Inspiration

Love & Hope in the Mangroves.

what crab on my shoulder ?In every trip I’ve been on this extraordinary year with Heifer, there comes at least one moment when I think … I cannot believe I get to be here.

In Ecuador, that moment came as I was gliding through the mangroves off the coast of Puerto Bolivar as pink flamingoes flamed up from the overhanging trees. flamingoes

In the back of the boat, the women put down the sewing they’d been doing while bouncing through the waves on the rough ride over…sewing on water

…and fired up the big Colombian cigars they’d tucked into their hats, in preparation for getting off the boat and getting down to business of hunting crabs.

ready to crab

The cigars are for pleasure, but they also act as mosquito repellent.

In this coastal community where all life revolves around the water, hunting Ecuador’s sweet red crabs is traditionally women’s work, although the entire extended family is pretty much involved now. Children start hunting when they’re 6 or 7, and they quickly learn the drill. Using a long rebar pole, you find a hole that looks promising, insert your pole and then your arm as far as it can go, and try to get a crab to hook on.

going down for a crab

 Once it’s hooked, you pull the crab up, put it in your sack if it’s a male (you can’t take a female) and move on. boy w crab

 The first crab catch of the day is the lucky one (or the third); a good haul is 5-7 crabs; and in the boat on the way back, they’ll be strung up and go live to the market…red crab line

….where a string of 12 will bring $10 (of which the intermediary will get about half).

Rosa stringing her catch.

Rosa stringing her catch.

Crabs abound here in the mangroves – they eat the mangrove leaves and flourish – but today there are far fewer mangrove swamps (they’ve been developed into shrimp farms or dried out from industrial pollution) and far fewer crabs. beauty

So Amor y Esperanza, the 80-member group of shellfish hunters here, is out to keep their ancestral way of living, while they make the most of their daily haul – with Heifers help.

Started by the indomitable Rosa Santos, her husband and their 7 children, Amor Y Esperanza has a modern-day plan for success: to sell the seafood in a restaurant I call the No-Name Café (for obvious reasons) and to package and sell the crab/clam/calamari and fish they’ve processed in fresh & frozen packets out of a retail store next door.

The remarkable Rosa Sanchez, founder of Amor Y Esperanza.

The remarkable Rosa Santos, founder of Amor Y Esperanza.

Rosa is 57 and had a rough childhood with an abusive father, but her own family is as closely knit and tight as a pair of crab claws. She’s become an outspoken advocate for the health of the mangroves that have decreased by 70% in her lifetime, and Amor Y Esperanza has been responsible for reforesting hundreds of acres of mangroves, as well as advocating for stricter pollution controls on the banana plantations and shrimp farms that release crab-killing toxins into the ocean.

A brave little mangrove sets its roots in the ocean.

A brave little Amor Y Esperanza-planted mangrove sets its roots in the ocean.

Rosa’s dream is to achieve independence for all of Machala’s crab, clam and fishermen from the intermediaries who chomp into their profits and carry most of their loans (essentially turning the fishermen into modern-day sharecroppers). She’s already received grants from the local government to outfit AYE’s store (refrigerator, freezers, food prep tables and equipment) and help from Heifer to open the Café, but she’s hardly stopping there.

Amor Y Esperanza in action on land - where it's a spanking clean operation!

Amor Y Esperanza in action on land – where it’s a spanking clean operation!

For this woman who spends 25 days a month plucking the biggest, reddest, sweetest crabs in Ecuador out of thigh-deep mud with a cigar between her teeth and a serene smile on her face – then comes home to work to save her beloved mangroves …smiling Rosa… well, I seriously wouldn’t put any kind of alchemy beyond her.

Let's hear it for Rosa!

Let’s hear it for Rosa!

Categories: Ecuador, Environment, Food, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 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

The many ecological wonders of Leonard’s world.

Leonard!Leonard Manda is a big man with a big heart and big ideas.

KasunguHe’d better be. As Heifer Malawi’s program director of the Enhanced Community Resilience Programme, Leonard is responsible for helping 1,600 families in 45 villages around Kasungu National Park cope with climate change and the increased occurrence of drought. These conditions cause folks to go into the nearby national park to poach for meat and cut down trees for firewood, so every day Leonard hops on his motorcycle and goes out to teach people in these far-flung villages to make better choices.

Rennie and the 20-liter water bucket they call "friend" because it takes one to lift it down from your head.

Rennie Katundu and the 20-liter water bucket they call “friend”– because it takes one to lift it down from your head.

Quality control tools.

Quality control tools.

Simple energy stove.

Simple energy stove.

And boy, is he creative! I learned so much from Leonard, I couldn’t write down notes fast enough. He’s taught women like Rennie Katundu in Mzumbatu Village to make energy stoves, using clay from anthills that is pure and uncrackable. First, the women cure the clay by burying it in a pit for 2 weeks. Then they smear ash inside a bucket mold to prevent sticking and spread the clay inside the mold with their heels. They use “quality control tools” Leonard fashioned from sticks to precisely measure the width and depth of the clay, then place the molds inside to dry overnight, release them in the morning, finish with the handles and pot rests… and voila! A time-and timber-saving treasure!

Leonard also teaches the women to make super-smart fireless cookers (think of it as a wireless crockpot) so they can cook rice and protein-rich beans in a fraction of the time. This cooker is so clever it delighted me to no end…fireless w lid

Instead of wasting 4 hours and bundles of firewood to cook beans, women can boil them in water for 40 minutes in the morning, pop the pot into an old basket lined with banana leaves, cover it with an insulated top, and four hours later (lunchtime!) the beans will be piping hot and ready to eat.fireless Everything to create this fireless cooker is readily available to the women – old baskets, banana leaves, old cloths – and it can make the difference between a family eating a diet of all carbs and enjoying protein-rich meals. (And rice “cooks” in 40 minutes after just two minutes of boiling!)

But Leonard’s bag of tricks goes far beyond the kitchen. He’s also teaching people to use the local public dambos (wetlands) to grow community gardens all year round – and to make vegetable “sack gardens” using plastic bags of soil, manure, river sand and permeable stones to hang in the house for immediate use.

A dambo filled with winter lettuce

A dambo filled with winter lettuce

To combat deforestation in Malawi’s densely populated land, Leonard is helping to create tree nurseries in villages like Mzumbatu, where the women are growing thousands of seedlings in an empty plot. watering trees.

Heifer and its partners provide the seeds, soil, and training – but the women do the work of planting each plastic sleeve of soil, and watering the tiny acacia, senna semia and other indigenous trees that will soon provide firewood and poles for the community.

Miss Ruth DeoThe indomitable Ruth Deo showed us what the resulting Community Wood Lot will look like. With Leonard’s guidance, her village grew the trees from seeds for months, then 20 villagers spent 5 days planting the 5,500 tiny trees on a hectare of land the village headman had donated. In 5 years, these trees will be grown and each of the village’s 88 families will be allowed to take 4-10 trees every year from the lot (depending on need). And since seedlings will be replanted every year, the village will ensure its supply of sustainably-grown wood for the future – right in its own back yard.

Big trees... soon to come!

Big trees… soon to come!

Leonard’s also a big fan of conservation agriculture – and he took us to Joseph & Bibiana Phiri’s farm to show us how minimum tillage, crop rotation, and crop residue management can replenish exhausted soils and increase production.

Bibiana Phiri

Bibiana is a force of nature in her own right, and was eager to show off her fields covered in corn husk residue that cuts down on parasitic witch weed, improves sandy soil, and decomposes in the rainy season to form compost. She’s kept the trees in her fields, adds manure on top of the crop residue, and is now using 1/2 the expensive fertilizer her maize used to require. Bibiana’s goats – 2 of the 1,268 Leonard has placed in Heifer’s 45 villages – are thriving and she and her husband are big fans of the useful trainings they’ve received.

The Phiris... knee-deep in conservation agriculture!

The Phiris… knee-deep in conservation agriculture!

Now it’s not like Leonard is doing every bit of this work himself. The ECRP is a $15 million, 5-year, 61,000-family endeavor funded by the Department for International Development, Irish Aid & Norway, and implemented by a consortium of aid organizations, with Heifer as the leader in livestock. In that role, Leonard is a trainer of trainers, working with multiple ministries of the government to make sure these programs endure after Heifer’s role has ended – but his leadership, passion and just plain sweat equity were a marvel to behold.leonard3

In our final hour together, Leonard showed me the cool Energy Kit Heifer has put together to offer at a discount to smallholder farmers. The kit consists of a solar panel, solar light, rechargeable battery, and transistor radio for crop information and news (illiterate people can still listen), …. all at a 30% discount. energy pack

I thought that was a perfectly fitting metaphor for Leonard–an indefatigable source of sound and light for Malawi!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

heifer-international1-640x501And for all you technophiles (and Mac-ademics) … check out what MASHABLE had to say about the new Heifer catalog app… the FIRST non-profit magazine tablet app ever.  Click here to download it on your iPad or Android tablet & you’re good to give! Whoeeee!

Categories: Africa, Agriculture, Environment, Farming, Heifer International, Inspiration, Malawi, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Bon bons, lots of mud, and the Lotus position.

I hate to pick favorites (my favorite country is always the last one I’ve been to). But in every country I visit with Heifer, there will be (at least) one person that I can’t get out of my mind. A person that I know I’ll be thinking about and worrying about for years to come. In Vietnam, that person was Thach Thi Sa Phinh of Koko Village.

Whatever she’s selling, I’m buying – what a cheerful face!!

Pretty Koko town, population 718, in Suc Thong province lies in the heart of the Mekong Delta and is primarily a Khmer community. The Khmer ethnic group, originally from Cambodia, seems to be regarded by the hard-working Vietnamese as an obstinately poor group that gets an inordinate amount of help from the government– but from what I saw in Phinh’s household, that stereotype is miles from reality.

Phinh & Quy, quietly talking business under the gaze of the Buddha.

Phinh and her husband Kim Sa Quy are in their early 30s with three children. They joined Heifer’s Self-Help Group in 2010 and received a heifer in August that year. (That cow is now blessedly pregnant.)

Phinh is gentle and tender with everything — even her heifer.

Then, with a $100 revolving loan from Heifer, Phinh opened a small business stall in her house, selling necessities like tea, seasonings, cookies, sugar, flour, and oil. Every day she and her husband get up at 3 a.m. and drive their motorscooter to a big market an hour away, buy and load up 15 kilograms of fish, pork and vegetables, and bring it all home to sell, opening their store at 6 a.m. when people stream to Phinh’s house to buy food they can quickly cook and take with them to the fields where they’ll spend the day working.

Phinh grew up very poor and can’t read or write but she’s taught herself to do numbers; her 12-year old daughter helps write the customers’ names and keep the books. Because no one in Koko has much money, everyone buys from Phinh on credit and she is repaid at harvest time, without fail.

A good team… Phinh runs the store, her daughter keeps the books.

After the shopping surge ends at about 8 a.m., Phinh goes to tend her 2,000 square-meter lotus field that’s a bit of a walk from the house. She and her husband, who works day labor, saved $1,500 and then bought another 3,000 square meters, which they are devoting to growing grass for their cow, a little rice, and bon-bons (I couldn’t find a translation but stubbornly kept visualizing a field of gorgeous chocolates).

These are the real bon-bons and yes, that is Phinh’s very sharp knife.

Of course, I was dying to see both fields, so we trekked out through the mud and sat admiring the lotus plants that will earn Phinh $20 every 3 days. She learned how to grow lotus from her grandfather and knows how to pick each root at just the right time – individually plucking each plant from its watery home. Twice a week she harvests 20 kilos of lotus root (it’s SO delicious!) and sells it for $1/kilo at her store.

The original lotus position.

Phinh’s bonbons in her new field looked like baby leeks but tasted sort of sweet. Those vegetables are collected once a month and sell for about 55 cents/kilo (75 cents) during the lunar festival. Her new field will produce 300 kilograms in a year’s time, which means that all her wading through thigh-deep water and bending over harvesting each root will yield about $150.

As we were sitting with our toes in the water, talking about my life and hers, Phinh said poignantly, half in jest, “Our life here is so hard. Why don’t you take me back to the United States with you?”

It was so pretty in that field, I couldn’t imagine wanting to leave, but then, I also could see the incomprehensible difficulty of  life here. And I knew Phinh was worried about her oldest daughter, who had just quit school after Grade 5 so she could stay home and help out with the younger kids (5 and 3) while her parents are working so hard in the fields and store.

Such a smart, beautiful girl .. I hate that she’s not in school!

Phinh and Quy have bought her a bicycle to try to persuade her to go back to school, but she feels it’s more important to help her parents with all their work. And that’s kind of breaking Phinh’s heart, although she is deeply touched by her daughter’s sense of devotion. I was torn by my undying belief that education is the key to a better future, and my feeling that I couldn’t possibly understand the complexity of what this family is going through.

Saying goodbye is hard to do.

But what I knew for sure was that whatever happened in the immediate future, Phinh’s family was moving forward. I wished I could bring some of America’s great abundance to this beautiful little family, but I also know Heifer already has. Now it’s up to you & me (and Phinh and Quy) to keep it going.

Godspeed, Phinh … you’re in my heart!

Categories: Agriculture, Heifer International, Inspiration, Mothers, Photography, Travel, Vietnam, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Jumbo Shrimp … and no, that’s not an oxymoron.

 Duang Thi Anh Tuyet is a tiny slip of a woman—beautiful like a butterfly but in constant motion like a bumblebee.

The mother of two boys she has severe stomach problems and can’t work, but like most moms “not working” in developing countries, (or developed ones, for that matter) she does more before breakfast than most folks do all day.

Mrs. Tuyet at the edge of her shrimp pond.

Tuyet is part of a Self-Help Group that Heifer started in 2008 in her small village of Duc Tan in the Mekong Delta … and she’s made the very most of every opportunity presented to her. She got her first cow four years ago, and in record time had her first calf, passed it on to another needy family, then had another female calf.

Tuyet’s very photogenic (and curious) calf.

With the $100 in revolving loans that Heifer offers each family, she then bought 7 Muscovy ducks, 20 chickens, and a sow that is about a week away from having her third litter (and the piglets sell for $50/each). She repaid that loan, too.

An embarrassment of riches: the third litter is due in 10 days!

Not content with all that fecundity, Tuyet and her husband (who works in a rice-polishing factory for $4 – $6/day), dug a pond on their single acre of land and bought 50,000 black tiger shrimp larvae to raise in the dry season, when the salt water rises up from the sea through the Mekong River and floods their pond. The shrimp will feed for four months on plankton left behind by their saline-resistant rice crop, get bulked up for a few weeks with commercial feed, and then sell for about $3,300 – or $400 net profit.

Checking the size of her Black Tiger shrimp.

Tuyet’s beautiful 17-year old son.

With all the work she does with her animals, don’t think for a minute Tuyet is overlooking her sons. Her 17-year old is looking at universities and her 6th grader is tops in his class and earning a full scholarship – despite the fact that the family’s thatched roof house collapsed a year ago, and was only rebuilt to its current concrete sturdiness with a hand from Heifer’s Self-Help Group and its friends in government agencies.

Unfortunately, in Duc Tan, the majority of Heifer beneficiaries who got cows have sold them for easier-to-raise pigs and chickens (a faster way of earning income but subject to greater price fluctuations in the market, and diseases) but Tuyet wisely hedged her bets and raises all the above: cows, pigs, chickens and shrimp.

The final product … yummmm!

When I asked her group leader, Nguyen Van Hong, what Tuyet was doing that made her so successful with all her animals, he said, “Tuyet works very hard, harder than others. She takes care of her animals very well and knows exactly what they eat and what they need – from the good food she raises, to the vaccines she gives at the right time. She’s very precise.”

One precisely beautiful farmer

When I asked Tuyet the secret to her success, she replied, “I believe that if you try really hard, have good trainings, and are motivated, you can pull yourself out of poverty. That’s my goal.”

Tuyet is small… but she is mighty. I hope all her big dreams come true.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel, Vietnam, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

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