Astonishing Armenia.

Shangri-La I’ll be honest – I wasn’t very excited when Heifer International suggested I visit Armenia last year in one of my trips visiting its projects working to end poverty and hunger around the world. I’d never known anybody who’d been to Armenia, and had barely heard the name Yerevan, the country’s capital. And so, it came as a big surprise to me that I didn’t just like Armenia – I fell madly in love with it.Prayer CrossesFor one thing, the land itself is beautiful. From Mt. Ararat towering just over the treacherous border with Turkey…

Even Armenia's beloved Mt. Ararat, where Noah's Ark supposedly landed, is now part of Turkey.

….to the dun northern hills that made me think of Afghanistan…landscape…to the lush green pastures that support gorgeous orchards of fruit and nuts…Apples…to the rocky outcroppings where Christian churches were tucked in the crevasses, hidden from marauding invaders. rock churchThis is an ancient land with a totally unique history.buggy Armenia is the first Christian country in the world, and is ardently religious still.crossIt was the first country to experience heartbreaking genocide after World War I,

The Armenian Genocide Monument in Yerevan

The haunting Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan

A country in near-constant conflict with its neighbors: Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey.

Across the lake and in gunsight: the Azerbaijan Border Station

Across the lake and within gun range: the Azerbaijan Border Station

And then, of course, there is the food.fruit pyramid

 Armenians dearly love to welcome you. And wine you. And dine you. And bread you. And fruit you. And cheese you. And coffee you.

Lahvosh & cheese You better come hungry when you visit Armenia, because you’re going to eat.PicklesAnd despite the severe challenges of moving beyond a Soviet mentality to establish an economy that can sustain the young people growing up here (which Heifer is working so tirelessly and creatively to support), there is a tenacity of spirit and national pride that is simply not to be denied.

Look at these beautiful faces!One of 44 members of Tsaghkavan CARMAC committee

Tamara Sargsyan

Naira Gyulnazaryan

The I am enI am Hope of Armenia

rabbitsBarev, Armenia – I’ll never forget our time together!cute boy

Categories: Armenia, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Remembering Rwanda.

boy me & Lu Rwanda was one of my favorite trips last year — not least because it was the one time my daughter Lulu accompanied me. She’d turned 21 in May, and I decided the best birthday present I could give her would be to share some of what I’d seen on my trips around the world with Heifer International.

Well, eye-opening doesn’t begin to describe it.

memoryRwanda is a fascinating, haunting country – tiny (about the size of Maryland), one of the most densely populated in Africa (with 11 million folks), and scorched with a past marked by holocaust, horror and hatred. But Rwanda today, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, has moved along the hopey-changey spectrum at a clip no one could have anticipated or imagined. lovelyChild mortality is down 70%. Malarial deaths have plummeted 85%. Kigali, the capital, has become one of the cleanest, safest cities in Africa. Literacy of the population is almost 75%. The infrastructure is efficient and new. And the economy, unburdened by corruption, is one of the fastest-growing on the African continent, despite Rwanda having no ports, virtually no natural resources, and 90% of its population raising crops on an acre or less of land.

Everywhere you look, tidy little plots of land are cultivated, mile after mile.

Everywhere you look, families are eking out a living on tiny plots of land.

Rwanda is a remarkably neat, tidy country – with the brilliant insight to ban plastic bags almost ten years ago (makes me feel like we’re the developing ones). There has been a lot of criticism of Kagame’s strongman rule http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/magazine/paul-kagame-rwanda.html?pagewanted=all  but it’s difficult to imagine any scenario after the genocide of 1994 that could have predicted a resolution as peaceful and progressive as this.boysHeifer’s role in the country has been consistently progressive, inspirational and positive – working with AIDS families to provide income, creating a model for enabling poor families to use a cow to fuel economic prosperity, and of course, always, Passing on the Gift.

A hug after Passing on the Gift -- a Heifer tradition.

A hug after Passing on the Gift — a Heifer tradition.

To see communities which two decades ago erupted in genocidal atrocity now be focused on giving to the least blessed a huge asset like a cow is nothing short of inspirational.proud

I’m so happy I got to see it. I’m beyond grateful that my daughter did, too.serious girl

And just because I’m good at sharing, here are my blogs from the journey:

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/16/a-country-with-a-past-and-a-future/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/20/what-it-means-to-give/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/23/goats-an-anti-viral-agent/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/27/stop-making-me-cry/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/30/cows-r-us/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/09/03/a-woman-named-constance/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/09/07/wild-rwanda/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/09/11/lulus-view/

zebra

Categories: Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Holler back, Appalachia & The Delta.

hollerLast July I spent five rainy days in Appalachia, in the far west of North Carolina near Boone – and another two days in the Arkansas Delta in the town of Hughes, visiting new projects Heifer International is undertaking here in America. barn

This is pretty country.hydrangea

In the Delta, it’s awesomely fertile country (or at least it was before the advent of agribusiness with its soil-stripping, water-hogging monoculture of corn, cotton, rice and soybeans that requires only one person per 1,000 acres to farm). agribusinessBut this is also hardscrabble America … where poverty prevails, industry has fled, opportunity seems to have vanished, and hope is hard to find.shedIt’s important to see this America.

The only food store in Hughes burnt last year.

The only food store in Hughes burnt down last year.

It matters.Austin

Because 15% — or 46.2 million people– now live in poverty in America; and when I say poor, I mean a family of four earning less than $22,200 a year. And 36% of those poor people are children. The miracle of grapes

But to most of us, they’re invisible.waitressesWhen you’re in a place like Hughes or Ashe, N.C., (or just living with our heads in the sand), it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing that can be done. But Heifer’s crew of Jeffrey, Perry, Edward, Pastor Rob, Bubba, Duncan, Travis and a host of others have a different view.

Edward Rucker, Heifer's charismatic community organizer in Hughes.

Edward Rucker, Heifer’s charismatic community organizer in Hughes.

Biker/gardener Duncan and his wife

Biker/gardener Duncan and his wife tend a huge community garden in North Wilkesboro, NC

Carol Coulter, cheesemaker extraordinaire.

Carol Coulter, Appalachian cheesemaker extraordinaire.

Heifer’s plan is to work within these communities using sustainable agriculture to improve the health, nutrition and income of the people – organizing smallholder farmers (providing land when necessary) to grow fruits, honey, nuts, meats, and vegetables that can be sold in local markets. hopeBasically, it’s about turning these food deserts and manufacturing graveyards into oases of growth. pepperThat endeavor requires education, support, counsel, supply chains, marketing and attitudinal changes – but Heifer and hundreds of activists in the community believe it can be done– and who am I to argue with hope?Angela, Chad and Pastor Rob BrooksAs Perry Jones, Heifer’s USA country director says, “Once an opportunity is given and people have a chance for a dignified, self-reliant life, they lunge into it.” secret

Have hope. Read more from Appalachia & The Delta here:

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/18/a-hard-rains-gonna-fall/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/24/seeds-of-changesprouts-of-hope-2/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/07/27/down-on-the-farm-sure-looks-like-up-to-me/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/01/bikers-for-broccoli/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/06/a-short-rant-about-food/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/08/09/despair-hope-in-the-delta/

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Remembering Romania…

Bringing milk to collectionA short 13 months ago, I was in Romania — a fact that was brought powerfully back to me when I opened my July National Geographic and saw a story titled “Hay. Beautiful.” about the incredibly bio-diverse, grass-growing meadows of Transylvania.meadows

Ahhhh, I spent a lot of lovely, fragrant time in those meadows…meadow

…because that’s exactly where Heifer International works: alongside the poor, hard-working, rural Romanians…shepherd3

..who generally own less than 6 acres, live on about $5,000 a year, and raise cows and water buffalo that each eat four or more tons of hay every winter. (And yeah, that’s a lot of hay.)farmer hay

Romanian cows and buffalo (and sheep & goats) raised on that transcendent Transylvania hay produce some of the most delicious, rich, soft, creamy milk, yogurt and cheeses imaginable…Cottage cheese

…but since communism fell in 1989, Romanian farmers have lacked the volume, organization and distribution to sell their dairy products on any viable scale. Dorica & goat

Yet as other economies of Europe stagger to regain their footing, more Romanians are returning home from jobs abroad to work their own hay fields, raise cows, and produce milk. Milk me

Heifer is there to help make that endeavor economically profitable with EU-approved milk collection centers, new storage and cooling equipment, and distribution channels that will hopefully save the meadows…meadow

hay stack

what a meadowsave the cows…Calf 3860

…and save the farms.hay stacksAnd personally, I think that’s a mission well worth supporting.In her garden..

Romania is romantic, lush, gloriously fertile… landscape

…and filled with people whose traditions and agricultural knowledge stretch back to medieval times. wise woman

Sarica-big sheep coat for shepherds

Lucretia It’s a country totally worth seeing – and worth saving for the next generation!Bunaziwa girl from Belin

Categories: Agriculture, Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Cameroon, the Remix.

4 girls from Mordok, coming in from the fields.

5 girls from Mordok, coming in from the fields.

Cameroon was easily one of the most fascinating, diverse, disturbing and memorable countries I visited in 2012 with Heifer International…and that’s really saying something.red scarf

My visit started with a minor disaster – we missed our flight from the capital city of Yaoundé up north to Maroua, and there wasn’t another one for 3 days. But as so often happens (if only I had the equanimity to keep this in mind), that accident ended up fortuitously taking me on the road to Douala, where we were able to see 3 other projects that were totally unique to Cameroon: one with snails…

Tangue Jokelt Dieudonne, proud member of Heifer's  Melong GIC with his snails

Tangue Jokelt Dieudonne, proud member of Heifer’s Melong GIC with his snails.

one with pigs …

Cute pigs from the CIG Women's project in Douala

… and one project with cane rats, a rodent I fear with hysterical fervor.

(and don't say that he's more afraid of me than I am of him)

(and don’t try to say that he’s more afraid of me than I am of him)

The south of Cameroon, like Douala, is wet, fertile and steamy….

Banana country!

Banana country!

…unlike the sere, flat and unrelentingly dry L’Extreme Nord. Scorched earth, Maroua

In fact, Cameroon is known as “Africa in miniature” because it contains all the continent’s topography: coast, desert, mountains, rainforest and savanna.

The southerners tend to be short, chubby, affable and primarily Christian…President Emilienne Zikou and VP Denise Nannou, GIC Ndoungue

…while the northerners are tall, lean, reserved and often Muslim.muslim girl

And it is the North that I worry deeply about. Water has always been scarce here, but never more so than now, with climate change prolonging the dry season to almost 11 months a year.mother water

The women of Barza, where Heifer dug a  bore hole, still have to walk about 5 miles each way, every day to secure enough water for their households, and even though men now share the task (thanks to Heifer gender equity trainings!) it’s a grueling, maddening waste of time and energy.woman w water

The people of Cameroon, though, are lovely, particularly in the L’Extreme Nord. As I was watching them one day, I wrote this in my book:

“Poverty isn’t pretty. It’s messy, smelly, sweaty. Filthy water hangs in the gutters of the streets. Old, beat-up things are used to the point of extinction and well beyond.boy and toy

Children in tattered cast-off clothing run barefoot through the dust. holding on

But poor people in Africa are also often heart-wrenchingly beautiful. friends

They rise above the destitution of their surroundings, the women sailing like colorful jibs through the channels of a jumbled market… two beauties…splendid and serene.”

Yes, I loved Cameroon. In fact, I love the energy, faith, colors, strength and smiles of Africa as much as any place I’ve ever been. kids

Who wouldn’t?

~~~~~~~~~~

To read more about the inspiring Heifer projects I visited in Cameroon (including the rats), click below:

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/01/bienvenue-cameroon/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/06/poverty-slimed/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/08/hunger-no-games/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/11/dead-hen-walking/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/13/just-add-water/

http://heifer12x12.com/2012/06/15/one-womans-nightmare-is-another-mans-dinner/

Categories: Africa, Agriculture, Animals, Cameroon, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, Water, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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