Leaps of Faith: Art, Africa and Lynn Connell
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“Leap and the net will be there” is Lynn Connell's motto for life. The energetic, ever-optimistic Toronto artist and humanitarian has led an inspiring career that began as a producer for politically-charged events (including Nelson Mandela's 1990 visit to Toronto and the 1986 Bishop Desmond Tutu Rally Against Apartheid), followed by the creation of a successful art retreat in Dunedin, Ont. Then, just about the time she began her foray into “grandmotherhood,” Connell founded an orphanage in Tanzania, Africa. Today, she divides her time between painting, running the Creativity Art Retreat, travelling twice a year to the Majengo Orphanage and fundraising for its future.
Her venture from being art student to art teacher (inspired by the best-selling book The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron) is a story unto itself.
The Retreat to Africa
Six years ago, the usually upbeat Connell was feeling the blues after a devastating break-up in her personal life. Inspired by one of her students at the art retreat, a nun who was involved in the HIV/Aids International Conference in Toronto, Connell decided that lending a hand was just what she needed. She drove down to the conference with the Sister, and learned about how she could volunteer with a group that was heading to Africa to educate people about HIV and AIDS and remove the stigma attached to the disease. Connell got all of her required shots, packed her bags, took some very big, deep, cleansing breaths and travelled across the ocean.
“I first worked on a safari route at an orphanage,” says Connell, who initially taught art classes to the children. Along the route were a handful of orphanages whose children - having lost one or both parents to HIV or AIDS - begged tourists for money.
“When I returned the second year, I noticed the kids weren't getting any better, despite all the donations that tourists were giving the orphanage,” she says. Suspicious, Connell took a closer look at the “leader” of these orphanages.
“He appeared to be this generous, pious man on the outside, but he was corrupt,” she says. “He was keeping the children sick and collecting the tourists' money for himself.”
Connell became the “whistle-blower” on the man, and at one point had her life threatened when she posted her discoveries about his fraudulent activity on her daily blog. Shaken, she deleted the entry and was ready to leave the country when a new friend she had met through Tanzania's Institute of Cultural Affairs, Charles Luoga, an environmental engineer, took her to visit a dark, dingy little makeshift daycare in Majengo district that housed 52 orphaned children. The leaders of the community and villagers were doing what they could to help the children, with a volunteer teacher and a few women from the neighbourhood acting as “mamas.” But resources were scarce, especially when it came to food. At best, the children were getting one meal per day.
“Charles said, ‘You've learned so much in Africa, why don't you work with these kids?” says Connell.
The Orphanage Takes Root
And so once again, Connell made the proverbial leap and a net woven with the generosity and selflessness of individuals in North America and Africa caught her and all the children.
Back home, the artist began spreading the word of a new orphanage that she and a group of good, honest citizens in Africa intended to build. She spoke to any group who would listen, including her art retreat clients, friends, neighbours, and even strangers. One such stranger was a businessman from Warren, Pennsylvania, Matt McKissock, who happened to be in the midst of arranging a rental agreement for Connell's family cottage. When Connell mentioned she was on her way to Africa, he showed interest. When she told him it was to build an orphanage, he pressed for further details, including operating costs.
“We had no idea about all of that yet,” Connell recalls, admitting she was a little taken aback by all of his questions. McKissock turned out to be a blessing for the Majengo Orphanage. Not only did he travel to Africa with two friends bearing supplies from a wish list he asked Connell and Luoga to make, he stayed and helped out for a week, made a film of the journey, then left with a promise to secure major funding that would cover operating costs for a year. He has been a major contributor ever since.
Fast forward to 2012: Majengo Orphanage, at four years old, is the only officially recognized facility of its kind by the Monduli District Government. It is owned by the Majengo District Village Government, which ensures a strong connection with the community. ICA Tanzania is the local non-government body that operates the facility and manages all financial support as well as communication between government officials, donors and staff. Fully staffed, it now takes care of 114 children from infants to teens, including those from the now permanently closed corrupt orphanages.
This past spring, Connell was thrilled to share the news that the local government has donated 10 acres of land to build a new facility. Toronto architect Margaret Zeidler, volunteered her time to design the plans for the facility, which includes housing, a library, school, gardens, an open dining room, infirmary and soccer pitch. Give Get Go, a philanthropic travel-build organization, has organized six volunteer work groups to begin construction this fall (to see their project itinerary for Majengo Orphanage visit www.givegetgo.ca and choose “current projects” from the menu bar).
The cost of the project is estimated at $300,000.
“In the last six months, we raised about $120,000,” says Connell. Both she and McKissock arranged for charitable status of their respective fundraising arms.
“It's been four years. It's a miracle, this place. Everybody's doing everything at their own cost,” says Connell, adding that 95 per cent of the money raised is for the kids, with the remainder going to pay a bookkeeper, accountant and auditor.
Whenever Connell visits, usually in fall and winter, the children even greet her and McKissock in a very special way.
“I'm called Bi-Bi, and Matt's called Ba-Ba.” In Zimbabwe, the words translate to “well respected person.”
The children also call Connell another name that brings a big smile to her face, “They call me Mama Canada,” she says.
Did she ever in a million years think that one visit to Africa would end up with an orphanage for 114 children?
“Never,” she says emphatically. “But when life presents a chance to move forward in a new direction, then you know what? Take it. Go for it. My motto has always been, ‘Leap, and the net will be there.''
For more on Majengo visit
www.majengo.org or scroll to the link from Connell's website at


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