Local Rotarian Pieter Koeleman gives an immunization to a child in a rural village in the Ivory Coast during a recent trip to the region.

Local Rotarian returns with a life lesson after immunizing children in Africa

‘We can learn so much from these people’

How do a 78-year-old retired Dutch physiotherapist and his son end up representing Campbell River at an Immunization Day for the children of a small town in western Africa?

It’s a long and complex story, but let’s just say that Pieter Koeleman has always been about helping people. He had been a physiotherapist in the Netherlands from 1962 until 1975, when he was asked to teach the practice at a European university. After 10 years of teaching, he needed a change. So he packed up and headed for his new life as a Canadian.

Shortly after he arrived in Canada in the mid-1980s, he decided he should help people in other ways, as well, and he became a Rotarian, because he believed – and obviously still does – that they do good work both in their own communities and around the world.

His most recent role with the club was a trip to the Ivory Coast to participate in the West African Project Fair, where Rotary clubs from 15 West African countries came together to promote projects they would like to undertake.

Koeleman’s role as Campbell River’s ambassador was to document these prospective projects and bring back a pitch to his own club for a project or projects they could help with.

“The idea is that Rotarians from all over would come to Abidjan and see what is available (in terms of projects to get involved with) and what they can do to help some of the clubs,” Koeleman says.

The first thing that struck Koeleman when he arrived in the country were the conditions in which many of the locals lived and the gaping inequality.

“There was a coach bus ready for us the first day and took us on a trip into the city, and the first view that you have on the city and the people – you see the contrast of the nice buildings, nice highways, nice bridges and you see also rows of shacks of the people who live in very primitive situations.”

There are streets jam packed full of people buying and selling things, Koeleman says, and there’s no organization to it – from an outsider’s perspective, anyway.

But more than that, he saw the lack of infrastructure. There were piles of garbage everywhere, and an obvious lack of bathroom facilities.

Which is why, when he saw the proposed project from one of the African Rotary clubs who want to build latrine facilities for public spaces throughout various African countries, he wanted to know more.

“People at places like public markets, they just do their business in the open, and cause all kinds of consequences for the health situation,” Koeleman says.

The way one Rotary club, like the Noon Club in Campbell River, can make a difference in larger projects, Koeleman says, is by compounding their fundraising efforts with other Rotary groups and then acquiring matching grants.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, for example, double-matches the money raised towards polio vaccinations, as does the federal government. So a $4,000 donation from a Rotary club for polio eradication becomes $20,000.

That isn’t the same formula used for every project, but the principle is the same.

A small donation by one Rotary group, for example, matched by four or six other clubs, then compounded with matching grants from the Rotary Foundation and various government agencies, becomes a fair chunk of change fairly quickly.

Koeleman has a chart which shows how just a few thousand dollars gets compounded quickly, depending on how many clubs are a part of the project. Six clubs at a few thousand dollars each turns into well over $100,000 when compounded with grants.

That can build a lot of blocks of public latrines in Africa at $4,000 per unit.

Before he left Africa he already had three groups in the U.S. and one in Australia on board with chipping in.

Now he just has to convince his own club to be involved, as well.

Even if he can’t, however, the trip can’t be called fruitless.

The most rewarding part of the trip, he says, was to have been invited to Immunization Day at a small town called Nigui Saff, just north of Abidjan – where the Project Fair took place.

There he not only helped immunize the community’s children, he also learned a valuable lesson he’ll hold with him forever.

“These people,” he says, “are so spontaneous, and so happy. They have, in our eyes, not much to live in or to live with. The majority live in primitive circumstances. Many don’t have running water or other things we live with all the time, but the happiness they have and the spontaneity and the joy – it’s really remarkable.

“We can learn so much from these people.”

And he’s happy to have learned that alongside his son.

“For both of us,” he beams, “it was a very memorable trip. I tell him, and I tell everyone, when you have the opportunity to do something hands-on, and help in that way, it’s really worthwhile.”