Posts Tagged With: Water buffalo

A song of reconciliation.

It’s difficult for an outsider to fathom the profound repercussions of the genocide in Cambodia, or how pervasively it has affected that country.

Even Keo Keang, Heifer Cambodia’s adorable country director, was not spared; her father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1977, and her 15-year old sister taken from their house and killed in 1978 – for the crime of being educated.

Heifer Cambodia’s Country Director, Keo Keang, in now happier days.

After those murders, KK was separated from her mother at the age of 8 and placed in a children’s camp, working 20 hours a day digging irrigation canals, with the clothes on her back and not a blanket or piece of soap to her name. That lasted 2 years. As she told me about the grief and deprivation of that time, her sweet face contorted into a mask of agony … in this land that is 90% Buddhist, she saw people slaughtered in the pagoda temples and monks being shot. KK’s personal stories are not unique; almost everyone in Cambodia over the age of 30 shares those same terrible memories of beloved family murdered, unbearable violence, and unrelenting terror.

Some scars you can see, like this one from a landmine; other scars are hidden.

But beyond the fear is the way of life Cambodian people learned over years of oppression: to trust no one and talk to no one, to care only about yourself, and to put your head down and simply endure. Which is why Heifer’s projects in Cambodia can be so transformative; one of the cornerstones of all Heifer programs is Sharing & Caring for others, something people in Cambodia have to relearn in the face of so much betrayal.

Chin Chhil & Seng Som.

We traveled to Pursat Province – over a river that was choked with bodies during the genocide- to meet two former soldiers who’d lost limbs in the conflict (which lasted here in the nearby mountains until the bitter end in 1998). Chin Chhil, a former government soldier and devoted father of 11, lost his leg above the knee in 1987 and can’t wear a prosthesis, greatly impairing his ability to provide for himself and his family.  Seng Som, former Khmer Rouge, is father of 5 and lost his leg below the knee. In 2010, Chhil received a water buffalo from Som in a passing on the gift ceremony (an asset worth about $1000) and now the two are close as brothers.

Both men went to war in their teens. Chhil’s father and two brothers had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge and he wanted revenge, so at 18, he joined the government forces. Som joined the Khmer Rouge in 1979 at the age of 17 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, fearing his family would be slaughtered by the government in retaliation. Som fled to the mountainous borders with the Khmer Rouge, dug in, and fought for 19 long years before amnesty was finally declared in this area. When Som returned home, he learned that all six of his brothers and sisters had been killed –whether at the hands of the government or the Khmer Rouge, he never knew.

Both men are farmers and fathers now – and eager to leave the past behind. Heifer’s project, in conjunction with a local Disability Development Service Program, is helping them do just that. Working in Pteah Rong, one of the poorest communities in Pursat, the program includes almost all 200 families in the village, and already over 100 water buffalo and cattle have been given to farmers organized in Self Help Groups, and passed on to other disabled members.

49 year-old Kuhl Samon, mother of 11 (!!) and her husband Chhil.

With 11 children to feed (only 7 still live at home), Chhil and his wife Samon work the fields with the help of their sons and their Heifer water buffalo (Chhil is not strong enough to farm alone). They raise rice and peanuts, have a flock of 100 chickens, and use income from their animals to send their beautiful children to school.

The next generations – free of war! (Chhil’s youngest daughter and grandson)

Som’s children are mostly grown but he farms and raises animals, still plays volleyball, and as Chhil was quick to tell me, is “very strong” and came in third in the town races.

If the only way to deal with a traumatic past is to create a hopeful future, these two men who may well have looked across a battlefield at each other now have a different vision. They break bread with each other, their children play together, and they work side by side to care for the animals that sustain them.

A beautiful lunch we shared.

“The advantage of working together is that we can forget the past,” Som says. “If you have a problem, I will help you. If you have a need, I will share with you. We’ve learned a new way to live.”

Categories: Agriculture, Cambodia, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

A big, hairy tale of survival.

The original WB.

Water buffalo aren’t the only species struggling to make a comeback in the beautiful rolling hills of Aschileu, Transylvania. The 1,841 poor farmers who live in these five verdant villages and were shoved off their lands under Communist rule are also fighting to regain a foothold in the local economy. Now thanks to Heifer’s first water buffalo project in Romania, the two may well help each other over the hump.

At 78, Anna remembers feeding the Germans, then the Russians, then the Communists, then losing her land and all her animals. But now she’s got a new water buffalo to call her own…

Water buffalo have been raised in this area since they were first introduced by the Turks during the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. Called the “poor man’s cow,” a water buffalo thrives on even poor fodder, rarely gets sick, makes a terrific draft animal, and will produce 5-10 liters/day of very rich, healthy milk that can be made into delicious cheese, sour cream and yogurt. (And Romanians are nuts about dairy.)

However, after the fall of Communism in 1989, farmers were encouraged to raise cows and the numbers of water buffalo dropped perilously by 80%, threatening the breed’s survival. To promote biodiversity, income generation and better nutrition; offer an alternative to strict EU standards that limit the sale of cow’s milk; and encourage peace & understanding between neighbors in the Hungarian Mera village and Romanian Aschileu village, Heifer started the Revitalization of Water Buffalo project last year, giving 36 water buffalo and trainings to needy Romanian families (who will Pass on the Gift to another 36 Hungarian families in Mera).

About half of Ion & Felicia’s children/grandchildren.

One of the first recipients of a water buffalo was Ion, Felicia and their nine children. Ion is one of 10 orphans whose mother died and were then abandoned by their father and left to raise each other in the village. Today, those 10 brothers are mostly illiterate and work as laboring farmers and shepherds, but each has managed to build a home, establish loving families, and amass a brood of livestock. Their self-sufficiency and dignity were palpable, despite how thin and wan Felicia looked ( and raising 9 children and 3 grandchildren, who wouldn’t be?)

Ion & Felicia

As we climbed into the hills in a horse-drawn cart to visit the goats, cows and water buffalo herds that Ion tends on communal pastures, the views became more and more stunning and I felt more and more like I was in some modern version of The Sound of Music.

Lordana, Ion’s daughter, kept turning around to grin at me, her fingers tucked into her father’s thickly-tooled shepherd’s belt as we lurched across stream beds, and I kept thinking “What a hard life. What a beautiful life.”

With village milk collection centers and cooling tanks in place, and an ever-increasing demand for high-butterfat, high-protein, low- cholesterol buffalo milk, hopefully life here will become a lot less hard and a lot more healthy.

The lovely Miss Lordana.

And the hills will be alive with the (very loud) sound of water buffalo… once more.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

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