Traveling in the developing world can wear on one’s conscience. Although the simplicity of lifestyle and overwhelming hospitality found there can be extraordinary, more often than not, essential needs are not being met, and daily life is a struggle. As my friend, writer Christian DeVries put it while remarking how fortunate we were to be born in America, we (Westerners) hit the jackpot in the global lottery.
Lucky we are indeed. It is my observation that those in the States, regardless of background, who truly work hard and make good decisions can provide for their own needs and those of their family and possibly even save a bit on the side. This is not the case in many places in the world. Work ethic is certainly an essential ingredient in success; but drive, determination and hard work mean nothing when the pillars of society are not in place to reward such attributes.
These same thoughts were stirring in my mind last year while in an open-air restaurant in Iquitos, Peru, on the Amazon River. Until a few moments prior my greatest anxiety was how I might purge my mouth of the intolerable fiery sensation leftover from consuming the world’s hottest chili pepper that had innocently garnished my plate of octopus and crawfish.
A young man, about my age approached my table peddling newspapers, magazines and talk time for mobile phones. Without success at mine, I watched him as he criss-crossed to each table in the crowded restaurant without making one sale. I could genuinely feel the discouragement in my own heart that I’m sure he felt inside, and I also knew that this discouragement was nothing new to him. I wondered what kind of home he might go back to empty handed that evening.
What is different about my assignments with Heifer International is that the day is spent documenting progress and change. I dwell on successes in farming, education, economy and family life, not sickness, injustice and upheaval. The people I photograph, if they haven’t already done so, are climbing farther out of the desperate circumstances into which they were born. Never is it discouraging work. On the contrary, it is inspiring.
Heifer Project International (HPI) is a development organization that fights poverty and hunger by implementing long-term agricultural programs that lead to self-sustainability. Usually that program is an integrated approach that combines a variety of solutions to meet this goal, helping the farmers along the way with whatever materials or training they may need. For example, Mr. Ndossi, above right, received cows from Heifer. He uses milk from the cows that he doesn’t drink to make cheese and sells it in the market. He spreads the cows’ manure on his coffee and banana trees as fertilizer, producing more at harvest time as a result. He also shovels the manure into a pit where it gives off methane. The methane is piped into his home where it used to light lamps and as fuel on his gas stove. Mr. Ndossi has no need to chop down trees for firewood or buy candles in the market. He has plenty to eat and earns a steady income.
On my third assignment with the NGO, I have recently been traveling in Tanzania and Zambia. While it’s true that I mention Heifer quite a bit in this forum, it’s not simply because they are a client; Heifer’s approach to ending poverty works, and to this I am a witness. Above, Yedida Matonya is a Heifer recipient (project participant) near Dodoma, in central Tanzania. Below, participant Ryness Himululi helps her daughter Jennifer with her school work near Ndola, in Zambia’s Copperbelt.
Heifer’s effectiveness as an NGO can be attributed in part to its community-based organization. More often than not, community groups will approach Heifer after hearing of the success of other project farmers, rather than the other way around. After a dialog with local HPI country staff, Heifer will then form an animal or agricultural project that best fits the needs of the given geographic area. Below, Kulwa Selemani farms chickens in Tanzania’s Coastal Province, near Dar Es Salaam.
As a project is established, country staff select members of the local community to act as intermediaries between themselves and the project participants. Supervisors must show leadership skills and a desire to help their neighbors before undergoing training on how best to implement Heifer’s 12 cornerstones (ideals such as Sustainability and Self-Reliance) in the community. Sister Alexandra Buretta (below) is one such person. At the age of 69, she supervises a Heifer pig project with over 200 participants in various villages on Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro. By using community-based supervisors and local staff, HPI employees are already versed in the language, culture and community nuances in which they operate.
Tourism is booming in and around Arusha, about an hour west of the great mountain. The city is the gateway both to Serengetti National Park, where wide-eyed travelers come to spy big game like elephants and giraffe, and the snow-capped Kilimanjaro, where trekkers can ascend Africa’s highest peak. Many Tanzanians come here in hopes of finding employment in the tourism industry. Most residents in the area, however, benefit little from the constant influx of foreigners to the area.
In 1999, residents of the Village of Mkuru (above) approached Heifer International and requested assistance. The village, located in a dry, isolated region one hour North East of Arusha, lies at the base of Mt. Meru. The residents here are members of East Africa’s formerly nomadic Masai Tribe. In 1999, children in Mkuru did not receive any formal education. Soil quality was low due to overgrazing, and infant mortality was high from lack of access to medical facilities. Heifer concluded that cows or sheep were not what the village needed to improve their way of life. Though these are familiar livestock to the Masai, HPI in turn introduced 12 camels to the village, along with training in veterinary care, plowing, and camel breeding.
You won’t find many camels farther south than Northern Kenya’s Chalbi desert. Though it took a while to catch on down here, they turned out to be just what Mkuru needed. In the dry, harsh conditions of the village, the grazing habits of sheep and cows make them ultimately unsustainable, eating the vegetation that does grow and trampling away what is left. Camels do not compete with such livestock, preferring thorny scrub brush to grass; and unlike hooves, their soft padded feet don’t contribute to soil erosion. Known for trekking long distances without needing to refuel, camels are shoe-ins for the area’s low water table.
“When we get camels we are happy because they changed our life,” says village chairman Isaya Shakwet (above right). “Camels can carry a lot of goods like water and supplies. We are able to take people to the hospital by camel.” The improvements are many. The overall nutrition of the village has improved since 1999 as residents are drinking milk from the camels. In addition to the animal’s use for its plowing abilities, crop yields have increased as a result of better soil quality. Families are being fed larger meals and are earning an income by taking the abundance to the market. Parents are now able to afford medical and education fees for village children. “Through camels we get a lot of income… We pay doctors once a month to come out and give medical care to pregnant and nursing women. Our community is improving a lot because of all of these things,” continues Shakwet.
As if all this progress is not enough, Mkuru is now earning the majority of income in the tourist industry. Tourists arrive in the village where they begin a 3 or 5 day Safari on camelback through Northern Tanzania’s rugged wilderness. Even after Passing on the Gift (a system where animal recipients give offspring to other villages in need), Mkuru now has 26 camels in the village – more than enough to provide for the village needs as well as meet the demands of carefree foreign adventurers. Before 1999, no one could have predicted the changes that would come about in this village in the next ten years, and no one could be more pleased than the villagers themselves.
Bordering Tanzania to the Southwest, remote and landlocked Zambia is one of the world’s poorest countries. Sparsely populated, its 12 million residents are quartered mainly in and around its capital Lusaka and in the Copperbelt region to the North. HIV/AIDS has had a devastating effect on Zambia’s population and economy. Today, nearly 17% of the country’s citizens are living with the disease, causing the average life expectancy here to sink to just 38 years. Above, the main thoroughfare runs through the town of Mumbwa in Central Province.
With such overwhelming statistics, HIV/AIDS has had an effect on nearly every family we visited, including the Kalusa family. When we visited them in a village outside Mumbwa, Mr. Kalusa was away attending the funeral of a relative. His wife Bess Mutelo is 38 years old, and together they have nine children. As if nine weren’t enough to provide for, the Kalusas have also taken in Bess’ mother Olipa, as well as seven other children – relatives whose parents have died. Below, the Kalusa children bring water from a well dug by HPI in the village of Mika, near Mumbwa. Well installations are not something that Heifer is particularly known for. However, when it became apparent that a great need for them existed in rural Zambia, the NGO stepped in.
In addition to a nearby well, the Kalusa family has received goats and draft cattle from Heifer. The goats provide meat and milk for the family. The draft cattle provide milk as well but are mainly used for plowing fields. With sixteen children in the house ranging from 8 months to 24 years, there is no shortage of hands to work the field. However, in years past, providing enough food to go around was a problem. The use of manure as fertilzer and the cattle’s plowing abilites have a significant effect on crop yields. Remarking on successes of the project, the oldest son, Loswell Mutelo says, “The biggest impact I have seen is that we produce more food than before. We are a big family but we are able to feed ourselves.”
In light of the recent spike in global food prices, especially in the developing world, the fact that this family of 19 is able to raise enough food to provide for themselves is remarkable. In fact, they produce more than enough milk and vegetables to feed themselves; they are able to take some to the market, thus earning an income. The excess produce is reflected in one of the houses on the Kalusa’s compound, where Bess Mutelo, the family’s matriarch, displays her collection of fine dishes.
Is the Kalusa family rich now? Not by our standards they aren’t. But like many farmers that are Heifer participants, they are past the point of worrying whether or not they will find enough food and are putting priority on things like education and caring for those in their community and family that are in need. In more ways than one, they are passing on the gift.
Our journey ended in the town of Livingstone, near the Zambia/Zimbabwe border, where a different attraction is drawing large numbers of tourists. A massive gorge of the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls stretches 1.7 kilometers from end to end with a height of 108 meters. Though the falls can be viewed from Zimbabwe as well, sightseers have all but given up venturing into its political instability. They come from all around the world in droves to lay eyes on the falls and don rain ponchos to protect from the endless spray emanating from the rushing of water into the deep basin below.
More refreshing than the cool water of the Zambezi, however, was to be outnumbered by the hundreds of middle class Zambian tourists who came to glimpse the falls at the same time as I did. Only then could I begin to visualize an Africa where its citizens had not only attained the necessities of life, but also the luxuries of leisure.