Calling all Graying Societies; You Savior has Arrived


Meeting at a bustling café, during lunch time rush hour, perhaps was not the smartest idea for navigating an interview. In terms of locus, it only got worst from there; the frazzled hostess sat me down directly in front of the kitchen which added to the exasperation of the situation.

As I began fishing through the menu, my interviewee had arrived. Aziza Jaffer is her name however; a more fitting tag for her would be quintuplet-threat. Soon you will realize why. 

Her life’s story is ..well…quite the story.

Born in Toronto, raised in Burundi for ten years, returned to Toronto in 1994 due the Rwandan Genocide.  Completed an Honors Bachelor of Science degree, as the focus of her undergraduate studies at the U of T. From there Aziza worked with a non-profit organization in Kenya, reappeared in Toronto to try the corporate world on for size, developed an obsessive passion for caring for elderly, all while being heavily involved in her Ismaili Muslim Community and pursuing her many side interest- dancing/singing/acting. And she schooled herself into learning English, French, Guajarati, Kachi, Hindi and Swahili.

Tell me about the situation in Burundi during the time of intense political turmoil.

It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The bombings happened more in rural areas and we lived in the city. We could hear gunshots from a far distance but that was about it. The violence was between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes and didn’t concern foreigners. Plus, Rwanda was more affected by the genocide, not Burundi, we didn’t have to evacuate. When the situation was really bad, I came back to Canada for four months but then went back as soon as the situation was better. I remember, we (my brother and I) had a seven o’clock curfew, which extended to ten, eleven then twelve, as things got better.

What did you take to heart from that experience?  

I am definitely a stronger person because of what I had witnessed, what I was aware of. Even now if I hear fireworks it jolts me for second. I look at it as one chapter of my life.

Was it difficult for you to leave the country where you spent a decade of your life or were you anxious to come back to Canada and rejuvenate?

It was difficult because I played out a bulk of my childhood there; I went to school there, made some great friends. Life was much mellower in Burundi. Burundi was my safety net; I had my family and friends. I only came back here to go to university, same with my brother.

Living in Kenya, employed by a Youth International Program funded by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency), what exactly did your role entail?

Well, let me back track for a moment… During my convocation a woman by the name of Mary Anne Chambers said Use your knowledge to serve others. Education is one thing you are fortunate to get, and no one can take that away from you.” And I just thought her words were so inspiring and I wanted to give back.

So after completing my degree, I decided to work for CIDA through the program called ‘Helped the Aged Canada.’ It was a six month, paid internship. I was placed in rural Kenya, which was quite the change from living somewhat luxuriously in Burundi because I had my family. Here I was all alone. I had a variety of jobs. As a community developer, I looked for non-profit organizations in the area, trying to get loans for children so they could afford to going to school. Helped the Age Canada had this program called ‘Adopt-a-Gran.’ For example, I would ask for money for a family to own a goat, that family could then sell the milk and use that money for necessities- a bed, medicine, proper agricultural tools, books, pencils. Canadian sponsors would provide the grant and I would write reports to the sponsors giving them updates on where their money is going, news on the child’s studies if the money went to putting a child through school.

As an HIV/ AIDS facilitator I held meetings in the village teaching the locals about agriculture, water sanitation, hygiene, because the middle generation is struck by HIV or wiped out by HIV, the older generation is unfit to educate the young ones.

And as a Social Worker I designed and implemented a home based care system; by working with community health workers that were from local clinics, organized by the local community to assess their living conditions and provide whatever healthcare that could be provided, within reach. Working with community health worker showed me the difference between them and non-profit organizations that implement something and then leave. They don’t involve the community, where as the community based health workers make decision involving the community.

There is a misconception of foreigners that come in to volunteer for a short period and then leave. Although they are doing it with good intentions, it actually disrupts the way things were going before. Volunteers would do their part for two weeks by distributing meds, books, pencils, and the kids get excited expecting the same from me, but I couldn’t provide them with those things. So I would say to them “I don’t have any money for you, but what I do have is education.”

What are your thoughts on free primary school education in Kenya, do you think it will persist over time or simply remain a short term gratification?

Many countries in Africa are very corrupt; basically it all comes down to the problem of funding. There is a hierarchy of organizations that dip into the lump-sum of money before it hits rural villages, which is at the bottom. You have the capital city which holds the central government then districts divide the funds, after that it’s the sub-districts turn, then the villages, by then there’s nothing left to work with.

Were you responsible for taking care of one village only?

No, no, my home base was in one village but I also took care of all the surrounding 16 villages. Roughly 60 people per village. It was a two hour commute by bike or boba boda (bicycle taxi) from one village to another.

Did you have any down time, if so what did you do?

You need a break; you need to have some sort of social life. So I managed to find friends in town who were part of the Ismaili community and on the weekends I would hang out with them. Five days a week I was in the village, two days with friends.  

Upon returning to Canada, after the internship how did you make the transition to working in a clinical trial organization?  

There wasn’t much of a transition; I am a person with a plan. I even had you scheduled in today, from two to four…lol..I knew I wanted to give health care a chance since it was more related to my science degree.

The clinical trial organization I worked for was the Canadian Heart Research Centre, I worked as a bilingual Project coordinator and assistant to the COO. It was a nine to five job; sit in front of the computer job. It didn’t work for me. Although it involved helping people, it wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. I need to be around people, more hands on, more personal. However, this job taught me “professionalism,” and taught me that health care isn’t for me.  It’s the corporate aspect of the job that didn’t suit my personality. I worked there for six month and quit all of a sudden, and for the first time without a plan. Lol. 

How did you get involved with seniors so heavily?

First I should tell you, I was heavily involved in dance (indo-jazz) ever since I was little. Dance has been a constant in my life. It gave my life a sense of balance. Even in Kenya, for fun, I would teach the locals dances to liven up the village and it would put a smile on their faces. But at one point it became just so competitive, to the point that I didn’t feel like I could be creative anymore.

Immediately after returning from Burundi, I lived with my grandparent for two years, I became their primary caregiver, I was very close to them. However dance took that away; it began to take over my life. I had no time for my grandparents, I had no time to be part of community functions or activities, I became so engrossed into dancing that it became a business rather than a passion.

Then my grandfather passed away. And all of a sudden I felt as if I could focus on myself. I asked myself what is it that makes me so unhappy, it was work and dance.  At the same time, I was starting to have physical problems from being overworked as a dancer. And I felt it was a sign from god telling me to stop dancing and focus on myself.  So I suddenly quit.  

And so, back to your question, my fascination of helping the elderly stems from my grandfathers experiences.

Currently you are an active member of multiple non-profit organizations dealing with the elderly, what are they?

Multicultural Council for Ontario Seniors, the Ontario Seniors’ Secretariat Liaison Committee and the Seniors Advisory Committee on Long-Term Care.

I still keep dance as a hobby, but now I’m more involved with singing within the Ismaili community, and also got into acting in theatrical productions. I’m trying to build awareness in our community about the arts, trying to broaden the scope and expand outside of traditional works.

What do you think are major issues senior citizens face today in Canada or in general?

Since I’m not working at the moment I have time to go to nursing homes and volunteer; the problem I find is health workers are not culturally sensitive. For example, the food served in nursing homes is always Western, why not switch it up and serve Indian one day. There are times when the workers are rude to elderly.

More money needs to be put into properly training the workers to understand, for example, one’s culture. I believe educating the caregivers rather than the elderly is crucial. Who you educate makes the difference.

Are you planning to go back to any third world nations to do further volunteer work?

Not at the moment.

There are increasing numbers of organizations struggling to operate effectively at the intersection between offering quality changes in third world societies, without disrupting local destinations, is this something you are concerned with?

The problem is people don’t look at what they want, they look at what they ‘think’ they want; there is a big difference between the two. For example, the University of Waterloo donated an ambulance to a village in Kenya, but that really didn’t do any good for the people, since it wasn’t functional. The ambulance was not suited for rural, African roads, so it couldn’t travel to get to different villages.

Where do you go from here Aziza?

Well…I just applied for my masters in Gerontology, so hopefully that will work out. Lol..

Do you have a five or ten year plan?

My ultimate goal in life is to use my arts to make a difference. And be a celebrity…haha. I also hope to be the voice for the elderly; a spokeswoman if you will. And travel for the next ten years before I settle down with my own family. My future has to balance the arts and the elderly.


I was surprised to learn Aziza has accomplished so much with still a year to go before she reaches her quarter century life crisis.



~ by deliciousnoize on May 4, 2008.

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