Ducking the big issues.

On my first day in Cambodia, we traveled to Battambang Province (loved saying that word) in the northwest region of the country. Except for the low bottom land that was almost entirely under water, everything in Battambang was high: poverty, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, child malnutrition – as well as somehow, miraculously, the spirits of the women in Roka Village.

Heifer started a project here in October, 2009 with 9 self-help groups for women, and these ladies got right down to business. In a mere two years, they received 175 pigs, 1503 poultry, 5100 fingerling fish and 710 trees. They formed a project management committee and began saving funds ($5,641 to date.) And they inspired 8 more Self Help Groups to form in the community, passed on two generations of animals to other women, and increased women’s average income from 7000 R/day (less than $2) to 12,000 (that’s a whopping 70% bump).

2 chubby Roka pigs, waiting to be Passed On to another needy family.

Along the way, Heifer’s Roka project gave women like Chou Sarom a whole new lease on life – and that’s not mere quackery. In the neat house she shares with another family, in the shadow of a pagoda, Chou and her husband and four children (ages 24, 22, 21 and 10) have become duck raisers extraordinaire. Two years ago, Chou joined the group and received 12 ducks from a Self Help Group in another village. She’d never raised ducks (it’s more of a Vietnamese custom) but was determined to learn.

“I wanted to develop myself and become more independent,” Chou says, “so I went to all the trainings with our Community Animal Health Worker – and brought my whole family with me. “(Heifer trains four CAHW, one from each village to teach animal husbandry to the participants.)

Chou and her children quickly learned the tricks of the duck trade: how to bring males and females quickly together–then separate them for optimal egg-laying. How to make a nice clean nest with rice husks. What ducks love to eat.. banana skins and rice bran. And how to keep the ducks nice, fat and clean, as Chou put it.

“I’m so happy that my ducks are really healthy, I sometimes just stand there and admire them,” Chou laughs. “My young son doesn’t even want to sell our ducks, they’re so cute – and if somebody buys them and doesn’t take care of them, he’ll go to their houses and tell them how to take better care of them.”

From her original gift of 12 ducks, Chou has passed on 12, sold thousands of eggs, and raised hundreds of ducks, chickens and guinea fowl – which she’s delighted to report lay 40 eggs after mating. The ducklings can be raised as fattening ducks (a 4-kilo male will bring $2.50) or the eggs can be sold for about 12 cents each, and Chou sells almost 200 eggs a month. (“I make income almost every day!” she says proudly.) Her husband, who also helps raise the ducks, wants to expand the business so right now they are building a bigger home for their duck brood.

Chou and her brood.

To say Chou is happy and proud of her capabilities is a serious understatement. She’s taken all the trainings to heart, and loves to talk about her achievements, tugging us into her home garden to admire her organic produce and fruit trees (she’s done a market analysis and is planting the most desirable mango), telling us that her son has followed her saving example and learned to save from the small allowance she’s given him – but he saves twice as much as she suggested so his nest egg has really grown. And most importantly, how hopeful she is for the future.

“I used to worry that there was no future here – but now I have one child who has finished university, I know I can make money, and I see all the neighbors working together.”

I saw that, too.

It looks small but it feels huge!

As we were leaving Roka, we stopped at the new women’s cooperative that the Self-Help Groups have built with their own savings. Here, members can buy seeds and fertilizer at far lower prices, aggregate their buying/selling power, and practice solidarity with other women farmers. The women were building the whole structure themselves but still had to raise $100 to finish the concrete floor. KK, Heifer’s country director, and I donated $50 – and their joy was so great, you would have thought we’d given a million.

The beautiful face of determination: lovely Son Sinath of the Roka Agricultural Women’s Cooperative.*

If you could have seen the enthusiasm, hope and triumph on their faces as we drove away, it was almost as if we had.

* You can read more about Son Sinath’s inspiring story by clicking here.

Categories: Animals, Cambodia, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

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29 thoughts on “Ducking the big issues.

  1. It’s extraordinary the faces you have captured with your lens on this year-long journey. As you said so well, determination, but also pride, joy, and sometimes fear and sorrow. Maybe you could put the Faces of Heifer Women into a book/calendar that Heifer would sell? I’d buy one, or ten!

    Love the headline!! :-)

    • I’m sure everybody was gulping at that headline, thinking it was a political post — ha!!
      I’m so glad you’ve liked the photos I’ve taken, especially the portraits and as a matter of fact, I just blew 30 of them up and sold them in a show — it was SO moving for me to see them all big!! Really appreciate your comment, EOSR — particularly since you’re a pro behind the lens!!!

      • Next time you have a show, email me! You have a real eye.
        PS: I knew it wasn’t a political post because you are not one ever to duck the issues. Passion is good, no matter which side of the fence.

      • You made me burst out laughing … and I agree, it’s good to see people involved and talking about the issues!

  2. Deb Morrow Palmer

    Love it !! Another place I hope to visit someday!! Empowering women that had never been given respect before!! I love it!! Do you find the husbands of the successful women stop their abusive ways or is it to accepted to have the abuse stop??

    • Vietnam and Cambodia are both achingly lovely — hope you get there someday, too!! Because Heifer’s gender trainings include both husbands and wives, it’s a powerful step in stopping abuse and working with men to understand what their wives contribute and the logic in working together as a couple to solve the family’s problems… and encouraging joint decision-making and income-sharing. As far as the women go — I LOVED the community talking about how they used to hear fighting, beating, etc. and never interfere but now, they go and intervene … saying, you have to stop, you can’t do this, it’s not acceptable. I think that is SO big a change!!

  3. What a great story of hope & endeavor on the part of these Cambodian village women! I found Cambodia to be so lovely yet heartbreaking knowing the suffering of these people. Thank you for this beautiful story of self-help!

    • Lovely and heartbreaking — great way of describing Cambodia! I really love writing about what I saw, but I really really worry about the future of that country under the awful, corrupt CPP government.

  4. BJ

    a well told, wonderful, real life story… thanks for sharing Betty.

  5. Thanks, BJ!!

  6. OMG — I absolutely LOVE your photos! You keep getting better and better!! Of course I love your stories too…they fill me with compassion and hope! xoxo

  7. I love this post and your amazing pictures! It’s always great to start my day with a dose of hope from Heifer and you!

  8. I’m so glad it makes you happy, JM — as Chou was just a blinding flash of joy (can you believe her darling face??) and the women at the cooperative were so professional, hardworking and jazzed to be putting together their endeavor .. I was just blown AWAY. And later in the week, we heard they had received government approval for their co-op, so now it’s all really happening — and how GREAT an achievement for them!!!

  9. I continue to love your stories….you make me proud to be a woman! And the faces of resilience are beautiful, so glad I’m here to receive these posts. My brain is being watered.

  10. Isn’t it a pity that women don’t have the power in this world. The planet might be a very different place if we did …

  11. rose

    Really enjoyed this post illustrating how strong smart and beautiful the women of Cambodia are. God bless them all.

  12. Amen, Rose!!

  13. I just this minute learned about what you are doing!! I’ve been to Guatemala twice with Heifer , but want to do and go more places and learn more. So glad I found your blog and so grateful for the person who told me about it Cindie M…

    • Thanks Alice — welcome to the journey!! And you can always go back to “The Countries” and click on Guatemala and it should bring up all my posts. Or .. anywhere else you have a hankering to go!!! Thanks for the comment and yay, Cynthia M!

  14. My favorite part of this beautiful post was Chou’s description of her son, and how protective he is of the ducks that had been sold. What a promising sign for the future.

    • Chou was so proud of her clever boy and he has totally embraced the business side of raising ducks (saving twice as much as she suggested from his allowance) AND the love side of it, too. He hates to sell the ducks because they’re so fat and cute … and he is ever vigilant of the new homes to which they go. How smart is that??!

  15. pat shropshire

    I am happy to say that for my mother’s 92nd birthday we gave two batches of Heiffer animals. She is thrilled! You, Betty, are my inspiration for keeping the faces of heroic and needy people on my mind and in my heart. Thanks and love, Pat

  16. Oh, Pat – that is SO delightful to think of your mom getting/giving Heifer animals for her 92nd birthday!!! As much of a strong country gal as she is, I think that’s totally appropriate – and I can assure you, it’s going to a GOOD place!! xooxox b

  17. One thing I’ve learned from these posts is that most of these people have never raised animals before and have all had to learn step by step day by day what each animal eats and what kind of bed it likes…

    hey Betty, congratulations on selling 30 of your photos :-)

    Your answer to Deb’s question re spousal abuse made my day. These women are so empowered that they can march right into a neighbor’s home and tell the abusive husband to just shut up and he listens. wow!

    • Rosie — I KNOW — I was so surprised and delighted by that woman telling me that .. and she was very matter-of-fact. That’s what I love so much about these people — they will tell you, I’m poor, or Yes, we have a lot of spousal abuse … and there’s not really the shame that we have attached to it here. And Heifer never tries to teach by shaming — EVER — which I really appreciate.
      I’m also very impressed that you so GET the Heifer model — I think we assume (as I certainly did) that all people who farm and raise animals know just what they’re doing but in fact, it’s NOT true. For a person in a developing country in a remote rural area to get good veterinary counsel, trainings in what to raise to feed the animals (and the seeds) and how to breed them successfully, keep them clean, give them vaccines in good time is such a huge benefit .. and really can make them successful!!!

  18. Deb Morrow Palmer

    I agree on this world being different if women power were able to take the lead!! The government wouldn’t be as corrupt. I am positive of that. Not that there aren’t many good compassionate men in this world, but they usually don’t seek power!! Ha!! I so love how heifer is affecting the power of women in countries where they haven’t been respected!

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