Canada and the World

Finding Mr. Nepean

A Sierra Leonean town’s benefactor comes forward

JULIAN BELTRAME July 30 2001
Canada and the World

Finding Mr. Nepean

A Sierra Leonean town’s benefactor comes forward

JULIAN BELTRAME July 30 2001

Finding Mr. Nepean

A Sierra Leonean town’s benefactor comes forward

Canada and the World

JULIAN BELTRAME

They call him Mr. Nepean. The July 9 edition of Macleans featured a story about the Nepean Stars soccer team in Sierra Leone named after a mysterious Canadian who has given them and their town of Bo so much. But after reading the article, an acquaintance told Des Garvey she had little doubt who it referred to: “They must be talking about you.” It couldn’t have been anyone else. Garvey, 73, a retired independent building contractor from the former Ottawa suburb of Nepean, has been touching lives in Bo since 1984 when he visited the impoverished town of 50,000 on what was essentially a mission of mercy. He had intended to tour drought-stricken sub-Saharan Africa to see what he could do. His first stop was in Bo, in the interior of Sierra Leone, and he went no farther. “There was so much need, I knew I didn’t need to go on,” he says.

He also knew he needed Bo as much as it needed him. Most of the townspeople, as he recalls, had virtually nothing—no electricity, no running water, few medicines, few skills; they were ill fed, ill clothed and with-

out hope. After 40 years spent running his business, and raising seven children,

Garvey had achieved a level of financial independence. But he wanted to make a difference in the world, and in Bo he saw the ultimate development project. So he came back home and went to work. He spoke to church congregations, schools and community groups, recruited volunteers, badgered Nepean councillors into twinning Bo with their community (this was before it became part of the amalgamated Ottawa), established the Nepean Outreach to the World charitable foundation, and applied for federal government grants.

With $10,000 of his own money and a $20,000 grant from the Canadian International Development Agency, Garvey flew back to Bo in 1990 and asked the locals what they wanted most. Their answer: a new market where women could sell fruit, vegetables and wares, and that could serve as the social centre for the town. It would replace a market so overcrowded it couldn’t serve the needs of the community. The project, which took two years to com-

plete, couldn’t have suited the former contractor better. It still stands today. But Garvey is also remembered in Bo for the Nepean Stars First Division soccer squad, which came about because of his gift of soccer balls—and dozens of jerseys bearing the word Nepean. “They had no balls,” he remembers, “they were just kicking around anything that looked like a ball.” In a Macleans interview, Roxy Coombar, the squad’s coach, said the team has kept his young players from the clutches of rebel forces in the war-ravaged nation, and fed them with a dream of one day making it to the big leagues. “In a country like Sierra Leone,” he said, “it is even dangerous not to dream, because it is reality that drives boys into the claws of the rebels” Over the years, Garvey has made more than a dozen trips to Bo, each time bearing some form of aid. Dental equipment and dentists to train the locals, medicines, used computers, bicycles, rakes and shovels, clothing—whatever he can get his hands on. “When I’m there, they camp out at my front door early in the morning to late at night with a list of what they want,” he says. “We’d do the same ifwe were in their place.”

Although Garvey hasn’t been back in two years, he hasn’t stopped helping Bo. The Nepean Outreach organization, with 35 active members, is still sending supplies to the townspeople. And Garvey is working on another development project—an orphanage for children who lost their parents to the war. Last year, three Sierra Leone youths attending a conference at Carleton University claimed refugee status. They went to Garvey. He put them up in his own home and is now helping them obtain landed immigrant status. “They’re going to be Canadians one day,” he says.

Despite all he’s done, Garvey believes he’s received as great a gift. “I had a roadto-Damascus conversion,” he says of the change in his life after seeing Bo for the first time. In a sense, both have been transformed by the meeting.

Read “Canada’s team,” our original story about www.macleans.ca