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March 1st, 2011
01:34 PM ET

Human Factor: Africa opens a mind, a heart

In the Human Factor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle - injury, illness or other hardship –- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed.  A run by the ocean almost cost elite runner Toby Tanser his life when he was attacked for his shoes.  The incident left Tanser with a new focus that helped him work through his hardships in a most unusual way. Here is his story in his own words.

As a kid I sat and watched Live Aid, I got the perception I should donate money and stay away from Africa.  Wow - disease, famine, sad music playing, flies in the eyes… What can you do?

I wish I could show my Africa to everyone. If I only could I would be out of a job.  Well a volunteer position.  I never wanted to do what I do today. I hunted money, and comfort… but then I was dumb enough to go on holiday to Kenya.

I lived in a slum for a while and found the people with nothing gave far more than they took in this world. I later got lost in the Mara on foot; it wasn’t a safari company with rangers, a gun and eight wealthy tourists who stopped and helped me (they drove by), again it was people who had absolute nothing, killing their literal last possession, a hen to feed me as I was close to dropping from hunger.  These things started to waken me.

I left the country changed, gave my possessions away and for that deed got arrested as a vagrant in Paris.  But a lady in Sweden understood when she saw me shoeless in the snow; she too took off her shoes to send to Africa. That act started a project, Shoe4Africa.

I was there at the millennium and saw firsthand the health care the average African receives. With a smashed skull there were no painkillers, antibiotics or anesthetics… but they did give me all they had: a needle and a thread.

I was there when Kenya erupted with tribal violence, 18 miles up the road from a church that was burned with around 50 women and children locked inside. I saw all the Western aid workers, well-paid and trained to help in Africa in crisis situations, leave the country, airlifted out, as the poor men and women on the street stood up and opened their hearts to the sick and wounded.

It was at that time I was told that sub-Saharan Africa, with over 800 million people, did not have one single kids public free hospital, I heard four of five kids who die in Kenya did so without ever seeing a health care provider, and that 2/3 of deaths are treatable or preventable.  What if I had been born here, would I have been the one in eight who dies before my fifth birthday?

I thought if all my friends see Africa, they’ll want to change these horrid facts.  Not for any profit, or they do business in Africa, but because it needs to be changed. It is the right humane thing to do. Children’s basic health care should be a birthright.

If I had remained seated, after Live Aid, I never would have tried to hold peace races in war zones, marched in refugee camps, held women’s empowerment events where more than the entire population of a 4,000-person village stood up to participate.  I never would have seen an African child go to school and know that I had helped her get there, or even I would not have built a school that today has over 500 kids learning at.  I certainly would not have tried to fund raise to build a hospital for children… wouldn’t I have left that for the charities that are supposed to take care of those things?  Thank goodness I went to Africa and looked for myself. It has been an eye-opener so far: Now I want my friends to go.


soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Ben

    Great human story!!! Keep it up, man.

    March 2, 2011 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Toby Tanser

      Thank you Ben for your kind words of encouragement.

      March 3, 2011 at 18:37 | Report abuse |
  2. Richard Crook

    Looking forward to the next chapter and the first UK s4a event. First two weeks of June in Sheffield for those who want to get involved. Shoe-shaped running courses across the city. Plots on Google Earth. Let's make that children's hospital a reality.

    March 2, 2011 at 08:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Mary Taylor

    When I read the article my heart felt much pain. I would like to do something. No, I must do something. I am willing to sell my CD's (marytaylormusic.com) and give the proceeds to help with medical for chiildren in Africa. Please someone respond back to me.

    March 2, 2011 at 11:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • toby tanser

      Thanks Mary, I will email you

      March 2, 2011 at 18:24 | Report abuse |
  4. Miriam M.

    Great story. I am African. I am Kenyan. And I work at a Children's Hospital in the states. I would love to see the children's hospital become a reality. I would love to be involved. Keep up the good work and thank you for being "dumb" enough to take that holiday to Kenya! You took that first step and you are going to make a HUGE difference in a lot of people's lives. I only hope that we will continue to make a difference in yours. Thank you!

    March 2, 2011 at 14:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • toby tanser

      Hiya Miriam, send me an email tobytanser @ aol dot com - Asante!

      March 2, 2011 at 18:25 | Report abuse |
  5. Jer in Wisconsin

    Godspeed, Toby.

    May 31, 2011 at 12:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Rosemary Kauffman

    I become completely inspired by stories like this. I was wealthy not long ago, but now have lost everything and I am a 67-yr old widow. With little money left to my name, the prospect of going to Kenya seemed an impossibility. But, God works in wondrous ways! Three unexpected checks came in the mail. In the meantime I had made exceptional FB friendships in Kenya and Sweden. Three of us decided to make a difference in Kenya, and yet none of us had ever met. I will be leaving in 6 days to spend 2 wks there to make final decisions about our project there. The property has already been bought, subdivided, and mostly improved....except for the plot where we will build our project. Will decide once there and face-to-face whether to build an orphanage/school or a health unit. Am very excited about this!
    In the meantime, an even grander plan took place in my mind with other very dear and close FB friends.....to create an international foundation partnering with IGOs & NGOs that already serve the needy. I will hold a large meeting of those friends in Bangladesh following my 2 wks in Kenya! Life is wonderful!

    June 1, 2011 at 03:28 | Report abuse | Reply
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    September 23, 2012 at 10:42 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.