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).
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.
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.
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.
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.