Animals

The Improbable Campesino

a man on his farmShad Qudsi didn’t exactly set out on a career path to start an organic farm in rural Guatemala. He grew up in the farmlands of New Jersey (yeah, they do exist) and got a big scholarship to Johns Hopkins, majoring in math and business, the first person in his family to graduate from college. He spent a bit of time in the corporate world, working in emerging tech companies because his brain works in that wondrous way, but farming was in his heart. collen & shad

Luckily, he chose a good partner in his wife Colleen, who went along with his agricultural dreams, and after two years running a hotel in Belize, they bought a farm in October 2009 in the steep, rocky highlands above Tzununa, a miniscule town on the lovely banks of Lake Atitlan.

Beautiful Lake Atitlan

Beautiful Lake Atitlan

To say Shad’s Atitlan Organics farm is difficult to access is an understatement. The journey requires a boat ride, followed by a truck ride, followed by a long walk up – but once you get to Shad’s place, it’s a lush green, oasis-y marvel to behold.the farm

However, Shad’s first year of farming was hard – and the second was worse. Last year was his first profitable year, but clearly, Shad and Colleen measure success in a different way. My fab friend Bonnie O’Neill took us on a tour of the farm, and in one short hour, I was convinced I desperately need to start a compost pile, was seriously considering raising chickens, and wondered why the heck I’ve never bought chia and amaranth seeds to sprinkle on my oatmeal.

Chia... no pets.

Chia… no pets.

Shad is a huge fan of chia and amaranth, two traditional grains grown by the Incas and native to Guatemala. These seeds are trendy and popular in the States (meaning they command a price 25 times higher than corn) but they also represent a great possibility for enhanced nutrition for Guatemala’s perennially undernourished indigenous population. Kiddies

A one-ounce serving of chia seeds contains 9 grams of fat, 5 milligrams of sodium, 11 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein (and that’s not even counting how they stimulated sales of Chia Pets). Amaranth seeds contain 30% more protein than rice and are unusually rich in lysine, an essential amino acid missing in many other plants. Best of all, both chia and amaranth are easy to grow and easy to harvest, with flowers that produce millions of seeds for further cultivation.seedlings

It’s stuff like this that fascinates Shad – and he’s a walking fountain of agricultural knowledge, experimentation and irrepressible enthusiasm. He’s teaching Guatemalan farmers to throw down some chia seed when they mound up soil around their knee-high corn plants in August, so the fast-growing salvia will be ready to harvest with the corn in October. But this is just the tip of the trowel on Shad’s farm, because he’s a master of biodiversity, with at least 200 species of plants, animals, and fungi on his small acreage. In fact, his goal is to take a traditionally-sized plot of land (about one-sixth of an acre) and demonstrate to Guatemalan farmers how to make it both profitable and a source of good nutrition for their families – and to that end, he’ll try anything!

The tipico plot size in Guatemala.

The tipico plot size in Guatemala… one-sixth of an acre.

Shad waxes rhapsodic about esoteric scientific facts and chemistry – the soil as the placenta of chickensthe earth; how wind, water, and sun act on soil’s abiding intention to make more of itself; the beautifully complex interaction of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which is why he raises clean herbivore rabbits in the same house with dirty greens-eating chickens) – until my brain was swimming in farm facts. But the bottom line is this is a man with a passionate love for farming who believes that to plant a seed is a sacred deed and who is utterly devoted to working with local communities to share his knowledge. In addition to all the work he’s done on his own land, he’s also started 4 community gardens in neighboring Santa Cruz, with local women choosing a youth to organize and run their market (thus educating the next generation).

Papayas

Papayas– a money crop!

Of course, my unspoken question was – how does your wife feel about living way up here, with no electricity (but a rocking sauna) and a 5-mile round-trip walk to her daily work as a teacher?

So pretty --( but their previous "house" was an 8' x 8' shed)

Such a pretty house( but their previous abode was an 8′ x 8′ shed).

Colleen wasn’t there to answer, but I suspect she’s just as dazzled by Shad’s incandescent energy as we were….and by the simple truth of his philosophy:

A quick lesson in grafting avocado trees (Shad's grows 5 varieties).

A quick lesson in grafting avocado trees (Shad grows 5 varieties that ripen at different times).

Growing and selling good food can heal people and heal the earth.

Tree tomatoes

Tree tomatoes

Unlike any other form of “development,” there is no moral ambiguity to clean farming.

A pomegranate grows in Tzununa.

A pomegranate grows in Tzununa.

You plant a seed. You nurture your plants, trees, animals and soil. You feed other people good food.baby lamb

That’s what drives Shad Qudsi, International Farmer and owner of Atitlan Organics

sunflowerIt’s Farming for the Future (And p.s. that’s exactly what Heifer has been about for the past 69 years…)

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Environment, Farming, Guatemala, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

What I cooked in Malawi!

tastingMy hands-down favorite day in Malawi – and one I will never forget — is the day we visited Chimuti village in Mchinji District and the women dragged me into the “kitchen” to cook the national dish of nsima, a white, corn-powder concoction that looks like grits-on-steroids and tastes blandly divine.

Chimuti lies right near the border of Malawi and Zambia, and it’s a town so full of dazzling women and healthy cows, it’s like the poster child of what Heifer can accomplish.mom, baby & heifer

Before 2011, nobody in Chimuti raised dairy cows, but once they witnessed the prosperity brought about by cows in a neighboring town, they were all in.heifer

As we strode up to the house of Sophia Chimala, the women all began to clap and sing, and we saw her original heifer Shine, and the twins Shine had given birth to (after her first offspring was passed along to another needy family).sophia & heifer

Sophia is 45, beautiful, and spunky as all get-out. It was she who led me into the smoke-filled kitchen (that had me crying my eyes out after a minute or two) and told me to get to work with my two sous-chefs, Miss C & Miss P.

Miss C & Miss P - they're shy but powerful (in their Heifer wraps)

Miss C & Miss P – they’re shy but powerful (in their Heifer wraps)

And so I did get right down to work.

Me and Miss C, getting our cooking on...

Me and Miss C, getting our cooking on… (all photos of me taken by the fabulous Patti Ross)

Here’s what we made.

First, the beautiful vegetable dish:stirring vegs

Cut up leaves of the bean plant. Cook for ten minutes with some salted water in the pot. Add 3 cut-up tomatoes. Add ¾ of a dish of pounding nutsground peanuts (pounding them by hand and then sifting through basket weave requires a whole set of skills that I don’t possess – but my attempts sure amused everyone.) Cook the vegetables and nuts another minute and salt to taste. Don’t make Miss P. roll her eyes by requesting a hot pad to pick up the scalding pot cover … they never use them but somehow don’t get burned.

For Nsima:

Bring 3-4 cups of water almost to a boil. Sift in corn flour. Stir.

Me wimpily stirring...

Me wimpily stirring my nsima (with a lot of oversight)…

If lumpy, make a roux of water and flour in separate bowl and add back to the mix. Add about 5 cups of the corn flour. Stir very, very, very vigorously with a paddle – up and down, over and under, until you’re about ready to drop. Don’t mind if Miss C strongly urges you to stir a lot harder.

How it's really done by a pro...

A professional shows how it’s really done…

When it’s thickened, using a special spoon, dip in water then ladle out a mango-sized scoop of the mix, and plop it onto the plate, then dip the ladle in water again and use the back to carefully smooth the top into a big egg-like mound. Don’t forget to dip in water between every scoop or you will make Miss P very unhappy. Arrange the identical mounds of nsima carefully and make the plate look pretty.

making nsima

Wash all the dishes you will be using (and don’t forget to rinse thoroughly).  Clean pots with a bamboo branch and pretend you are not vastly entertaining every village child in sight.washing up

Serve the women and children outside, and serve the men inside. (And keep your mouth shut about that arrangement.) Be grateful that the children pretend that this is the best nsima they have ever eaten. my nsima!

Pretend you also fixed the fall-off-the-bone tender, mouth-watering chicken that Misses C & P made this morning.chicken

Stanch the river of tears still pouring out of your eyes from the kitchen fire smoke.tears

Eat one of the best meals of your life…lunch

…with some amazing, beautiful women (who were allowed to eat indoors), including the lovely Miss Sophia….  sophia1

…and Heifer’s project manager, aptly named Grace, who after lunch took us to visit some more beautiful cows and farmers in the village.

Heifer's Grace, walking through Mchinji village.

Heifer’s Grace Gopani Phiri, walking through Chimuti village.

See new tin roofs going up, cement floors being poured, healthy children, and the prosperity that these big Friesian heifers from Heifer have brought to Mchinji. mom & baby

Then visit Heifer’s BUA milk collection center that will allow 200 families from multiple villages to aggregate their milk and sell it commercially — a whole new income stream!collecting milk

Finally, thank God (and Heifer’s Victor Mhango, who master-minded my cooking initiation) for this amazing Mchinji day!! Farewell, beautiful Malawi …..girls2smiling boyheifer w girlsbaby heifersophia & hubbyFrangipani

Categories: Animals, Food, Heifer International, Hunger, Inspiration, Malawi, Photography, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

A good/bad day in Malawi.

cropped shedMost days on the road with Heifer are really good days. And some are just hard.

The last day we spent visiting projects in Malawi was a hard one – not because of what we did but because of what we saw. We were visiting the Khongoni project near Lilongwe that supports people with HIV/AIDS by providing them with training, trees, seeds, and milk-producing goats. I expected the towns close to the capital city to be more affluent, but in fact they were some of the poorest communities in this very poor country.hardwell & wife

Our first visit was with Hardwell Chidesmbo –a HIV-positive father of 16 (yeah, that’s right) whose first wife died of AIDS, leaving behind 8 children. With his second wife (also HIV-positive) he has had another 8. That boggled my mind but far worse, the children were dirty, frantic and hanger-thin. The entire household seemed teetering on the verge of neglect and one little lamb had a broken leg. One of Hardwell’s daughters was disabled and another had died, leaving behind an infant daughter who was also HIV positive. The situation seemed more than any mere livestock could improve.

How much can 2 goats do?

These two goats from Heifer will bring much-needed nutrition and income for Hardwell’s family.

And yet, Ginison Moliyere, the local Community Animal Health Worker that Heifer has trained to provide animal services, was not feeling discouraged. He told me that Hardwell’s family had only just received the goats so he felt there was plenty of time for them to progress and improve their situation. Ginison had come to splint the lamb’s leg after it tumbled out of its new shed and it’s now healing well.

Ginison Moliyere, Heifer's intrepid CAHW.

Ginison Moliyere, Heifer’s intrepid Community Animal Health Worker with his Heifer bike.

I can’t tell you how this young man’s dedication moved me.  Ginison spends 2 days each week on his Heifer bike, traveling the 15 km. radius of this project and helping people keep their goats robust and healthy. Ginison helps them do that with advice, encouragement, and hands-on training (and the government provides anti-retroviral drugs). And he does it all as a volunteer.

Records

Belvin Manda and Victor Mhango from the central Heifer office, going over records under Ginison’s goat’s watchful eye.

Ginison also gives vaccines, keeps impeccable records for 5 groups of about 250 recipients, and is raising two goats of his own (although one of his pregnant goats died the day before – a big setback). But at age 39, HIV-positive, with six children of his own and a new wife (his first wife died), Ginison doesn’t seem to sweat the small stuff; he is tremendously dignified and remarkably resolute. His household is neat as a pin, his children are all in school, and clearly he has a gifted way with animals.Gidion talks

Despite his volunteer status (farmers do pay him a small fee and eventually it should become a business), Ginison’s role could not be more important. Heifer’s project is a joint effort with the National Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) and will reach 1,000 HIV-affected families with meat or dairy goats to improve their income and nutrition (goat milk is easier to digest than regular milk and has been shown to increase white blood cells). If it weren’t for people like Ginison willing to offer day-to-day support to the project beneficiaries and extend the reach of Heifer staffers, there is no way this project could reach its goals.

Sweet but so, so poor ...

Although 1 in 7 Malawians have HIV/AIDS, the numbers are going down – hopefully fast enough to protect the next generation.

Some people like Hardwell, with his 16 ragtag children, seem almost beyond the reach of Heifer’s battery of trainings. (Although Heifer’s gender equity and family health trainings are certainly encouraging people to control their own reproductive future — and of course, educating girls has been proven to be the most effective route to decreasing family size, and Heifer is all about keeping kids in school.) While it would be naive to think that every Heifer story would be one of immediate success, it was still  difficult not to feel some despair at the prospects for Hardwell’s family.

But then Ginison took us to meet Rebecca Mzingwa… and she was nothing short of an antidote and an inspiration.Rebecca2

In August 2011, this HIV-positive widowed mother with 3 children and 1 mere acre of land received 2 goats from Heifer. In September, her goats gave birth to 2 more, she passed them on to another HIV family, and since then, her goats have kidded again (I love that phrase) and now she has 5 healthy thriving goats. She sells 3 liters of milk every day (saving ½ liter for herself and 8-year old Bernard) collects grass from the public wetlands every day to feed her goats, and raises maize and vegetables on her 1 acre, fertilized with goat manure.Rebecca Mzingwa

In 2-3 years, she wants to have 20 goats and I don’t doubt for a minute that she’ll do it.

“My children are orphans so I need to support them with these goats,” she says confidently, as Bernard snuggles up to her. “I am very healthy and very strong. I am fine.”Rebecca & goat2

She’s more than fine; she is a woman with a plan. And some very healthy goats.

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Mothers, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

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

On the banks of the Mekong River.

If you (unlike me) are a big lover of frog legs, this is gonna be your favorite post ever. In the event that you (unlike me) are an eel sushi aficianado, you’ll probably think I should be Freshly Pressed. But if you just like stories about people succeeding against all odds, you’re also in luck. Because this is the tale of people with virtually no land, living by the mighty Mekong, and making their way with a lot of clever ingenuity and a little help from their friends at Heifer.

Not much land to farm here.

Ms. Vo Thi Kim Hoang is 39 years old and lives in Phuoc Loc in the heart of Vietnam’s 15,000 square mile Mekong Delta. Her tidy little house lies on a canal and she is using every square inch of her small back yard and water frontage to maximum advantage.

Ms. Vo Thi Kim Hoang: Frog Whisperer & Eel Queen.

In the canal, she’s raising 2,000 frogs (and tadpoles) in cages she and her husband built.

That’s a whole posse of frogs!

Kim started her enterprise with a $100 revolving loan she got from Heifer (and has paid back). She spent $150 on commercial feed to promote her frogs’ growth, and just sold 1,000 frogs for $250 (that’s just half her crop; she’s fattening up the others for larger profit), and she intends to double her production this year.

Ribbit, ribbit.

That includes selling tadpoles at $50 for 1,000 tadpoles –about the output of one couple’s eggs. Kim is really good at mating her frogs (they have a special “love room”) and 5 days after mating, the eggs hatch and the tadpoles develop. In three weeks, they’ll become baby frogs and four months later, they’re ready for… you know what.

If you’re going to mate frogs, you better be able to tell the boys from the girls.

There’s an almost limitless appetite in Vietnam for frogs’ legs so Kim has no problem selling her frogs to a food aggregator for the supermarkets. The same goes for eels, a big delicacy in this fish-loving land. But eels are a bit more demanding to raise than frogs.

The whole back yard is devoted to eels (and one heifer).

First, she and her husband built four big plastic-lined tanks in their backyard (at @$20 each). They paid $300 for 120 kilos of eel fingerlings (about 3,000), but they don’t need to buy commercial food because Kim feeds her eels snails, which the eels love.

Yep, those are the ones!

Snail eggs… eecchhh!

Snails grow wild in all the rice fields, and they’re a huge pest for the farmers, ravishing the tender rice plants. So every dawn and dusk, Kim does her farmer friends a favor and goes out to the fields and collects about 45 pounds of snails, scoops out their flesh, chops it up and feeds it to her eels. In six months, her 3,000 eels will weigh between ¼  to ½ kilo each, that she can sell for $5/kilo directly to the supermarket, netting her about $3,000. Now that will be a big slimy day!

Kim’s healthy crop of eels.

I love how the river people in Vietnam use absolutely every inch of their property to prosper– and grab every opportunity with both hands. Not only has the $100/family Heifer revolving fund allowed people in the Self-Help Group to start new enterprises and invest in themselves, each participant also receives 52 Heifer trainings in how to feed, shelter and breed their animals (or fish or amphibians)– and local representatives are also sent to other villages to learn their best techniques and good ideas.

Future eel farmer of Vietnam….

When you consider how quickly someone who’s raised themselves from poverty can sink back into it – with a crop failure, crash in meat prices, epidemic or natural disaster (this is flood country)—the logic of diversification deftly practiced by these river people of Vietnam is irrefutable.

Despite my fear of eels (of course they dropped one right on my foot, causing me to do the girly scream and 6-foot vertical leap), even I can see the beauty here. For one thing, what’s not to like about an animal that starts out female, lays eggs, then becomes a male (and has to raise the children)??

An eel and a snake met in a bowl….

Reely cool, right?

Categories: Animals, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, Vietnam, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

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