Two extraordinary memoirs

One of my favourite editors occasionally teased me because I use many glowing adjectives in the profiles I write. I told him I sometimes do this because I ‘m convinced many of the people I’ve written about are truly extraordinary.

Burris and Louanne Devanney fall into this category.

They’re best known locally for their charitable work in Africa, which you can read about in two books by Burris.

Published in 2010, reviewer Julius H. E. Uzoaba describes African Chronicles as “a gripping story of adventure and discovery—and a well-researched must-read read for anyone who wants to understand why Africa is still held in the doldrums of poverty years after colonialism has ended.” The Gambia Saga (published in 2019), covers their 38 years of engagement with one of Africa’s smallest countries.

The work began in 1965 when the Devanneys were newlyweds and signed up for a new international assistance program in Africa, sponsored by Canada’s External Aid Office (predecessor of the Canadian International Development Agency).

Burris (left) and Louanne Devanney. Photo: Submitted

Their first posting was to a remote 40-year-old mission station in rural Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where they encountered the tragic, illogical cruelty of “petty apartheid.” Their second posting was to a secondary school in eastern Nigeria, a land then on the brink of civil war.

Despite the conflict and turmoil, those assignments sparked a life-long passion for development work and for Africa. After Burris retired from his Halifax teaching career in 1993, he became the full-time executive director of the Nova Scotia-Gambia Association (NSGA), which he and Louanne (among others) co-founded in 1985.

NSGA has carried out more than 30 development programs, mostly in the education sector, in Gambia and Sierra Leone. This movement has also grown over the years to have a nationwide impact in both countries.

Another of Burris’s initiatives at the helm of NSGA has been managing a university extension program in Gambia. As a result of his efforts, Gambian students had access to university education in their own country for the first time. This program began in cooperation with Saint Mary’s University. About 300 Gambians earned SMU degrees through this program. It led to the establishment of the University of The Gambia in 2000.

One of the most ambitious of the programs established by the NSGA under Devanney’s leadership was a countrywide Peer Health Education Program in Gambia and Sierra Leone.

Its existence has meant that thousands of junior and senior-high students have training as peer health educators to lead the fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria among young people in those countries.

When he retired as executive director of the NSGA in 2006, UNESCO asked Burris to train representatives of 12 countries in eastern and southern Africa on school-based peer health education. Since 2007, he’s given about two months per year of voluntary assistance to the Canadian Teachers Federation’s partnership programs in Ghana and Uganda, initially in the training of teachers and more recently in the development of community outreach programs.

It’s been more than 40 years since I first met the Devanneys. At the time, I was preparing a national CBC Radio program about their African experiences. Today they’re both in retirement, and remain deeply attached to the countries they worked in for so long. They’re modest about their work. Louanne, in particular, tends to downplay the significant role she played.

In 2000, Burris received the of the Order of the Republic of The Gambia, and, in 2004, an Honourary Doctorate in Civil Law (Honoraris Causa) from SMU.

The Gambia Saga and African Chronicles are both available online and from Halifax Public Libraries.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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