“Working in the DTES there are a lot of initiatives. There is a group called Our Homes Can’t Wait Coalition made up of individuals and organizations fighting gentrification and trying to secure housing for low-income people.

“Also, I started a group called People Power Projects which is building the capacity for low-income people to speak to the media, to be change agents in their own community to talk about poverty in their own community from a first-hand experience perspective.”

Lama has appeared before city councils and a number of other government and funding agencies to support community-building. “I was one of the founding members of the Vancouver Tenants Union – Vancouver has about 300,000 renters – that’s huge!”

Early Influences

Reflecting on his early years, Lama observed that he was influenced by both circumstance and experience.

“I came to Pearson from Burundi where I was a refugee (from Rwanda). As you can imagine, it was 1975, I was a teenager living as a refugee; impoverished with no opportunity in the future.”

Lama attended a school with a primarily Rwandan refugee population. At the time, there we structural barriers in place that limited opportunities for young Rwandans in these circumstances.

“Very fortunately, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan was aware of Pearson College…and loved the idea of bringing kids from all over the world and giving them access to education. At the time, he was the (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees – he was a very wealthy man who didn’t really need his salary, so he took his salary as a UN High Commissioner and put it in a trust to support refugee children around the world.

“He knew about the refugee situation in Africa, in Rwanda, and wanted to support us and gave scholarships to our school. So, it was a huge opportunity for me to have gone to that school (because) I received this unexpected gift. I felt like the sky had just opened up for me to enter.”

“When I got to Pearson, what impressed me most was that it was very informal, people were friendly, we addressed people by first names. The emphasis was on learning and learning as agents of change and empowerment. We were talking about ideas — there were no stupid questions so that really allowed us to thrive and learn.

“As a political refugee I really enjoyed the opportunity to meet people from all parts of the world and learn from them – that was huge.

“The other thing that hit me was social service. I was a member of the Social Service Club and we went out to the community and helped people who were vulnerable, like the elderly, people who were poor – that really opened my horizons in terms of serving the community. Yeah, it was really powerful and empowering.”

Building Bridges

“After Pearson I was really inspired to help. I didn’t forget where I came from –and I wanted to work with young people who didn’t get the opportunity I got and to give back to my community.”

Lama continued his post-secondary education at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver where he studied communications and later earned a degree in community and regional planning – both designed to support his interests in community-building.

“I worked in schools raising awareness of African development and environmental issues for the UN Association of Canada which had a program funded by CIDA (formerly the Canadian International Development Agency) called Africa 2000 High School Participation Program. The ‘2000’ reference came because the Canadian government of the day was proposing to help eradicate poverty in Africa by the year 2000.

“So here we are 2019 and we’re nowhere near eradicating poverty in Africa!”

“But speaking to Canadian high school kids was really significant for me,” said Lama. “First of all, were they even going to pay attention? We knew for many that Africa was seen through the lens of failure, impoverishment and war.

“But to my surprise, kids really took to my stories. They listened, they asked a lot of questions and the wanted to be part of a program that invited students to become involved.

“We encouraged students to form environment clubs – remember, this was around when the Gro Harlem Brundtland report (on development and the environment) which made the case that you can’t just develop without looking at the environment because we need to leave the planet in better shape than we found it for our kids.”

“Development without critical thinking was going to create chaos. Unfortunately, we’re seeing that right now with climate change.

“Talking to students also taught me that Canadians made sense of the world through television so I wanted to study communications so that I could us video and film as a storyteller and help people understand and demystify Africa.”

In 1994, the 100 days of what many viewed as ethnic cleansing or genocide in Rwanda happened while Lama was sitting for exams at Montreal’s Concordia University.

“It was a nightmare – every evening I would listen to CBC so I could make sense of what was happening. What was weird to me was that it was strange to listen to people talking about catastrophes and things that were happening – these were my people, they spoke the language, they talked about stories…it was devastating.

“But it was annoying to hear the reporting — journalists who had no clue and pundits who talked about…it was really frustrating. I continued to monitor the situation and afterwards, most of all, I wanted to do something and be part of the reconstruction of Rwanda.”

During that time, Lama worked with an organization headed by Canadian former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy on a national campaign to raise awareness of what happened in Rwanda. They hosted meetings in 10 cities coast-to-coast and introduced “an amazing speaker” – a woman who helped create widow’s support organization.

“She said something interesting and profound: In Rwandan culture, the tears of a man fall inward – so, men are not supposed to cry. But woman can cry and they recover faster because they can cry, they can meet, and they can talk to and console each other — they grieve together.”

Lama took this experience – of both the messages delivered to Canadians and the interest they had in understanding what they could do work with Rwandans — as a call to start an organization called Building Bridges with Rwanda (BBR).

“The mission was to create a platform for Canadians who wanted to be part of the reconstruction, who wanted to work side by side with Rwandans and to learn about the history, culture and people of Rwanda. What was clear was that all the good things Rwandans were doing to reconcile and rebuild were oblivious to many Canadians because good news doesn’t travel as fast as bad news! If you are rebuilding schools, finding solutions to problems, that’s not going to be covered by the media.

“I realized that there was an opportunity to really build a bridge between Canadian people and Rwandan people by working together. I formed this organization with friends and colleagues and went to work.”

Lama would become a frequent traveler to Rwanda, a country that, because of his early refugee experience, “I really didn’t know, so it was a learning process for me as well.” In 2008, he would relocate there, returning to live in Canada seven years later.

“That process was really successful – we brought more than 600 volunteers to Rwanda from eight different countries – people loved it so much they brought their parents and relatives. It was amazing to watch the transformations: for Rwandans who worked and interacted with these international volunteers but also for foreigners who came to Rwanda knowing very little about the country – their hearts were full of pity for these people who had survived a genocide – only to find out that Rwandans are very resilient and that they managed to survive and rise from the ashes of this genocide and build an exemplary country.”

A 2015 re-calibration of BBR saw a new team of volunteers and a shift in focus to, among other things, helping young Rwandans further their education.

“One of them is a brilliant young man who got a scholarship to go to (Washington State University) to study agriculture. He was interested in the work BBR was doing to fight malnutrition and decided to do research on quinoa. His PhD work on quinoa has drawn interest in this high-nutrition ‘superfood’ from Rwanda as well as neighbouring states like Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.”

“We hope to continue doing our BBR work in Rwanda and to focus on water, food security and wellness.”

Food Security and First Nations

And lately, Lama, who has worked with many individuals of First Nations heritage in other projects, has turned his considerable energies to work entire First Nations communities.

“I’ve been very involved in food security work. During a two-day symposium on Canada’s foreign aid effectiveness, organizers asked us to form groups and pitch a project – the winner could win $10,000 in seed money to support a project.

“Our team pitched one based on the BBR model for a food security project where we would work in the community to train people how to build household kitchen gardens to fight malnutrition. Our ideas resonated with the jury and we were awarded the seed money which will see us working with five First National communities through the Simon Fraser University Pacific Water Research Centre.”

It is a reality that many First Nations communities across Canada live with what has been described as developing world infrastructure and in relative isolation.

“When we pitched this people really understood how this kind of intervention could make a difference in communities. We’re starting in Klemtu, a small village in the Great Bear Rainforest of about 350 people. We’re going to revitalize a greenhouse, help build community gardens and encourage better awareness of nutritional meal preparation.”

“We’re in touch with a number of foundations to support this initiative for the long-term. We’ve already managed to raise more funding.”

Given Lama’s stamina in fighting for social justice, that should come as no surprise!