Posts Tagged With: Passing on the Gift

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

What it means to give.

After seven months into my journey with Heifer, I’ve seen a lot of Passing on the Gift ceremonies. Passing on the Gift (where people who have been given an animal are required to give the first-born female of that animal to another person in need) is at the very soul of Heifer. Not only does this double any gift Heifer (and you) makes – it also, and equally importantly, turns a person who has received charity into a charitable giver. Which is a remarkable, powerful transformation.

However… when you’ve seen a POG a dozen times, you may feel like you’ve seen it all before. And on my first day in Rwanda I was jet-lagged, worried about Lulu’s 200 mosquito bites, and just kind of going through the motions – until I downloaded my photos that night in my hotel, and saw the absolute beauty of this concept reflected in each face.

What I love the most is that you can’t tell who is the giver and who is the receiver.

Passing on the gift of a cow to another person takes on even more resonance in Rwanda, since this is a cow-loving society (they have many songs dedicated to cows, and I think I heard them all) and every aspect of society is laden with the memory of the genocide of 1994, when Hutus rose up against their Tutsi neighbors and slaughtered over 800,000 men, women and children in cold blood. Trying to rebuild community on that shattered foundation of savagery takes unbelievable discipline and compassion – which, oddly, is precisely what Passing on the Gift also demands.

For a poor family to receive a huge asset like a cow and then to be required to give up its valuable first female baby is really hard– as is taking the time and effort to share what you were taught with the new family: how to build a shed for the animal, grow forage crops for it, keep it healthy and clean, milk it properly, and know when it’s ready to breed. But with the help of Heifer’s field techs, that is exactly what the people do.

Today in the Northern Province, where some of the longest-lasting fighting occurred, the POG ceremony began and ended with everyone shouting this slogan:  “Have peace!” answered by “Unite in reconciliation and uproot the genocide ideology.”

Each recipient then chose a white ticket with the number of a donated heifer, and went home with a cow that will give milk, reproduce and produce income, nutrition and assets for the family.

Waiting to choose the all-important ticket that means a new cow.

These neighbors, Tutsi and Hutu alike, will thus be bound together in friendship, responsibility and interdependence – all through the gift of a cow. And in Heifer’s Sustainable Dairy Enterprise project, this scenario is happening in 1,200 homes across the north and east Rwanda.

What the children see is giving, not division.

Town by town, and cow by cow…

Some heifers are a little easier to get home than others.

It’s such a beautiful thing to witness. I wish you could have been there –but watch this, and you’ll feel like you were!

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

A big, hairy tale of survival.

The original WB.

Water buffalo aren’t the only species struggling to make a comeback in the beautiful rolling hills of Aschileu, Transylvania. The 1,841 poor farmers who live in these five verdant villages and were shoved off their lands under Communist rule are also fighting to regain a foothold in the local economy. Now thanks to Heifer’s first water buffalo project in Romania, the two may well help each other over the hump.

At 78, Anna remembers feeding the Germans, then the Russians, then the Communists, then losing her land and all her animals. But now she’s got a new water buffalo to call her own…

Water buffalo have been raised in this area since they were first introduced by the Turks during the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. Called the “poor man’s cow,” a water buffalo thrives on even poor fodder, rarely gets sick, makes a terrific draft animal, and will produce 5-10 liters/day of very rich, healthy milk that can be made into delicious cheese, sour cream and yogurt. (And Romanians are nuts about dairy.)

However, after the fall of Communism in 1989, farmers were encouraged to raise cows and the numbers of water buffalo dropped perilously by 80%, threatening the breed’s survival. To promote biodiversity, income generation and better nutrition; offer an alternative to strict EU standards that limit the sale of cow’s milk; and encourage peace & understanding between neighbors in the Hungarian Mera village and Romanian Aschileu village, Heifer started the Revitalization of Water Buffalo project last year, giving 36 water buffalo and trainings to needy Romanian families (who will Pass on the Gift to another 36 Hungarian families in Mera).

About half of Ion & Felicia’s children/grandchildren.

One of the first recipients of a water buffalo was Ion, Felicia and their nine children. Ion is one of 10 orphans whose mother died and were then abandoned by their father and left to raise each other in the village. Today, those 10 brothers are mostly illiterate and work as laboring farmers and shepherds, but each has managed to build a home, establish loving families, and amass a brood of livestock. Their self-sufficiency and dignity were palpable, despite how thin and wan Felicia looked ( and raising 9 children and 3 grandchildren, who wouldn’t be?)

Ion & Felicia

As we climbed into the hills in a horse-drawn cart to visit the goats, cows and water buffalo herds that Ion tends on communal pastures, the views became more and more stunning and I felt more and more like I was in some modern version of The Sound of Music.

Lordana, Ion’s daughter, kept turning around to grin at me, her fingers tucked into her father’s thickly-tooled shepherd’s belt as we lurched across stream beds, and I kept thinking “What a hard life. What a beautiful life.”

With village milk collection centers and cooling tanks in place, and an ever-increasing demand for high-butterfat, high-protein, low- cholesterol buffalo milk, hopefully life here will become a lot less hard and a lot more healthy.

The lovely Miss Lordana.

And the hills will be alive with the (very loud) sound of water buffalo… once more.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

I’ve got friends in high places.

Up until now, I’ve spent a lot of time swooning over the alpaca, while paying precious little attention to its camelid cousin, the llama. So in my last blog about Peru (boo hoo!) I’m aiming to rectify the matter.

The llama doesn’t get much respect in many places in Peru– it’s the shaggy, blue-collar cousin of everybody’s favorite cuddle-bug, the alpaca, and the irresistible, Audrey Hepburn-channeling vicuna.

How can you compete with the ever-elegant vicuna?

But in reality, the llama is a working class hero – capable of carrying 35 kilograms of potatoes on its back, trudging long distances without breaking a sweat or requiring too much water, reproducing without drama, and providing tons of meat when it’s required to make the ultimate sacrifice.

To see the best llamas the world has to offer, we traveled to one of the worst cities I’ve ever seen: Pasco, Peru. Heifer’s charismatic country director, Alfredo Garcia, insisted I go to Cerro de Pasco (at 14,200 feet, one of the highest cities in the world) because he wanted me to see firsthand the destruction that mining has wrought …and boy, did I. The irony is that the countryside around Pasco is staggeringly beautiful, reminding me of nothing so much as Paradise Valley, Montana. 

Glorious Iscaycocha, which is Quechua for “land of two lakes.”

Yet when you enter Pasco City, you understand the meaning of “Something evil this way comes.” The mine isn’t near the city, it has consumed the heart of the city in a huge, gaping hole oozing rusty rainbows of effluents pooling into foul, oil-slicked ponds, billows of suspicious fumes, and enormous, variegated hills of toxic mine tailings. It’s a monstrous cavity in the maw of the drab, gray, cold city.

Cerro is the mining company plumbing for riches here in copper, zinc, gold and silver, and it employs most of Pasco City’s residents. It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to live here or, god forbid, raise children in this toxic waste dump, but my Heifer translator Rosaluz Salazar assured me that having a job in the mines is a coveted position in Peru, something that kids from the countryside aspire to.

From here to the unimaginable mines?

Which makes the work Heifer is doing, supporting the tradition of raising llamas in 800 families in 13 agricultural communities around Pasco so critically important. We visited Iscaycocha, a community of 60 people who are part of this Heifer/FODESA project to celebrate a community greenhouse, witness a Passing on the Gift ceremony, and adore some spectacular llamas.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful … hate me for all my many, many awards.

The day was chilly and looked like rain, but when we walked into the 1-year old greenhouse it was toasty warm as Luis Basilio Ramirez and his wife Yaqueline Mesa greeted us. The greenhouse was built by members of the community, with Heifer providing materials and FODESA (a local NGO that’s been working here for 17 years) giving technical advice. It was placed at the Ramirez house because its proximity to the road means all the families can easily come for the robust harvests, and because Yaqueline, crippled in a car accident three years ago, was seriously depressed and needed something to grow. That’s just the kind of close-knit, caring communities that Heifer tends to create (“The projects teach us brotherhood,” one participant said simply.) 

Yaqueline Mesa Ramirez in the community greenhouse.

Now Yaqueline waters, plants, and oversees the organic garden that provides lettuce, tomatoes, beets, cauliflower, carrots, coriander, cilantro, cabbage, radishes and fava beans to family & neighbors who literally have never had vegetables in their diets before. (At 14,000 feet, there is no growing season without a greenhouse.) And those vegetables taste particularly beautiful with the llama meat that Heifer has helped these breeders to produce, promote, market and sell.

Fresh, nutritious fava beans .. yummmm!

For years, llama meat (like llamas themselves) was considered dirty, and vastly inferior to alpaca. But these prime breeders of Pasco are producing such high-protein, low cholesterol, super-clean meat with their award-winning llamas, they have quadrupled its price– and their business plan (written with a Heifer advisor) is to market their llama meat regionally and nationally, with specialties like llama burgers, llama sausage and llama hot dogs winning over dubious hearts & stomachs.

Do the best breeders come to resemble their llamas?

As we watched a third generation of really spectacular Heifer llamas being passed on from one Iscaycocha family to another, the sun came out, candy was thrown to celebrate, and the mining and environmental degradation of nearby Pasco City felt a million miles away. Where God willing, it will stay.

A gift for giving…

Goodbye for now, beautiful Peru!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Hunger, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Re-Gifting, Heifer style.

As Heifer‘s Byron Lopez, Vivian Martinez and I pulled into the beautiful village of Quilinco near Huehuetenango*, Guatemala, I realized we were late. For once, it wasn’t my fault (blame breakfast and a whole bunch of bad potholes) but I was horrified to see 30 gorgeously-attired mothers & children and weather-beaten farmers in immaculate white hats patiently waiting for us in the beautiful turquoise central meeting place that was cheerfully festooned with flowers, hanging stalks of braided corn, and a pine-needle strewn floor.

Future farmer of Quilinco

This was my first HeiferPassing on the Gift” ceremony and I was late. Dang it!

Passing on the Gift is the most Cornerstone-y of the 12 Heifer Cornerstones – and the thing that truly sets Heifer apart from other “giveaway” charities. When a poor family receives a Heifer animal (any animal – be it chick, goat, sheep, cow, water buffalo or bee), the first female offspring of that animal must be passed on to another needy family. This not only builds community solidarity, it ensures that the gift keeps on giving to more and more families – while it engenders self-respect, dignity, and a sense of responsibility to others (Oh, that we had a little more of that in the USA!)

This community of Quilincohas had a relationship with Heifer since 1984 – and remarkably, the Passing On tradition is still being Passed On. From 80 original families, Heifer gifts are now benefiting over 500 families…with no direct supervision for 8 years (although Heifer still provides some veterinary support, new animals to improve the stock, and community counsel).

Jesus

Today, we were witnessing THREE Passing On gifts. First was the gift of two stallions (I was envisioning Black Beauty – but no, these were sheep) from 4-time Award-Winning Sheep Breeder Jesus Garcia.  These two males would be shared by four families in two neighboring towns and used to impregnate the local mares.

Heifer's Byron Lopez prepares to pass on Jesus's prize sheep.

The second gift was a valuable Italian female rabbit that was robust, fat and juicy and would likewise be used judiciously to improve the local stock, given by Paula to Isabel.

Vivian passes on Julia's gift to Isabel.

The third gift was a campesino-to-campesino gift of a goat that would hopefully have at least 5 babies, improve the local stock (the price of prize stock is 5 times that of the local sheep) and enrich the lives and diets of the receiving family.

22 days old and already looking good!

The speeches preceeding the gifts recalled decades of community efforts to encourage people to contribute funds (sounds like any civic association anyplace on the planet), work together, and find common goals and common ground. With Heifer’s encouragement, Quilinco’s Mayan Mujeres had pooled their money and begun micro-lending programs to enable other women to buy animals and pass their offspring on. Their history of “working together with solidarity – the way you taught us — and not by ourselves” as Alberta Garcia recalled, has served them well.

The land of Quilinco is steep, foreboding, and back-breaking to farm, but the people there are determined to grow their own food, feed their own children, and prosper. Heifer’s great gift has been to give them the small help they need to succeed in that endeavor.

Celso & his dad, Juan Artemio

** I’M OFF TO HAITI TOMORROW … BUT STILL HAVE A FEW MORE SCINTILLATING POSTS FROM GUATEMALA… STAY TUNED!!

My Guatemalan walkabout.

Categories: Animals, Guatemala, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments

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