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Visitor reminds us of our blessings

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Compared with life for many people in the developing world, we Canadians have it pretty easy.

Want water? Turn on the tap. Hungry? Open the fridge. Cold in winter? Turn up the heat.

Because these things are so normal, it's easy to forget how special they are -- and how easy it is to take these blessings for granted.

This past year, it was easier to remember these blessings because of a visitor from Africa -- Lieketseng Phooko of Lesotho.

Lieketseng -- better known as Keke -- spent the last 10 months at my workplace, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. The 23-year old graduate of the Lesotho Agricultural College came to us as an intern through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) international visitor-exchange program.

While in Canada, Phooko's assignment was to travel the country making presentations about food and hunger issues in Lesotho. Altogether, she spoke to more than 6,000 people at schools, churches and community groups.

She had a great experience. She often commented on how big Canada is and on the friendliness of Canadians. A rural person, she especially enjoyed spending time on Canadian farms.

What constantly struck her was how easy life is in Canada compared with life in Lesotho.

Take water, for example.

"Back home, we need to walk to communal tap to get water," she says. "Depending on how many people are in line, it can take up to 30 minutes to fill our containers. If the tap is dry, we have to walk to a spring -- that can take an hour."

Then there's all the food we can eat; she had never seen so many varieties of food.

Going to restaurants was particularly eye-opening. "There were so many choices on the menu," she says, noting that in Lesotho the diet for most people doesn't vary much. "We eat cornmeal three times a day."

Confronted by a menu with many selections, she often asked for whatever her hosts were having. "I didn't know what else to do," she says.

And even though the Canadian winter was tough, the homes she visited were always warm -- unlike in Lesotho, where many houses lack central heating.

Phooko's experience reminded me of another visitor to Canada from the developing world. When Joseph Naimodu came from Kenya in 2006 to study at the Canadian Mennonite University, he had a similar experience.

Like Phooko, he marvelled at how easy it is to get water. "Back where I live, some people have to walk 10 kilometres to get water, and then carry it home on their backs," he told me. "And it's not even very clean water. But they have no other option."

The amount of food available to Canadians also amazed him. "We get three great meals every day, and we can eat all we want," he said of eating in the school's dining hall. "Back home, we eat two meals a day."

Altogether, it was a bit overwhelming. "There's so much of everything. Anything you want, you can get," he said. "In Kenya, life is a struggle for so many people."

Phooko and Naimodu remind me I have it pretty good here in Canada -- something confirmed by the most recent Better Life Index from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The index -- which measures material well-being and quality of life, including income, life expectancy, housing, civic engagement, health, safety and work-life balance -- ranked Canada sixth out of the world's 36 richest nations.

It might be nice to be higher on the index (our poor showing in civic engagement and work-life balance helped drag us down). But the truth is that, by any measure, Canadians are far better off than most people in the world, and especially those in poorer countries.

Phooko is back home in Lesotho now. She will be working for an organization that helps farmers adopt new forms of agriculture designed to improve their yields. Before she left, she told me she was praying that "the Lord will use me for good" in her own country.

Every time I turn on a tap in my house, I'm going to try to remember to say my own prayer -- of thanks for all the blessings I have received.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 J13

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