Posts Tagged With: Community development

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

Head in the clouds.

My first day visiting Heifer projects in Guatemala, we got high. Specifically, we drove up, up and up to the highlands of Alta Verapaz and into the cloud forest– which is the last refuge of Guatemala’s national bird, the resplendent quetzal, as well as hundreds of other bird species that are quickly disappearing from the earth.

Quetzal photo by Knut Eisermann.

Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get high enough to go to the 50+ villages past the end of the road that are served by Proeval Raxmu, Heifer’s partner project in Alta Verapaz, because, before I came, the folks were told, “A woman is coming from the North and she can’t walk.”

Hmmm – for the record, I can walk and love to – but I suspect the Heifer folks weren’t sure I was up for a 5-hour jaunt into the cloud forest. (I totally was.) But what I saw in Chicoj Village was more than enough to make me wish I could have spent days there.

Once it's gone, it's gone.

Despite the breathtaking beauty of the area, Alta Verapaz has a poverty rate of about 79%, and chronic malnutrition that affects about 52% of the poor farmers who live here. Deforestation of the cloud forest is happening at one of the highest rates in Latin America and is directly related to poverty. Trying to eke out a living on incredibly steep slopes at high altitude, farmers desperate for rich forest soil and firewood cut down the trees, burn off the rich forest mulch, and plant corn which further depletes the soil. What’s at risk is not just bird populations (Guatemala is home to about 700 bird species and millions of migratory birds from North America), but also life-giving water, since cutting down the trees also reduces rainfall. And that leads to fewer crops and less food.In response, this Heifer-supported program works to educate and motivate local farmers to farm more productively, grow more nutritious food, and protect their own forest. It’s a big, daunting job, but Proeval is totally up for it. Six years ago, they began working with 3 families in 1 village– and today they have passed along to more than 450 families the gift of turkeys, rabbits and sheep; red worms (for composting); fruit trees; forage crops (to feed the animals) and most importantly – campesino to campesino trainings in how to farm abundantly without damaging the cloud forest.

Going to a Proeval community meeting in Chicoj Village to see the project first-hand was like attending a big, wordy love-in. We met in Pedro’s simple, beautiful home where everybody–and I mean everybody–  had the chance to talk about what the project means to him or her.

Pedro's home, site of our community meeting.

Rudy, the veritable Johnny Appleseed of Raxmu, has been helping local farmers to plant some 800 plum, nectarine, peach and apple orchards for a dozen years and is a tireless promoter of the nutritional and income-producing capacity of fruit trees. He’s carried the stakes of trees on his back for 5 hours to give to farmers in the remote villages, taught them how to graft, compost and use bees to pollinate the trees, and never stopped singing the praises of fruit.

Efraim, a biological monitor whose job entails getting up at 4:30 a.m. to hear, see and count birds in the cloud forest, lives a two-hour walk high up in the mountains with his beautiful wife Rosaria and 3 little girls. He  told us how happy he was to be chosen as one of 3 trained monitors out of 30 applicants — while his wife explained he was gifted because he gave his heart to the forest. Efraim has trained intensively, can identify over 250 birds by sight, and has worked with some of the world’s foremost ornithologists who come to Guatemala and rely on his research. Because I come from a family of birdwatchers (and am singularly oblivious when it comes to finding a single bird in a tree) I was in awe of his cool, calm demeanor and obvious talent for the work.

Robert & Tara, tireless principals of Proeval (she is from Holland and he is American), spoke in Q’eqchi’, Spanish and English of the methods they’re passing on: using living and dead barriers to prevent erosion on the steep hillsides; combining animal manure & red worms to build a beautiful compost instead of using expensive, damaging chemicals; conserving water and soil; keeping animals healthy, hygienic and fertile; and growing a nutritious blend of crops that will better feed both the children and animals of Chicoj Village.

Flowers grown in living barriers to erosion can also be sold for income.

Together with Heifer International and the project participants, Proeval Raxmu’s mission is to use a double passing-on-of-gifts (each beneficiary family gives at least twice what they have received in animals, forage crops, and trainings to 2 other families) to restore ecological, environmental and human harmony to the people of this region. In fact, the Q’eqchi’ word “Raxmu” means fresh and cloudy weather, indicating a change to come. I felt the distinct winds of change in that room, in the palpable community solidarity and dignity of the families that surrounded me — and I felt their hope for the future. It was nothing short of intoxicating.

In the next two years, Heifer will give 800 Atla Verapaz families 6,700 rabbits, 4,364 turkeys and 360 super-cute sheep.

(And next post, I’ll get to the amazing Alta Verapaz WOMEN involved!)

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 178 Comments

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