Hunger

Haunting Cambodia.

Cambodia is not easy to understand, and even harder to forget.

For starters, it’s the scene of one of the most horrendous genocides in the last century when, from 1975-1979, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government slaughtered 25% of its people in a bewildering effort to wipe out all educated, urban and professional men, women and children. That carnage (and the 2.75 million tons of ordnance the U.S. rained down upon the country from 1970-73) left the remaining population with a profound fear that the murderous Khmer Rouge government would reappear and has afflicted approximately half the population with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In fact, from 1979, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot, until 1994, the country was not truly free of the threat of the Khmer Rouge.  And since then, the country has been ruled by a political party known as the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) — to whom the international community has donated $18 billion in international aid. Unfortunately,   precious little of that money can be seen in this tragic country’s infrastructure, education system, or economy.

A full 30% of Cambodia’s population lives in poverty, 66% suffer from seasonal food shortages every year, and 40% of children under five are underweight.

67% of the population (or more) is illiterate and bribery, and corruption begin at Grade 1, with many students forced to pay their teachers for their lessons and grades.

Almost 80% of people in rural areas live in primitive thatched houses, many without running water or electricity.

Given the country’s history of unleashed violence under the Khmer Rouge, it is also not surprising that domestic violence is rife, afflicting almost one-third of Cambodian women.

You would think all of this would make Cambodia totally depressing, but somehow, it’s not. It’s enchanting. The people are beautiful, and show touching appreciation for any help they are given—while maintaining achingly low expectations of a government that has not exactly served them well.

I can’t say the countryside is unspoiled, because it’s been devastated by deforestation and neglect … but when you drive down the road and see riotously green fields of rice interrupted by languid pools of lotus blossoms, and watch sweet brown children thrashing about happily in the water that is everywhere in the rainy season, it is a notoriously easy place to lose your heart.

Since 1998, Heifer International has been working in some of the least served areas in Cambodia, developing Self-Help Groups (largely led by women) that are helping 12, 244 poor, marginalized families make the steep climb out of poverty. I can’t wait to tell you some of their stories!

Stay tuned!

Categories: Cambodia, Children, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

Despair & hope in the Delta.

Traveling from Appalachia to the Arkansas Delta was a shock to me. I thought I was prepared to see poverty – heck, I’ve been seeing poverty this whole year of travel with Heifer – but there was something about the sheer desolation of the town of Hughes, Arkansas that just about broke my heart.

The Delta stretches across the far eastern part of Arkansas, in the vastly fertile bottom lands of the Mississippi River where giant agribusiness farms of 10,000 acres prevail. Yet in an ocean of agricultural fecundity, Hughes is a food desert – its only grocery store burned to the ground.

Delta folk are predominantly African-American; brought to the region as slaves, they worked as sharecroppers for decades after the Civil War, then as agricultural day laborers until farm mechanization reduced the need for human labor. Now unemployment in the Delta stands at about 40%, prostitution and drug use are rampant, food insecurity of children is about 25%, and even the Blue Devils Hughes football team is a fading memory on a rusting water tower.

Main Street, Hughes

But as Perry Jones, Director of Heifer USA reminded me, “This is the before photo. We’re just getting started here, and things are going to change.”

Sweet girls of Hughes saying, “Take my picture! Take my picture!”

Heifer’s Seeds of Change program will focus five years working in 9 counties in the Arkansas Delta to create community food enterprises (and jobs) growing healthy, local, organic food and linking small-scale farmers to larger and diverse markets in nearby Little Rock and Memphis, where local food is sought-after and valued.

That sounds good on paper, but it’s the people making it work who turned my feelings of despair into something approaching optimism. Perry himself is a fire hose of positivity. Having spent 14 years working for Heifer in Bolivia, Jones still believes he has the “best job in the world” and that “if you give people the chance for a dignified, self-reliant life, they’ll lunge into that opportunity.”

Gardener William Eldridge

And indeed, we saw some of that lunging. William Eldridge, a local gardener, introduced himself to us on the street while I was taking photos and was eager to drag us over to see his garden.

Edward Rucker, Heifer Production Manager in Hughes.

Edward Rucker, Heifer’s Production Manager, grew up in the area and is recruiting local growers like William, assisting them with farm trainings and marketing, and searching for a place to establish a Farmer’s Market to sell local produce. The East Arkansas Enterprise Community, established in 1995, is partnering with Heifer to offer technical and financial assistance to these local growers and to help dispel negative notions that keep people from farming. Notions like working the land is tantamount to slavery, or that giving up government assistance to work is too big a risk (any income can cause essential benefits to be taken away). These are real issues and can only be resolved with proof that success is possible.

Local sweet potatoes, a high value crop in the Delta.

And that’s what Perry and his team are out to do: create a model of economic, social and environmental health in a place where it has never existed. Like in the new Hughes Community Garden, overseen by Reverend W.E. DuBois — 90 years old and “retired” from teaching agriculture in the nearby community college.

Reverend W. E. DuBois and his garden

It’s been said that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, and I’m praying that’s true. It’s high time for a Delta dawn.

Categories: Agriculture, Appalachia, Farming, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

One woman’s nightmare is another man’s dinner.

For your sake and mine, this is going to be a really short post about a really big thing. And that thing is a Cane Rat.

I’m not afraid of much, but I am jump-on-the-table terrified of mice and their unspeakable older cousin, the R-word. Nevertheless, when I heard that Heifer had a project in Ndobo village, outside Douala, empowering poor communities there to raise, breed and eat Cane Rats—a delicacy greatly savored by Cameroonians– I knew I had to go, no matter what the psychic damage.

Not photo-shopped, I was really there!

And go I did. I met with the sweet folks making up the project group GIC Debrouillards (“Overcoming Group”) in the middle of a very poor, boisterous neighborhood. The members have a communal farm 3 km. from town where they grow cassava, corn and vegetables, but their real strength is the 64 rats they received from Heifer, which have now multiplied to (god forbid) hundreds of 30-pound meatballs that they have sold for $30-$50 apiece…or eaten.

Okay, the photos suck but that’s because I couldn’t bring myself to look through the lens…

Heifer helped the farmers build the giant $110 steel cages that are about the size of a big Ikea bookshelf and can fit in the back of a house. The folks were also schooled in raising cotton grass and given seeds to grow feed; and given animal husbandry techniques to keep the rats healthy and strong (I didn’t think you had to encourage that).

Ahh, a nice relaxing photo of cotton grass!

The rats can get pregnant when 8 months old, will have a 5-month gestation period, then give birth to 4-8 babies.  Those little cuties (not) weigh 300 grams at birth but in one to two years, they’ll weigh 6-8 kilograms and can be sold for a bundle on any street corner, particularly during the holidays when people treat themselves to a nice big rat.

Sweet family man is sending his girls to school with money from his rats.

No, I did NOT taste Cane Rat roasted, grilled, fried or boiled in stew– but I can’t help but love what these critters have done for the Struggling Group. One man uses his rats to pay for his grandkids to go to the hospital when they get malaria (and everybody gets malaria). One man is using his to pay off his $1,000 hospital bill for cancer treatment. Another is sending his 9 children to secondary school– three of whom he adopted when their parents died.

Beautiful Ndobo girl carrying firewood.

I’d like to say that in Ndobo I learned that rats aren’t all bad. But actually, I merely learned that in Cameroon, any animal protein is good. In this country, the average animal protein consumption is just 30 kilos a year, (including almost 10 kilos milk)… and that’s not even 66% of the minimum consumption for health.

So if this program can get good food in people’s bellies, I will give a rat’s ass …… and happily.

Categories: Animals, Cameroon, Food, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

Dead Hen Walking

After 16 years, Pauline’s favorite hen succumbed to Newcastle disease.

If you are a woman living in a village in the Far North of Cameroon, chances are you’ve been raising chickens since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. And chances are, every year in the cold dry months you’ve watched helplessly as your chickens stop eating, droop their wings, and begin listlessly walking in circles – then keel over and die. Despite the fact that these chickens account for most of your family’s income—and 16% of the country’s poultry—there’s been nothing you could do but watch your food & income perish.

Pauline & Madeline discuss their chicken losses.

This scourge of chickens is called Newcastle disease and although it’s been an affliction here in the Far North for years, little has been done to combat it. The day we visited Pauline Tcaday and Madeline Maylaou, two chicken farmers in Kar Hay, we saw the carnage first hand.

Two sick chicks, not long for this world.

Pauline’s flock of 100 birds had been totally healthy until she brought one new chicken home from the market. That chicken was infected and now her entire flock was dying. 53 of Madeline’s 56 chickens had perished in a single day. And almost overnight, the village population of 79,000 chickens had shrunk to 28,000 — a loss of about $170,000!

Norbert Mayla, chicken farmer of Kar Hay, tries to make sense of the epidemic.

Luckily, a plan is in action that will help 9,000 rural farm families like Pauline’s save their chickens– and the vital income & nutrition they represent. Heifer International, in collaboration with GALVMed(a non-profit global provider of livestock vaccines), and MINEPIA (Cameroon’s Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries) has started a pilot program in 40 rural villages to vaccinate 490,000 chickens against Newcastle disease – and it’s brilliant on about 5 different levels.

First, it’s a sophisticated, well-coordinated, thoughtful campaign based on research and epidemiology. The vaccine is highly effective in protecting against the disease and if every chicken were treated, Newcastle’s could effectively be wiped out in a few years. That’s not just chicken pot-pie thinking; it’s a potential reality.

The desired outcome..

But initiating a program this ambitious has been anything but simple. Heifer and team had to figure out the cold chain to keep the vaccine viable (in a country where electricity is spotty); adjust the dosage size so a vial could be administered in a single day; and find dependable, experienced people to see the program through.

Wyang Agah, Kar Hay’s AHCW.

Eight Animal Health Care Workers with diplomas in animal husbandry were hired and provided with 4 motorcycles to reach the 40 far-flung villages, and 4 solar refrigerators to keep the vaccine at its essential cool temperature in their vet stores.

The AHCW supervise the Village Vaccinators, two per village, who are local residents, literate, and have been trained to administer the vaccine to the chickens (by eyedrop). The Vaccinators have been given new bikes and insulated cooler boxes that will keep the vaccine fresh while they travel from the vet store to their villages.

Everybody’s excited about the new program (and the new Vaccinator bikes)!

They’re off and running…

The vaccine costs 50 francs (10 cents), administered 3 times a year. So for 30 cents annually, farmers can protect a chicken that will fetch $3-$5 in the market. What’s more, the 50-franc fee covers the price of the vaccine, the salary of the AHCW, and the Vaccinators – meaning the program is immediately self-sustaining, and everyone involved has a strong motivation to make it a success. And in late May this year, vaccinations began.

For farmers in the Far North, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Not only does chicken income pay for school tuition, health care and clothes, animal protein is already in perilously short supply, while the population is projected to grow by almost 30% in the next 5 years. With 38% of the children in the Far North currently malnourished, a strong, steady supply of chicken that the people could both eat and sell would be nothing short of a miracle.

Madeline’s feeling hopeful!

When I asked Pauline and Madeline if their families ate their chickens’ eggs or sold them, they burst out laughing. “We don’t eat eggs, we don’t sell eggs,” they said ruefully. “We don’t even eat our chickens. We’re poor and we have to sell them.”

But hopefully, those days are numbered.

Categories: Cameroon, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: