Africa

2 goats for Janet.

Whenever I’m running off my mouth, thinking that my life is stressful, I hope I can remember Janet Dzonzi from Msendaluzi village in Malawi. And just stand in total gratitude for the life I’ve been blessed with.

Janet is 42 and a widow. She has 6 children; the oldest is 25, has finished secondary school and is living in Lilongwe (he doesn’t’ visit home much) and the youngest is 3 year-old Stella.

Janet’s 23-year old daughter lives next door and helps out a lot, but since her husband died, Janet has been struggling to farm her 3 acres of land and plant the soybeans, ground nuts and maize that will feed her family and provide a tiny income ($150 for the year).

Last October, Janet received 2 meat goats as part of Heifer’s Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources Project that will reach 1,600 families around Kasungu. One of those goats is pregnant and the other will be bred soon – she’ll pass along those baby kids, and then hopefully have more of her own.

Fred, his mom Janet, and Abigail with their goats & beautiful shed.

These goats mean a great deal to Janet and the future of her family, and they’ve sacrificed to get the animals. The materials to build the goats’ shed cost $17 and Janet had to save up to buy every 5-cent nail. (“That was a hardship,” she says ruefully – and I’m thinking, I will never use that word again.) But when I asked her if it was difficult to raise and breed her goats, she said no, it was actually a “light job.” She’s learned a lot from the Heifer trainings and she’s determined to succeed.

Janet is painfully thin, but she says the family has enough to eat for now. (But I’m worried because runaway inflation in Malawi has caused the price of food to double in the past few months.) The family eats beans twice a month, meat once a month, and their other meals consist of nsima (the national farina-like dish made of corn flour), porridge, paw-paws and mangos. Plus tea.

Janet can’t wait to show me the new energy stove she made with Heifer’s guidance –it cooks twice as fast and uses half the firewood, so now instead of collecting firewood for hours on end, she says the stove has made her a “free woman.”

Janet’s so proud of her energy stove, you can see it!

Janet dreams of having a flock of 20 goats, and with the compounding beauty of reproduction, in a few years that is totally possible. Each goat will sell for about $36, so these animals are money in the bank –as well as food — for this family.

“If I had 10 goats, I’d remove the straw thatch from my house and get a tin roof and put in a cement floor,” Janet says longingly. “And I’d have no problem paying my children’s school fees of $45/year.”

What she’s saving for …

Such modest goals, really. A roof that won’t leak. Money to educate her children. And enough food to keep from being hungry. All possible through the gift of two goats.

Not to put too fine a point on it (okay, I’m going to make the point with no subtlety whatsoever), but at this time of year when buying gifts is what consumes us, here’s a way to turn consumption into a beautiful circle of giving. Give the Heifer gift of a goat, sheep, or yes, a heifer to someone you love and you’ve not only avoided the mall, you’ve honored that person in a really beautiful way.

One big-hearted boy…

I just bought a flock of Heifer chicks for my grandnephew Kieren who at the tender age of 9 has a real heart for the less fortunate. That purchase  made me feel so good, I can’t tell you.

Because I remember Janet. And I remember how as we were leaving, she pulled me in to look at the new baby that had just been born to the young woman next door. Everyone was so excited to welcome this child into the world! He was an utterly perfect little fellow, but it was hard not to wonder if he too would grow up in such difficulty and want.

…helping one brand new boy.

I’m putting my money on a better outcome. Join me???

Categories: Africa, Animals, Children, Heifer International, Hunger, Malawi, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Muli Bwanji, Malawi!

Dancing at a pre-wedding roadside celebration (ladies only!)

Before I got to Malawi, a flurry of well-traveled friends informed me that it was sure to be my favorite country ever. Being a bit of a contrarian (to be honest, a total hard-head), I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be … couldn’t possibly be after all the intense love affairs with other countries that I’ve had this year. But once I arrived in this desperately poor, achingly sweet country, I can clearly see why it’s called The Warm Heart of Africa.

At 45,000 square miles, Malawi is home to a densely-packed 14 million people, 85% of them smallholder farmers. Bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, Malawi is one of the least developed countries in Africa, with no wealth of natural resources (although promising oil and mineral exploration could change that in a hurry), and only 6% of its people have access to electricity.

Malawi’s biggest crop is tobacco, which it exports primarily to China– but with climate change inexorably increasing droughts, a long history of government corruption, and almost a 50% currency devaluation this year, it’s fair to say the Malawi economy is in shambles. And of course, the poor always suffer disproportionately in bad times: 46% of Malawi’s children suffer from stunted growth and the average consumption of meat is about 10 pounds/person a year.

New president Joyce Banda is giving people hope of a better future, but she has a long, tough road before her. Granted, we were there in the end of the dry season when everything looks particularly parched, but life seemed very hard.

Despite all those challenges, we met a lot of highly joyful people –which is the conundrum I always feel in Africa. You want development to lift the people out of poverty and hunger, but you also know that with industrialization and urbanization come a lot of side effects that aren’t so beneficial. (Which is one reason I love the Heifer model so much, with its emphasis on improving smallholder farmer productivity, environmental integrity, and community solidarity.) 

Malawi got its great reputation because of its people, I’m quite sure. They are quiet, peaceful and polite (“If somebody is arguing and causing a ruckus, they are probably from Zimbabwe,” a proud Malawian confided to me.)

Malawians have a gift for music and dance and like most people in developing countries, they somehow manage to smile and be cheerful despite the quite crushing amount of work they do every day.

In the north (where we didn’t visit) the people are obsessed with education and the literacy rate is almost 95%, but the southern part of the country (where Heifer works) has a more laissez-faire approach and it’s not infrequent for girls to be pulled out of school and married in their teens – which drove me and my friend Pattie Ross totally nuts. (Pattie is Vice President of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation and my outrageously fun travel companion on this trip).

Pattie & some new friends.

Heifer is relatively new to Malawi – with 5 projects in 3 districts since its introduction here in 2008—but it’s already established good working partnerships with organizations like CARE, the Norwegian government, and local community groups that are working together to help empower Malawians to feed and educate themselves, conserve their land, and develop their great potential. Once you’ve fallen head over heels in love with the beautiful people of Malawi (and it’s impossible not to), you know that can’t happen soon enough.

Categories: Africa, Farming, Heifer International, Hunger, Malawi, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Wild Rwanda!

 

On most of my Heifer trips, I’m pretty much all work and no play, which I suppose makes Betty a dull girl…except somehow it never, ever feels dull to me.

This trip to Rwanda was Lulu’s 21st birthday present trip, though, so after 5 solid days of project tours, home visits with Heifer beneficiaries, Passing on the Gift ceremonies, and five-hours-a-day bouncing around in trucks, I felt like she’d earned a little R&R.

So we headed to Akagera National Park in Eastern Rwanda, one of the least populated (at least by humans) places in this densely populated country.

We stayed in the odd but beautifully situated Akagera Game Lodge (“It looks like a horror movie should be filmed here,” Lulu sagely noted of the half-reconstructed hotel with a wing full of forlorn, windowless rooms but a glorious pool with stunning views of Lake Ihema.)And of course, the animals we saw were amazing – we drove right up to hippos, giraffes, baboons, antelope, zebra, and countless exotic birds — and pretty much had the park to ourselves.

The only thing we didn’t see was Akagera’s herd of 100+ elephants. But it was somehow comforting to think that amount of body mass could disappear into the wild… especially in Rwanda, where there is so little wild left.

After all the beautiful Heifer animals we’d seen, you might have thought we’d be over the awe.Not even close.

The bigger, the wilder, the better! We love Africa!

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Cows R Us

Rwandans love cows. They have songs about cows, they have dances, their whole culture is based on the love of the cow.

The beautiful umushagiriro (cow dance) — I guess those are their horns.

And Rwandans are infinitely patient and gentle with their cows — even when they are being kind of .. pushy.

This Heifer heifer walked right into the ceremony, butted the speaker, went for the drinks & nobody batted an eye.

Kirehe, Eastern Province

So it makes sense that the Rwandan government would partner with Heifer, an organization named after its favorite animal, to help 6,382 families in the poor rural district of Kirehe earn a living, improve their land, and feed themselves. It’s part of the government’s national initiative called A Cow for Every Poor Family — that remarkably (well, not really) is based on Heifer‘s beautiful training/giving/passing on model.

Why a cow? I asked Kirehe veterinarian Dr. Jean de Dieu Niyitanga that question and he had this succinct answer, “Cows mean milk and money.” Then he waxed poetic and scientific about what cows need to thrive. For someone like me who thinks a cat requires far too much attention, raising a cow sounds like an inconceivable amount of work. So I asked him to elaborate.

“First you have to love your cow, because if you love your animal, you’ll treat it well, feed it well, and keep it clean and healthy.” Okay, but what does that exactly mean?

The cows Heifer gives to poor farmers in Rwanda are pure breeds, either Jersey cows (brown) or Friesians (black & white). They produce a lot of milk (up to 30 liters a day) but they also demand a lot of food– about 1/10th of their weight in food a day in grass, cereals and legumes that the farmers must grow and harvest. Cows also need a salt lick to provide calcium, potassium and sodium to replace the minerals lost when they are producing milk.

Like any nursing mother, heifers drink a lot: 50-80 liters of water a day, depending on their weight, and that also has to be carried on somebody’s head back to the home.

Cows are big, gentle animals but they require shelter from the elements. So before getting a cow, every participant has to build a shed with 6 bags of cement (@$16/bag) provided by Heifer for a concrete floor to keep the cow’s feet out of dung, wet mud, and to facilitate manure-collection. They’re also given aluminum sheets for roofing – and required to pass on the same cement & aluminum when they pass on the gift of the cow to another poor farmer.

Veneranda Mukagakwandi & her cow & her cow sheds.

Alfred’s son digging the fields.

Then there’s the issue of keeping the cow clean: the shed needs to be shoveled out at least once a day, and the animal washed with soap and water twice a week (more water to carry). Cows must also be sprayed to protect against flies and ticks that can give them theileriosis, a tickborne disease that can kill them if left untreated. And the heifers are always watched closely for mastitis – or they can permanently lose use of a teat.

My brain was whirling with the possibilities for bovine disaster, but to Rwandans a cow simply means milk, money and manure. One cow will produce 3 tons of manure a year – and that is hugely important to the farmers planting their crops in the over-cultivated, poorly producing soil in Kirehe. Farmers report a 75-100% increase in ag productivity with the addition of cow dung– and that’s no small potatoes.

So, how has a cow specifically changed the life of somebody like Alfred Nsengimana? After Alfred had a home visit and was designated as able to raise a cow, (if you don’t have enough land or strength to take care of a cow, you’ll first be given goats or pigs), he built his shed and received the 182 hours of training that Heifer gives all participants – to make sure they know how to breed, lead, raise and take care of the animal.

After those six months of training, Alfred received a pregnant Friesian heifer, it gave birth to a female that he’s passed on to a neighbor, and now Alfred is earning $50/month from the cow’s milk – in a country where 60% of the population earns under $1/day. With that milk money (I love this entrepreneurial spirit so much!) he bought more goats and rabbits that are easier to raise and quicker to sell than cows, if the family needs money for school fees or health emergencies.

Then, Alfred dug a cistern in his back yard and he is also harvesting rainwater from the roof –so his family can make fewer trips to the town well to carry water back on their heads.

Water harvesting with a plastic-lined tank — how clever!

With milk to drink, meat to eat, and money in the bank, Alfred & his wife put a new cement floor & walls in their house—a real luxury. He would like to keep at least two cows, because then he’ll have enough manure to qualify for a bio-gas unit (half paid for by the government) that will mean they don’t have to collect and burn firewood and can cook in half the time.

Biogas – a giant leap for woman-kind: no collecting wood/cooks in half the time!

Alfred’s neighbor Jean de Dieu Habayarimana is 24 years old and an orphan responsible for raising his two younger brothers. He doesn’t have land to grow forage for a cow, so he received the gift of 2 pigs from Heifer last December and proved himself so good at raising them, he was given the stud pig for the community – which means that he’ll get 1 piglet from every brood his pig sires.

If you’ve got no land for a cow, take the pig!

This Kirehe Project is a massive undertaking, requiring a daunting amount of work from Heifer (home-visiting every prospective family and giving 182 hours of training to each beneficiary), the government, and all the local organizations across five pilot zones in 12 sectors of the Eastern Province. But 1,000 heifers have been already given in 2011 (and 360 passed along), with 1,145 more to be given this year (plus 2,000 South African Boer goats and 562 purebred pigs). That means that families like Alfred’s will be given the chance to take this opportunity and leverage it to feed their families, earn a living, double their agricultural productivity, and climb out of poverty.

The real beneficiaries of Kirehe’s big project.

Makes me feel like hollering Oyee! Amata Iwau Kuruhimbi, which means something like Let us always have milk in our homes!

Yes indeedy.

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

“Stop making me cry.”

One of my best friends just wrote me that imploring comment about my recent posts on Rwanda. So I figured it was time to break out the upbeat posts for a while, and let you know you can (temporarily)  retire your hankies and wallow in my Pollyanna side.

Actually, there’s a lot to love and celebrate about Rwanda. First and foremost, the people. Almost everywhere you go, little children tear out of their homes, race to your car with arms furiously waving hello, and try out their best English: “Good morning, Muzungu!” (Muzungu means “white person” and as a pasty suburban American, I can tell you it’s pretty intoxicating to finally be considered exotic).

Traveling with my 21-year old daughter Lulu was a total bonus – not only because I got to enjoy her company (and she actually seemed to want to be with me), but because seeing the country through her eyes gave me a totally different perspective. For instance, she was really struck both by how hard the people work (Africans as a whole are industrious beyond belief…

…and how deeply inter-connected the people seem to be (which makes the 1994 genocide even more difficult to understand).

In Rwanda, nobody walks alone. When people are at the water pump filling their 20-liter containers with water for the long walk home, they are laughing, talking and visiting.

When men are hauling 50 kilos of bananas on their bikes, they’ve usually got a friend or two along helping. Rwandans live so closely together (there’s tremendous density of population) and they have such big families (the average number of kids per family is six), there are always packs of kids playing and working together, older sisters tote younger kids on their backs, and families are rarely apart. Lulu loved that! (although it’s also her worst nightmare)Divorce is practically unheard of, everybody walks everywhere, and people spend the vast majority of their time outside in the year-round temperate climate. In rural areas, there are precious few cell phones or electronics and the countryside is spic-and-span. Plastic bags are banned, roadside trash in nonexistent (thanks to a mandatory country-wide cleanup the first Saturday of each month) and women vigorously sweep their dirt front yards every morning and evening.I have to say that I believe President Kagame has done a remarkable job of leading the country, preventing another war, bringing home the educated diaspora to lead the recovery after the genocide, purging the government of corruption, and trying to help the poor find a way out of poverty with a livestock program (modeled after Heifer’s!!) called “A Cow for Every Poor Family.”

Rwandans working their plots in a rice field project created by the government.

I know there is a lot of controversy over Kagame’s authoritarian control, and I’m no expert on African politics, but from what I saw there were a lot of progressive things happening. And less political rancor and toxic discourse than… ummm, here.

Hope was in the air and people seemed really grateful for the things they had….like each other.

Veneranda Mukagakwandi with 4 of her 8 children (plus some cousins).

So there’s my post– and not a tear-jerking moment in sight!

Woman performing the umushagiriro, or cow dance.

Stay tuned for the next post about shiny, happy heifers (not pictured below).

(Sorry, Lulu, I know I promised not to do this…)

Categories: Africa, Children, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 22 Comments

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