Posts Tagged With: Gender equality

Hunger (No games.)

The first thing you notice when you travel from southern Cameroon to the Far North is that suddenly, everyone seems a little bit taller and a whole lot thinner. The people of the Far North remind me of the Masai – long, impossibly lean, and elegant beyond description, with cheekbones that could cut glass.

A dried-up riverbed on the edge of Maroua (at night it’s awash in soccer games).

The second thing you notice is color – the total lack of it in this parched dun landscape aching for water at the end of the dry season, and the raucous surfeit of it in the robes, scarves and head coverings of the women. Even in the withering heat, they look amazing.

But the day I visited Mordok village outside Maroua, instead of blazing sun, we had cool, rainy weather. We were traveling with Heifer‘s aptly titled Animator, Robert Ndouwountang, a local organizer who speaks both French and the tribal language of Guiziga, and he is a force of nature all by himself. Robert has been responsible for training, implementing, overseeing and motivating Heifer’s project in Mordok since 2007, as part of Heifer‘s large umbrella  project that will benefit 1,270 farm families of 10,160 people here in Cameroon’s Far North.

The Mordok group -actually 2 groups – is 100% women and the project’s goal is food security for the village. In this region with 38% malnutrition in children, and about 9 children per household (2-3 of them usually adopted from other families or relatives), that’s no small undertaking.

The reddish tint to this sweet girl’s hair is a sign of malnutrition. And she was tiny.

Yet with the gift of sheep and a few simple tools & trainings, life here has become markedly better.

Take the energy stove. Each woman built one using local clay in about 30 minutes (with the animator’s guidance), and now the firewood laboriously collected in the bush & hauled home lasts five days, instead of 1 ½.  To prove that to her daughter, one woman did a side-by-side test and found the energy stove used 70% less firewood and cooks faster. (Plus, the women can cook outside during the 9-month dry season, shielding the whole family from dangerous indoor smoke.)

In the project, Mordok women were also given 18 handcarts, which makes carrying 20 liter bottles of water from the borehole a lot faster and easier (and gives girls time to go to school).

The sheep the women received from Heifer have not just added protein and income to families’ lives, their manure is collected to produce compost that has doubled the production of their fields. And by using retaining walls and terracing, as Robert has encouraged them to do, farmers are protecting the region’s soil from erosion and degradation and conserving precious water.

Women’s groups in several villages have even banded together to build water-tight storage facilities for their grains and onions, so they will last through the wet season, instead of counting on traditional handmade straw structures to keep out the rain and moisture. The impact of that improvement? An 80 kilo bag of onions that sells for 5000 francs ($10) at harvest time will bring in 120,000 ($240) at the end of the wet season. And these joint efforts are a direct result of the leadership and organizational trainings the women are putting into action.

And yet, life is still very difficult here. The children are too skinny, and some of the women looked so fragile. When I asked what the family eats in a typical day, the women say they have pap, or bui, (cooked grains) for breakfast. For lunch, it’s sauce and cous-cous, the ubiquitous fu-fu of cassava, yams or plantains, boiled and pounded into dough. And more cous-cous and sauce for dinner. Once a month, the family will have meat. And once a week, fruit.

That’s not a lot to go on, or grow on.

Yet somehow the women’s group here, organized since 1998, has found a way to give to others — passing on the gift of knowledge and animals to another women’s group – and they are happy that the gender trainings have encouraged their husbands to help out more around the household (women do 90% of the farming and 70% of the livestock care).

Even Village Chief Ezekiel shares some of the farm & home work with his wife Sali Damdam.

I loved this village of Mordok and its beautiful people, and I can’t stop worrying about how they’re doing.

No mother should ever have to see her children go hungry.

Categories: Africa, Cameroon, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

Vamos, chicas!!

In my first trips for Heifer International to Uganda and Guatemala, I’ve learned two important things.  The first is how to say, gratefully and gracefully, “Thanks so much but I don’t eat goat/sheep/bunny…” realizing that your hosts have sacrificed to serve you their very best food and you’re probably a jerk for not eating it.

Sheep soup (I ate everything but the sheep)!

The second thing I’ve come to realize is that, as a global community, we really need to keep girls in school.

In the typical indigenous villages we visited in the Western Highlands of Guatemala served by Heifer International and its partner Community Cloud Forest Conservation, the average age when girls marry is about 16. When girls get married so young, they stop going to school. They have more children and are less likely and able to send those kids to school. And their chances of lifting themselves and their families out of poverty sharply diminish.

Clearly, keeping girls in school is one of the first steps to ending poverty. But how do you change a system that’s culturally entrenched and socially unchallenged? Well, you can start by following the example of Heifer & its partner CCFC and develop a system that virtually pays girls to stay in school. By identifying and supporting girl leaders who show a passion for learning and a willingness to challenge the status quo (and bringing their parents into the room, so they can witness the benefits of educating girls and become community advocates), you can really start to shake things up.Elvira and Patricia are two shining examples of what can happen when you empower girls –even in a tiny Guatemalan village off the grid. Twelve young women made up the original Community Cloud Forest Conservation group (there are now 75 girls in the group.. and boys, too!) They spend 5 weeks after the school year ends, learning about environmental protection, life skills, fruit tree grafting, bird watching, and deforestation. In return, they are given a scholarship that helps them pay for their next year of school – with the understanding that they will teach others what they have learned and do community service projects.

Quite frankly, I can’t think of two girls more worthy of investment. Elvira worked for seven years raising chickens to earn money to pay her own school fees, then went back to the 7th grade at the age of 19. Now 24,  she wants to become a teacher to lead other girls.  “As young women here, we need to learn what our parents didn’t know,” she says. “So our whole community can come back to life and our lives will be better tomorrow and the next day.”

Patricia, who is 17, has become an outspoken advocate for preserving the cloud forest. “When you are aware that our water comes from the forest—that the trees grab the clouds and give us rain – you know that we have to work together now to save it before it’s gone.”

As Elvira was talking, I was watching her father in the group – the man who had forced her to drop out of school. I was half-thinking that maybe there would be some bitterness between Elvira and her dad, but I was wrong. When Elvira stopped talking, he slowly got to his feet and said, “It’s a great blessing from God that you helped my daughter to study, and I thank Heifer for that. But we have to stand up as a community and help all the girls. Young men can go and leave the village, but the girls have to stay here. They’re our future.”

A few hours later, I was driving back from the village with Heifer’s Byron and Vivian (in Spanish it’s pronounced “Bibian” – and how adorable is that??)  when we saw four girls practicing their soccer kicks in a park in Sacapula in the late afternoon. They were seriously whaling that ball, cheering each other on, and were tremendously excited to be photographed doing it.I loved seeing that. I loved cheering with Bibian as she taught me to holler, “Vamos, chicas!” I loved everything I saw that day at Alta Verapaz.

Categories: Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

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