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Andrea Charbonneau graduates this spring, but she's thinking her politics will keep her around McGill for a while longer. Since last June, the 22-year-old political science and sociology undergrad has been running the Shelter Wakadogo, a McGill club with an intense interest in a particularly ravaged part of Africa.
Northern Uganda is poor, rural and cursed by the presence of the Lord's Resistance Army, a ragtag but brutally ruthless and violent militia led by a messianic lunatic named Joseph Kony. All too frequently, the LRA has raided villages, slaughtered the inhabitants and carried off the children, raising them as fighters, porters and sex slaves who in turn carry out raids of their own. As insurgencies go, it's particularly vicious, so much so that the region's children often travel up to a dozen kilometres every evening to seek protection in government camps. They are called the night commuters, and these are the children Charbonneau, and a small group of friends, want to help.
She and Farah Williamson, an exchange student from the UK's Warwick University who spent part of her childhood in Uganda with her diplomat father and Ugandan mother came up with the idea of the Shelter Wakadogo (Swahili meaning "for the little ones") that would serve as a community centre for displaced children. She thinks providing help, and a bit of fun for these kids can set it apart from other charities. "I want it to be a pillar of the community," she says. "And not just another foreign tent."
It's still a dream at this stage, but one that's slowly, and laboriously, coming to fruition. Williamson and Charbonneau have applied for registered charity status, and figure that $100,000 is needed to get the shelter up, running and sustainable. So far they have raised $13,000, and plan to reach their goal by the end of this year.
Fundraisers and awareness events - like last October's GuluWalk Day, when some 600 McGill and Concordia students walked over 10 kilometres through the city's streets with banners and leaflets - have taken up a lot of time, but Charbonneau admits that the help they got, such as from the Student Society of McGill University, has been "instrumental."
"We needed $3-million in insurance, so we had to go to the SSMU," she says. "They said okay, and renegotiated their policy. And because the McGill administration considers us a club, we could use the campus as an end-meeting point. McGill surprised me; I'm proud to say that as a student, the university represented me."
Charbonneau knows she'll have to give up her position as president of the McGill chapter upon graduation, but that doesn't mean she'll be leaving the organization behind. In June she and Williamson, who is back in the UK continuing to build contacts and raise funds, will travel to Uganda for a month. Once there, they will pursue contacts, research the needs and budgets of groups they'd like to cooperate with, and get valuable on-the-ground experience. Upon her return, she'll keep a hands-on relationship with the club, but says, "I don't mind delegating. I won't be micro-managing, that's not my style."
She also plans to fundraise and organize full time. "I'll give it a year and see how things are going," she says. "I want to exhaust all of McGill's resources," including the university's academic expertise and Dean of Arts John Galaty's strong personal interest in Africa.
What she doesn't want to do is move anywhere. There's momentum here, and she thinks it's building. "Right now, I feel that Montreal is taking well to us," she says. "People are starting to know who we are, and it would be a waste of energy to go somewhere else and start from scratch."