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!

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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

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

Thanks4giving!

Guatemala, January 2012.

The following faces have been brought to you by … you.

Haiti, February 2012.

You see, in 100,000 miles of travel to Heifer projects around the world this year, one thing has been utterly consistent.

Peru, March 2012.

People will take my hands, look in my eyes, and tell me to thank you.

China, April 2012.

Thank you for helping them to feed their children.

Nepal, April 2012.

…and send them to school…

Cameroon, May 2012.

….and stand with dignity…

Romania, June 2012.

…and have the chance to create a better life.

Appalachia, July 2012.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m bringing you their thanks.

Rwanda, August 2012.

Thanks for being so compassionate…

Armenia, September 2012

…for being so generous…

Cambodia, October 2012.

… and for your willingness to share your good fortune.

Vietnam, October 2012.

Look at the beautiful things you’ve done!

Malawi, November 2012.

Have a spectacular Thanksgiving weekend!

(And if you haven’t given to Heifer yet, I still love you ( : )

Categories: Appalachia, Armenia, Cambodia, China, Guatemala, Haiti, Hunger, Malawi, Mothers, Nepal, Peru, Photography, Romania, Rwanda, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , | 45 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

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