By SUSAN FERRIER MACKAY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, May 14, 2018
As one of the first Canadians to volunteer with international aid agency Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), civil engineer Rich Denham undertook gruelling missions to ease human suffering around the world.
One mission in particular haunted him for the rest of his life. In 1994, MSF called on him during the genocide in Rwanda, where close to a million Tutsi people were slaughtered by a rival tribe of ethnic Hutu extremists. An incredulous world watched in horror as dead bodies, piled like sandbags, were shovelled onto trucks for dumping into mass graves.
The magnitude of the carnage was overwhelming.
Desperate refugees flooded across the border into the camp near where Mr. Denham was stationed in Zaire (now called Democratic Republic of the Congo), but there was a shortage of drinking water, and cholera was breaking out, adding to their panic.
Mr. Denham and his team commandeered every available truck in the country and began treating water from nearby Lake Kivu. Within three days of his arrival, the team had managed to produce a litre and a half of potable water for each of the refugees, of whom there were thousands upon thousands. "It was the most satisfying experience of his career," his wife, Donna, said. "And also the most humbling."
Mr. Denham died on April 19 after complications from cardiovascular surgery at Ottawa's Civic Hospital. He was 73. Ken Morrison, a friend and long-time colleague, described Mr.
Denham as a cross between the fictional character Indiana Jones and a film hero that John Wayne might have played. "He would jump into virtually any situation and take charge of whatever needed to be done," Mr. Morrison said.
In self-published memoirs titled Once Upon a Time in Africa, Mr. Denham described his much younger self as "friendly, honest and easy-going" although somewhat lacking in ambition.
A high-school guidance counsellor once summoned Mr. Denham's father to suggest that Rich take up a trade because he was going nowhere academically. Fellow students, who knew the teen as a motorbike-riding rebel, probably would not have predicted his maturation into a quiet, devoted humanitarian who travelled the world to improve the lives of others.
In 1992, the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario awarded Mr. Denham its Citizenship Award for the volunteer assignments he undertook with MSF in the mountains of Turkey and Northern Iraq. There he helped establish basic sewage and clean water systems for Kurdish refugees escaping the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. Mr. Denham was profoundly moved by the plight of those refugees, many of whom were educated professionals, like himself. They'd been given scant minutes to grab whatever they could before fleeing. Mr. Denham counted the blessings of his own particular life.
Harold Richard Denham, known to all as Rich, was born on Oct. 7, 1944, in Oshawa, Ont. His mother, Jean, was a homemaker who took care of Rich and his brother and sister. Eric Denham, the family patriarch, was a farmer who became a barber after moving the family to Queensville, just north of Newmarket. Despite Mr. Denham's lackadaisical attitude toward school, and the guidance counsellor's advice to follow a trade, he graduated from Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (now a university) in 1967 with an architectural technology diploma.
By then, an event had already taken place that would influence the course of his life. On Nov. 23, 1966, at a nursing school dance, he met Donna Jarvis, an athletically inclined student with accordion skills and a teaching certificate. Her goals were firmly established. Upon graduation from nursing school she would join Canadian University Students Overseas (CUSO) for a two-year assignment as a nurse in West Africa. The appeal of both travel and Ms. Jarvis led Mr. Denham to sign up as well. He was assigned to Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, while she was to be placed across the continent in West Africa. With their romance in bloom, the only solution that would allow them to remain together was marriage.
After a six-month courtship, they were married at a church ceremony in Cooksville, Ont. They moved to Tanzania together, barely knowing each other.
Mr. Denham's assignment there involved teaching modern architectural and building methods to local officials, who regarded his extreme youthfulness with suspicion. He quickly learned the skills to get people to work together and the necessity of employing a snake charmer. Workers refused to clear a building site until it had been purged of snakes.
Meanwhile, his young wife struggled to nurse 40 or more patients in the poorest ward of the Muhimbili National Hospital. She was frustrated that appearances mattered more than care. Beneath crisp white sheets, a patient who hadn't been turned in days could lie with suppurating bedsores. The disorganization and unsanitary conditions eventually wore her down. She switched to her other vocation, teaching.
When their contract with CUSO expired after two years, the couple, still in their 20s, returned to Canada. The overseas experience fuelled Mr. Denham's desire to further his education.
In 1974, he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Waterloo. He joined a consulting engineering firm in Toronto, then in 1987 joined the public works department for the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, rising to the position of commissioner of environmental services. The newspapers referred to him as Mr. Cleanup. Mr. Denham's four children would joke about how during vacations they would be trotted off to view nearby sewagetreatment plants.
Mr. Denham's full-time position in Ottawa didn't prevent him from taking weeks here and there to consult and volunteer for assignments with MSF and other agencies in countries as diverse as India, China and Uzbekistan. In all, his humanitarian work led him on more than 70 missions on five continents.
In his memoirs, he reflected on how the two years he and his wife spent in Tanzania changed the course of their lives. He wrote, "When we left Canada in 1967 we were idealistic volunteers eager to help the less fortunate. The interactions of religious beliefs and political convictions with aid programs were much more complex than we ever imagined.
We learned a lot. Instead of living in a world that sees only good and bad, better or worse, right or wrong, we will surely be able to live together when we are willing to accept our differences."
Mr. Denham leaves his wife, Donna; children, Adrienne, Michael, Tara and Rebecca; grandsons, Seth, Colton, Bryn and Taylem; and siblings, Paul and Laurie.
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Rich Denham is seen in Goma in Democratic Republic of the Congo in an undated family photo. Mr. Denham was stationed there with Médecins sans Frontières in the 1990s during the genocide in Rwanda.
COURTESY OF THE FAMILY