Most people in Canada have never heard of a parasite called a chigger, also known as a jigger or the chigoe flea. But in East Africa, the one-millimetre insect is causing havoc for residents who walk around with bare feet and for those who sleep on dirt floors.
That’s because this flea, known as Tunga penetrans, can enter the skin and feed on human flesh.
It leaves victims with disfigured limbs, making them more susceptible to infections. That’s in addition to the debilitating pain caused by these insects, which also lay eggs inside their host’s bodies. In some cases, people with this parasite might suffer amputations or even die.
The impact of chiggers on Africans troubled a Taiwanese Christian, Yu-Jen Yang, who decided to create a poster and blog about it two years ago.
In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight from Guelph, Ontario, Yang said he was surprised by the generous response from his fellow citizens after it went viral on social media.
“All of the sudden, I got about 40,000 or 50,000 pairs of shoes sent to my house,” Yang recalled. “That kind of grew and evolved into a movement in Taiwan.”
He created the Step30 campaign and gathered about 150,000 pairs of shoes and 7,000 kilograms of old clothes, which were put in a container and shipped to Kenya. This weekend, he’ll deliver one of the “Hope Talks” at TaiwanFest, which take place at different times at 800 Granville Street during the three-day festival.
In addition, TaiwanFest organizers are encouraging Vancouverites to donate their old shoes two blocks north at 600 Granville Street over the three days of the festival, from Saturday (September 3) to Monday (September 5).
“We’ll have volunteers come and pack the shoes and put them in a container,” Yang said. “We also have people donating their warehouse space for us to put the shoes there.”
Most of the shoes have been distributed in Kenya, but according to Yang, some have also gone to people living in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo.
He estimated that by the end of 2016, almost a million pairs will have been shipped to African countries.
There’s a Canadian connection to Step30. Yang’s wife, Kara Remley, is from Guelph, and her parents, Allen and Kathie Remley, operate a Canadian-registered charity called Forgotten People Connection. The name refers to the organization’s mission of connecting Canadian people and resources with people in parts of the world that are often overlooked.
Step30 works with Forgotten People Connection not only in providing shoes to East Africans but also in building capacity within communities. Yang said that in rural areas, empty containers have been converted into locations for medical clinics, computer labs, or places where people can learn about carpentry or sewing.
Last year, Yang and his wife moved to Kitale, Kenya, for eight months because they didn’t want to make all their decisions in the air-conditioned comfort of their home in the northwestern Taiwanese city of Taoyuan. Living in Kitale, he observed kids trying to remove chiggers one at a time by sticking a needle into their feet.
“Here’s the thing: even if you get it out, you go back working on the dirt ground,” Yang said. “You know they’re going to come back in again. When you have open wounds, that will make everything even worse.”
His wife and his mother-in-law have also created a project to teach African women how to make reusable sanitary pads. This came after the Remleys noticed some were using animal skins or plastic bags to deal with menstruation.
“Part of our job is to train local leaders so they will eventually rise up and don’t have to rely on foreigners coming in,” Yang stated.