Thursday, November 29, 2007

What makes a good "change agent"?

Who’s the boss?!

The chairman of one of the grower cooperatives involved in the sorghum project came to visit me today. He wanted more copies of the Sorghum Production pamphlet we had put together for the farmers. We chatted for a couple of minutes about the rains and how farmers are starting to plant. And just before leaving, he said to me, “You are our boss!” I was floored. “I most certainly am NOT your boss!” I thought.

Whyson and I have been working incredibly hard to de-emphasize the role CARE is playing in this project. The goal is to create a sustainable sorghum market in Zambia via local players. We partner with strong cooperatives in the district and let them lead the project – they are the bosses. Not CARE. Not Whyson. And certainly not me!

I often wonder how the cooperatives and farmers really perceive me. I mostly feel like a “glorified Vanna White”, as Nina put it (though I do hope I’m adding more value than just being flip-chart holding eye candy!) No matter how hard I try, I will always be different. And sometimes, this difference creates a weird dynamic between the farmers and me, as was made apparent by the chairman who had no qualms calling me his boss.

Pretty much all the field workers at CARE are Zambian. They speak the local languages that I’m desperately trying to pick up. They understand cultural nuances that fly way over my head. They can relate to the farmers on a more genuine level, or at least, that’s what I think. Then there are the leaders within the communities themselves that understand their own challenges better than I ever will and are probably the best people to lead the change we’re intending. So I wonder…am I the best person to be doing this job? What makes a good change agent anyways?

My co-worker, Nchobeni, and I out in the field

“Come And Receive Empowerment!”

Empowerment is a popular development buzzword. Every project out here is trying to “empower” something or other – women, children, vulnerable farmers, their chickens…the word is so over used that it has lost its important meaning. Even the intended beneficiaries of this “empowerment” aren’t impressed by it anymore. A clever farmer in Sikaunzwe jokingly said CARE stood for “Come And Receive Empowerment”. (CARE was an acronym at one time, but it definitely wasn’t this one!)

I can see where he’s coming from. CARE’s reputation for handing things out – food aid, bed nets, free seed, etc – precedes them wherever they go, so it’s not a stretch to imagine farmers lining up to receive “empowerment”. This picture is made even more comical/scary when it’s me, a foreigner, handing it out…yikes!

All joking aside, this is actually quite a serious issue. This sorghum project, amongst others that CARE is undertaking, is not about hand outs. It’s about improving rural livelihoods by facilitating a sustainable agricultural market. We’re encouraging entrepreneurialism at both the farmer and cooperative levels through sorghum, our commodity of choice. Our underlying assumption is that we can create this “behaviour change” by demonstrating that growing sorghum as a cash crop will improve food security and increase household income.

Whyson speaking to a group of women farmers

Positive Deviance.

There are many ways to approach creating behaviour change within a community. A popular line of thinking is based on positive deviance. The basic principle behind this is that finding small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in a community and amplifying them creates more permanent change than importing solutions from the outside in. In other words, a local change agent leading a locally made solution creates lasting behaviour change.

In our production training sessions, we tried to identify these positive deviants, or “teachers amongst us”, as Whyson likes to call them. Instead of a top down, lecture style learning session, we broke the farmers into small groups and gave them some questions to answer about sorghum production methods. We allowed them to discuss the answers amongst themselves and then present their findings to the whole group.

A small group engaged in discussion
about sorghum production methods.

A lively conversation ensued that highlighted the good practices of farmers who had experience growing sorghum. This led into even more interesting discussions about agricultural marketing, which highlighted the practices of farmers who know how to do business. We left each session feeling confident that the activity had not only identified positive deviants but allowed other people to engage them in fruitful discussions. They weren’t learning from us, they were (and hopefully still are) learning from each other.

A group compiling best practices.

Social Marketing.

Another way of approaching behaviour change is through social marketing. Social marketing aims to bring about social change using concepts from commercial marketing. The ultimate objective is to influence action. Though I won’t go into details about the theory behind social marketing, there are a couple important points to consider. One is that the intended change should be a credible answer to the actual frustrations being experienced by the target audience. Another point is that understanding the audience perception is critical and almost more important than reality.

So the questions we much ask ourselves include:

- What are the farmers in the Southern Province unhappy about?

- Does our project address those dissatisfactions?

- And how do they perceive our project and the change it intends to create?

In answering the first, it is fair to say that most farmers in the Southern Province are extremely dissatisfied with growing maize. It fails to meet expectations, year after year, as erractic rainfall and localized droughts reduce yields. But maize is the only marketable crop for farmers (the government is the buyer), so they keep growing it even though payment times can be incredibly drawn out (some farmers have yet to be paid almost 6 months after harvest!) It’s a catch 22 that keeps rural households food insecure and low on cash. Sorghum, with its drought tolerance and available market can address these dissatisfactions.

So what about their perception of the project? Mr. Muleya, another cooperative chairman, says NGO’s come in all the time to promote different crops. He says villagers listen very carefully to see if there is “life” in the project before buying in. That “life” usually comes in the form of an available market. His village has tried growing tobacco, paprika, soy beans, and even castor oil seeds, all in hopes of accessing that ever elusive market. But all those projects failed because, from what I understand, the markets never materialized.

Mr. Muleya beside a wonderful masuku fruit tree

I wonder, though, whether my very presence as a foreigner brings “life” to a project. I’m very aware of the fact that Mr. Muleya’s answers are going to be slightly – no, very – distorted because he’s talking to me. But this is not the first time I got this feeling.

The sorghum project has had an EWB volunteer attached to it from its inception, and I wonder whether part of its success is due to our very presence as foreigners. I wonder if we bring some sort of sparkle-factor that villagers perceive to be attractive or exciting. Perhaps we lend a credible voice to the project because we, as foreigners, are perceived to be honest, straightforward, and, realistically or not, more intelligent. At worst, our presence brings out a sense of fearful respect, vestige of years of colonial rule and imposed development projects, that motivates people to buy in. It’s entirely possible.

Fair game.

Within the context of marketing, I think this is fair game. When was the last time you bought a product just because some snazzy celebrity endorsed it? Or because a smart salesman convinced you? Or because someone you respected a great deal told you to? Is this not the same thing? Right, wrong, or straight out manipulative, I feel that having a foreigner on a project like this definitely helps adoption.

But there are some drawbacks. Contrary to a positive deviance approach, this can be like imposing a solution from the outside with a big assumption that it’s the right solution. To be honest, I’m beginning to feel a little evangelical about sorghum! I do believe it’s the right solution, but that’s a judgement call this project has made.

I also definitely don’t feel comfortable being the reason farmers are adopting the crop – especially if it is out of fear. I don’t think this is the case most of the time, but when a chairman calls me his boss, I begin to wonder. Because of this feeling, I’ve been keeping my direct interaction with farmers to a minimum. I would love to spend most of my days out in the fields with the farmers, learning more about their livelihoods and breaking down stereotypes about foreigners. But I can’t do it as much as I’d like to for fear of distorting the project.

When I do spend time in the field, my honesty and enthusiasm appears to be well-received, which does much to build trust. And at the end of the day, this is what counts most. I’m beginning to feel that genuine excitement is a critical part of being an effective change agent, no matter where you’re from. Excitement is contagious, so I’m going to continue to spread the (sorghum) love!

Feelin' the love!

Hugs to you all!

Thulasy :)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

These are a few of my favorite things...

Comfort vs discomfort.

I distinctly remember how I felt when the plane landed the first time I came to Zambia in 2004...”Oh my goodness! I’m in AFRICA!” I was wide-eyed and giddy with excitement. My senses were overloaded. My emotions swung between the extremes of joy and sadness, gratitude and anger, and inspiration and frustration with all that I saw and experienced. It was a time of learning and great personal growth. And in the end, I left Zambia with a strong sense of hope for the future and a feeling that I would return, though I didn’t know when.

Now I’m back, and while I still marvel at the world around me, my reaction has not been as strong as it was the first time I came. Cramming myself into a sliver of space in a crowded, rickety minibus is no longer an adventure but simply a way to get around. Eating nshima with “interesting” relishes (like cow tongue, which I had for the first time the other day) is not a special event but a normal, everyday activity. Using the local greetings isn’t a self-deprecating act of hilarity but just an expected and respectful way to say Hello. I am feeling very comfortable here...and at first, this worried me. I was afraid that I was losing my sense of wonder. Why wasn’t I feeling anything as strongly as I did before? Was I not being present? Was it possible that I was I feeling too comfortable??

I’ve since realized that there is nothing wrong with this sense of comfort. Far from being a sign of cultural stagnation, it’s actually a sign that I’m getting into the real stuff of life here in Zambia. Instead of being struck over the head by the big things, it’s the sum of all the little things that keep my sense of wonder alive and well. So I thought it would be fun to share with you all those little things that make me smile everyday.

Home life.

I now live on a farm, the Gold Acres farm, 7km outside the town of Kalomo. I live with a Tonga family 15 people strong, and they are the most wonderful host family I could ask for. We live in an old farm house, remnants of white farmers from years gone by, and although it’s a little run down, it’s perfect for this family. Mr. Mwiinga, my host father, is the manager of the local abbatoir. Beatrice, his first wife (Tonga’s are traditionally polygamist), is a seamstress with a very big heart. Then there’s a swath of children, some of whom are orphaned cousins, and there are always guests, members of the extended family (3 aunts at the moment). And I mustn’t forget to mention the cattle, chickens, dogs, and cat (Chelsea, named after the football club) that roam the property all day long.

Welcome home!

Jr. and Namwiinga in front of the house and
beside my primary method of transportation

This is a farming family. Although they rent the farm and manage the owner’s cattle, they are allowed to plant their own crops for sale and consumption. We will soon be planting maize, potatoes, tomatoes, and hopefully sorghum in anticipation of the upcoming rainy season. But for the time being, they irrigate a small garden plot for home consumption, and I LOVE eating fresh veggies everyday.

My 12 year old host sister, Twaambo,
in front of the garden and bore hole

I’ve been particularly lucky to find a good friend in Sylvia, the eldest in the family. She has a daughter, Nyarai, who has just turned 1 year old. Like a lot of the small children here in Zambia, Nyarai was very uncertain of my presence. She would furrow her brow and give me a disconcerting stare, as if to say, “I don’t know about you...” The look is priceless. Fortunately, she is now used to having me around, and I’ve taught her to give high fives and makes blubbering noises with her mouth. We’re tight.

Left to right: Baby Nyrai, Sylvia, Lenley (back),
Yvonne, friend I don't know, and Twaambo

That's the look...oh, she's so not sure of me...

The fields of Zambia are filled with good intentions gone wrong – unused wells and pumps, solar panel systems that have fallen into disrepair, and of course, tonnes of broken down, rusted out, stripped down tractors. They’re everywhere. And each time I see one, I’m reminded that handing out seemingly useful technologies may not be the best way to improve people’s lives, no matter how good the intentions are. But they do serve one good purpose – they can make great lawn ornaments.

Best lawn ornament ever

Town life.

I use my bicycle to get into and out of town for work everyday and spend most of my time on the weekends there too. My favorite places in town are the ones where people go to talk, have a chat, and shoot the shit with friends.

Beatrice’s shop is in the heart of the market, and she and her cohort Sarah host a constant flow of patrons and visitors. Beatrice is an excellent seamstress and spends her days making beautiful chitenge suits (blouses and skirts made of colourful African fabrics) for the ladies of Kalomo.

Sarah in the foreground and Beatrice,
chatting up a storm, behind the counter

Judy’s house is where I get the low down on what’s really happening in Kalomo. Judy is Mr. Mwiinga’s 2nd wife. She’s a talker...the kind of lady you want to be friends with but also the type you never want to be foes with. Between talking to Beatrice, Judy, and their daughters, I’m getting a glimpse into the fascinating world of polygamy. I could (and may, in the future) dedicate an entire blog entry to this subject, but for now, all I can say is that it’s kinda cool most of the time, kinda frustrating some of the time, and crazy confusing for me almost all of the time. I still have a lot to learn.

Judy and the girls

Life life.

Then there are a plethora of little random things that I love seeing everyday.

There’s the beautiful jacaranda tree, whose purple flowers bring life to the dry, dust swept landscape of the dry season.

Stunning tree on my ride to work

There’s a moringa tree in our farm yard. This, in itself, is rather un-extraordinary. BUT, it’s pretty humorous to me. Amma has been cooking the fruit of the moringa trees in her traditional Sri Lankan stew for years and years, but I never knew how they grew or what they looked like in the wild. I actually never really thought about it. Just another reminder of how disconnected I am from the food I eat.

Moringa trees...who knew?

African bubble gum is a fruit-like thing that grows on trees in our farm yard. You basically crack them open, take out the seeds, and chew the sweet, gooey segments into a pulp, which you then spit out. Chewing these is favorite pre-supper activity for my family. And they’re pretty tasty too.

Crack 'em open and chow down

Deleli, or okra, comes in two forms in Zambia: the pod form (which can be found in Canadian supermarkets as well) and the wild form. The wild form can be found in the hinterland behind the farm house. So every once in awhile, the ladies go out to pick the wild okra. We go out in the evenings, when the sun is setting and it’s cool. I love going out, picking them, and immediately cooking them into a yummy, albeit gooey, relish.

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to pick we go!

And in the middle of no where...

...we find them

A lot of people in Zambia cook over fire or charcoal stoves because they don’t have power and/or electric stoves. One day, my friend Hilda said we would be baking cakes, but I had no idea how we were going to do this without an oven. When I inquired, she simply said, “Fire on top, fire on bottom.” I had no idea what she was talking about until I saw it. It’s brilliant! And the cakes were delicious.

Fire on top, fire on bottom baking

Green cakes for a treat

As with most things, there is, of course, balance.

I’d be lying if I said everything was hunky dory over here. I can safely say that yes, 98% of the time, things are hunky dory (whatever that really means). And the rest of the time, well...

I’ve had my fair share of “Arg! I’m so irritated!!” moments. These mostly happen when I’m exhausted. Too tired to listen to and learn Tonga, too tired to humour the people who call out to me at the market, too tired to explain that one lump is plenty nshima for me, too tired to laugh when being laughed at for whatever strange thing it is that I’m doing, too tired to push myself to learn more and be thoughtful...these moments are very rare, but sometimes, there’s only so much putting-myself-out-there I can do without getting any reciprocation.

I’m more than happy to get to know people and their culture, but I see cultural integration as a two-way street – I get to know you, you get to know me. It’s just that the getting-to-know-me part is hard to do. It requires a special sort of friendship with a lot of trust and understanding. I may be on my way to getting this with my host sister Sylvia but not with anyone else quite yet. And that’s ok. Because most of the time, I’m over-the-top happy about being here, experiencing amazing things, doing work that I love doing, and being able to share it with all my family and friends back home.

Thulasy :)

Monday, October 1, 2007

My (nerdy) learning curve


I’ve been in Zambia for about 2 months now. It’s been a whirlwind of learning on all fronts, but particularly on the project front. I fully admit that I’m a city girl, so the nitty-gritty details of agriculture and rural livelihoods have never really concerned me, not in Canada, not in Africa. As far as I was concerned, food production, agricultural markets, agribusiness in general…they were just magical mechanisms humming in the background of my day-to-day existence.

Comfortably separated from (but essentially enabled by) these mechanisms, I pondered big ideas about the unsustainable use of mass-produced fertilizers, the pros and cons of agricultural subsidies and protectionism, the growth of fair-trade and organic markets, the ever-more-frequent environmental extremes being experienced around the world…all important ponderings, yes, but never once did I stop to think about what it means to be a farmer. What do all those big ideas look like from their perspective, from the beginning of the chain? And more importantly, what do they spend their time thinking about?

In order to address this outstanding gap in my knowledge, I’ve dedicated the first few months of this placement to getting a better picture of what it means to be a farmer in Zambia.

A bit of context.

Small-scale farmers in the chronically food insecure region of the Southern Province are concerned with one main thing: growing enough food to eat, and if all goes well, a bit of surplus to sell. They grow and eat maize here. But maize needs more rain than this drought-prone area has been getting lately. Sorghum, however, is a drought-tolerant crop, which can serve two purposes: it can be sold to market for cash and it can be eaten. Silver bullet? If only it was that easy.

Small-scale farmers are incredibly vulnerable – to drought, to volatile commodity prices, to transportation costs, the list can go on indefinitely. As such, they are very risk-averse. Adopting a new crop like sorghum on the grounds that it’s a “good idea” is simply not enough. The project needs to convince farmers to grow, eat, and sell sorghum.

The goal is to facilitate the growth of a sorghum market in Zambia that small-scale farmers can participate in. Existing agricultural cooperatives that have strong leadership and business acumen are chosen by CARE to be “partners” in the project. These coops will buy sorghum from the farmers in their respective areas, bulk it, and sell it to Coventry Hawke Commodities (CHC) under contracts that are negotiated by CARE. CARE initially plays a large role in the process but slowly steps away as the reins are handed over to the farmers, the cooperatives, the buyers, and what hopefully will be a self-sustaining market.

To get farmers on board, CARE runs awareness meetings at each of the partner coops, inviting farmers from around the area. And what we do is essentially a sales pitch. We deliver an informal presentation about sorghum. We explain how sorghum is drought tolerant. How it is cheaper to grow than maize (because it doesn’t require fertilizer) and thus more profitable per kg. We tell them about the guaranteed market to CHC, and their main buyer Zambian Breweries, who are using sorghum in their new line of beer, Eagle Lager. (SAB Miller, their parent company, has been lauded for their work with small-scale farmers in Uganda and hope to do the same in Zambia.)

They are told that the project is about improving livelihoods, with the goals of:

1. Income generation;
2. Improved food security; and,
3. Crop diversification

So farmers volunteer to grow sorghum, get some free seed (only in the first 2 years), get some production training from CARE, get some extension-like support from a sorghum supervisor hired by the coop, and away they go. They plant, they weed, they scare away the birds, they harvest, and they get some food AND some cash. Well, that’s the idea.

Timing is everything.

The weather is acting weird here in Zambia. There are clouds in the normally blemish free blue sky. Not just a few but lots of clouds. It’s an ominous sign…the rains are coming soon. But it’s much too early for rain. September is supposed to be blazing hot and dry. There shouldn’t be any clouds in the sky, but they’re here now…

The clouds have started rolling in

There are a number of factors that affect crop yield for a small-scale farmer – rainfall, pests, use of fertilizers or chemicals (pest-/herbicides), available labour, available farming implements (plows, oxen, tractors even), etc. But from what I can tell, the number one make-or-break factor for a small-scale farmer is the timing of planting. Timing is crucial. In theory, seeds should be planted just after the first rains. And then it must rain again within the first few days and weeks to ensure germination. After that, consistent rains are required until crop maturity, and the length of time to maturity depends on the type and variety of crop.

Seasonal calendar for maize in Zambia, which is roughly the same for sorghum.
Source: FEWS Net Zambia

In the Southern Province, farmers are encouraged to plant as early as possible – after the first rains in November or early December – to take advantage of what little rain they do receive during an increasingly shorter and inconsistent rainy season. Most of the farmers we’re working with don’t have access to irrigation, so the rule is to plant early...easy-peasy? Far from it. I can only wonder what those farmers are thinking when they look at the sky these days, with the clouds coming and the smell of rain in the air. When should they plant?

Last year, many farmers delayed planting for fear of jumping the gun and ruining their chances of good germination, but then the rains stopped before their plants reached maturity. Those who planted earlier were not necessarily more successful – germination failed for lack of rain or erratic rainfall (floods in some areas, drought in others) reduced yields. All this makes it seem that choosing the time for planting is like playing a game of chicken with the sky.

Risky business.

I’ve always heard that farming is not easy. Even a few years ago when Albertan farmers bemoaned the lack of rain and how it was affecting their livelihoods, I heard them, but I wasn’t really listening. Here in Zambia, I’m finally getting the message loud and clear – farming is risky business.

Since controlling the rains (or buying them, which is essentially what irrigation allows) is not an option for these farmers, we’re putting all our efforts into creating a production training workshop for sorghum growers that will (hopefully) help in mitigating some of the risks they face. We’ve whittled it down to 3 main messages:

1. Plant on time - Plant early for late maturing varieties and later for early maturing varieties

2. Plant properly - Use suggested spacing, depth, and seed rate per station, and ideally inter-crop or rotate with legumes to enrich nitrogen content of soil

3. And practice good field hygiene - weed, thin, and transplant plants as appropriate

This is not revelatory information for most farmers, they know farming better than I ever will. But lack of resources – labour, farming implements, etc – inhibits them from performing these basic activities. And even if they do everything by the book, their field can be decimated by unpredictable factors like birds (who like sorghum) or a herd of elephants or, of course, floods/drought. They do what they can with what they have, hedge their bets whenever possible, and hope for the best.

From theory to reality.

In an attempt to inform myself on the ins-and-outs of sorghum production, I mined all the literature I could find about it. I read about sorghum production around the world. I read about average yields, what environments (temperatures, rainfall, soils) they thrive in, how risks (environmental stresses, pests, diseases) can be mitigated, and how seeds can be stored. I soaked up everything I could find, filled my head with sorghum information, then headed to the field to talk to farmers.

I’m not na├»ve enough to think that what I read would be the reality of small-scale sorghum farmers in Zambia. I’ve read Robert Chambers and have internalized his mantra that the lives of poor people are lcddu – local, complex, diverse, dynamic, and unpredictable/uncontrollable. But even with all this in the back of my head, I was astounded at how lcddu the lives of these farmers really are.

Each farmer had a story. Some of the stories were good (Regina grew a remarkable 42 by 50kg bags of sorghum last year, despite bad rains), some were not so good (Patricia failed to harvest any sorghum last year due to rampaging elephants), some made me want to cheer (Christine didn’t have a stellar sorghum harvest, but she’s diversified her income with an gorgeous garden), others made me want to cry (Mary managed to grow a bit of sorghum, but her house burned down this year). Overall, no two were alike.

Christine with her lovely garden, from which she gave us fistfuls of yummy carrots...mmmm!

Reconciling the reality of sorghum production with the theory is a near impossible task. In fact, I got incredibly discouraged during my last field visit – story after story made me think, “How are ever going make this work?” But I had to step back and look at the whole picture. The bad stories were distracting me from the good ones, of which there are many.

Why I can’t not be excited about this!

Farmers from non-target areas have heard things about the sorghum market and they want in. In fact, farmers from Muzya were not even officially included in last year’s project, but they still grew sorghum, even out-grew official participants of the project, and are by far the most enthusiastic group going into this year. Even more remarkable is the fact that these people have been receiving food aid from CARE for at least the last couple years and have not grown complacent or dependent because of it – they are determined to grow food for themselves. I’m incredibly encouraged by this group. And their enthusiasm proves that this sorghum idea may be a great one.

Farmers at a meeting in Muzya

Farmers, recognizing the trends in the weather and lacking cattle for plowing due to an outbreak of CBPP, are now choosing to practice conservation farming techniques, such as pot-holing the land during the dry season (i.e., right now). Pot-holing is done to aid water retention and germination come planting time but it requires a considerable amount of physical labour. Despite this, farmers are doing it and some are even experimenting with the technique by varying the size of the holes to see which size will work best for their specific conditions. I’m glad to see the techniques of conservation farming – which will serve them well far into the future – used without prompting.

Farmer with his pot-holed plot

As an incentive for farmers to participate in the project, CARE organizes an annual sorghum competition that rewards the highest producers with cash prizes. We just held the award ceremonies for harvest from the 2006/07 growing season last week. The largest competition was held in Sikaunzwe, which has been in involved in the project for 2 years now. And many of the top producers – including the top winner – were women farmers. When Josephine went up to get her award, holding her child’s hand, she looked so incredibly proud. And I was proud that this project was at the very least highlighting the hard work of many amazing women farmers, who are now able to earn a little cash for their households.

Josephine, grand prize winner of Sikaunzwe's Sorghum Competition

With rain (or sorghum?) comes relief.

When I left the competition at Sikaunzwe, I didn’t join the CARE staff in the convoy back to Livingstone. I jumped on a mini-bus headed in the opposite direction to Mwandi, where my friends Bryan and Patti are currently volunteering. On the ride out there, dark clouds rolled in above us and suddenly started dumping buckets. The bus had to stop so that we could get the luggage (that we were towing) into the bus through the windows. It’s the first time I was caught in such a torrent in Zambia. The temperature dropped and the air smelled clean and cool. I took a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief.

A good friend of mine once used “relief” to describe what it means to be human. I’m not sure I remember what she meant by it, but it stuck with me for reasons of my mine. When the rain fell, I got an inkling of the kind of relief a farmer might feel. I think I'm starting to get what I set out to get - understanding the perspective of a small-scale farmer - though there's still lots to learn.

I know there’s no guarantee the rains will be decent this year, but my hope is that a vulnerable farmer living in a village several kilometers away from the paved road, who is responsible for feeding the many mouths of her extended family, can get some relief – no matter how infinitesimal – by growing sorghum this year.

Thulasy :)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Home in Kalomo

After a long wait...I’m finally here!

Here I am, in my new home, the town of Kalomo. After 3 weeks of in-country training in Lusaka and project overlap with the outgoing EWB volunteer in Livingstone, I was left in Kalomo, all by my lonesome. Truth be told, I had been eagerly awaiting this moment – being dropped in the middle of nowhere and left to fend for myself – and even complained a little about all the hand-holding we were got upon arrival. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the guidance, but honestly, I’m ready to just get at it!

I am going to be based out of CARE Zambia’s Kalomo Field Office for at least the next few months, and last Wednesday, I met my new co-workers. There are 22 people in the office. CARE, being the mega-ngo (non-governmental organization) that it is, works on a wide variety of projects. While its bread and butter has been emergency/relief type work, they are slowly changing direction towards development work. The sorghum project I’m working on is part of this new direction.

Step 1: Find a place to live.

My first and foremost objective was to find a place to live. Nothing fancy, something shared, preferably with a family, something within my $14/day living budget. I thought this would be a little difficult, but it was actually sorted out before I even arrived! Celestina, a co-worker at the office, was already looking for a roommate. So I promptly moved into her 2 bedroom house, equipped with electricity, running water, a stove and sink, and a self-contained flush toilet. Not too shabby. But while life with Celestina is wonderful, I would prefer to live with a Tongan family so that I can learn the local culture and language. Plus, I love having kids around :) So I’m going to stay with her for a couple of months while I search out another place to stay.

Step 2: Make friends.

For the last couple days, I’ve been tagging along with my co-workers as they go about their normal routines – work, shopping in Choma (one town to the east), cooking, socializing. They’ve taken me under their wing, which is very nice of them. But I was eager to get out into the community and explore for myself. My opportunity came on Saturday, when Celestina went to Livingstone for the weekend, and I had pretty much nothing to do.

I was finally free to jump out of my comfort zone and get to know Kalomo. So I gathered up my nerve (nerve is required, even for an extrovert like me) and walked out to the market. Kalomo is located on the rail line and major highway between Lusaka and Livingstone, but it’s a very small town, the kind of town you’d miss if you blinked, kind of like Innisfail, Alberta. So it didn’t take me long to reach the Kalomo Dairy Cooperative, one of our partners in the sorghum project. I was greeted by a friendly face, Hilda, the manager of the coop’s milk business. I had met Hilda earlier in the week when Whyson (field facilitator extraordinaire for the sorghum project), Sylvester (wonder-driver), and I did our sensitization rounds with the new coops in the project. I was immediately put at ease by her warm welcome. We chatted for awhile, then she invited me to a “small celebration” out at a nearby village that afternoon. I responded with an enthusiastic “Yes, absolutely!”

I was told to meet her at the coop at 1pm, even though time means almost nothing here. While I waited for her, I chatted with a Bangladeshi abattoir owner, and he remarked that, “time, value-less.” Interesting contrast to Western notions of time is money. Soon enough, Hilda arrived. “Hey you, let’s go!”, she roared. I jumped into the car, her friend Fred in the driver’s seat, she handed me a lollipop and we drove off into the countryside blaring the tunes of Don Williams. Hilda and Fred? More like Bonnie and Clyde..I knew immediately that we would be good friends.

Hilda and Fred

Step 3. Have fun.

I had no idea what to expect from this “small celebration”, but it didn’t matter, I was up for an adventure. And if you haven’t heard already, any time you travel in Africa, there’s a big chance you’re in for unexpected happenings. The vehicles, even the good ones at CARE, are touch and go. I have taken to completely ignoring the strange noises and smells that come from under the hood, the broken speed/odometers, and fuel gauges that are always at “E” (like Kramer, I’d like to see how far past the slash we can go!) The roads are notoriously bad, so rocky and pot-holed that they torture any vehicle’s alignment, that is, when you’re not sinking in sand or water. It being the dry season now, we happened upon some sand. Fred not-so-skillfully tried to maneuver around it while Hilda giggled away.

Stuck in the sand

We drove past a sign that said, “Zunga Zunga Palace. The Home of HRH Chief Supitunyana”. “Is this where we’re going?!” I blurted out. Yup, we were going to the chief’s post-harvest celebration. We were, of course, late, so we sat anonymously at the back. This didn’t last long. After the speeches, we were motioned to the front to eat a meal with the “important” people. Fred and I declined, feeling we weren’t nearly important enough to warrant special treatment, but Hilda urged me forward. She and I joined about 20 men for a meal of nshima with village chicken and goat, which were just slaughtered. This was the first of many instances where I will be given privileges over others just because I’m a muzungu – or Westerner. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a novelty wherever I go, and if it doesn’t harm anyone or compromise my values, I’m ok with playing along.

Chief addressing the crowd

After the meal, Hilda and I walked around and socialized with the villagers that had gathered from around the area to participate in the celebration. I felt a little out of place, having come late, unwarrantably eaten with the important people, and foolishly forgotten my chitenge (the local cloth that women wrap around their waists). But to my surprise, I knew quite a few of the people from the sensitization meetings of the week before. So many familiar faces, all I could do was smile and repeat, “Mwalibiya buti?” (How are you? in Tonga) over and over again. They love hearing the greeting, and it seemed enough to be forgiven all trespasses.

Women preparing lunch

But Clyde/Fred was getting restless and Bonnie/Hilda bored, so like any good dine-n-dash-post-harvest-celebration-crasher, we left early, before everyone could notice. I’d like to say that I was innocent, just following their lead, but I pretty much became their backseat accomplice as soon as I jumped in the car. We had a laugh that afternoon.

Step 4. Culture Shock

To continue the roller-coaster analogy, I feel like I’m being pulled up that initial climb, slowly but surely anticipating the inevitable plummet. See, I’m very much aware that I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my placement. I’m loving every minute of it – all the differences I encounter make me smile, I’m reveling in the wonder of it all. But I know this won’t last forever. Soon everyone in Kalomo will be used to me, the novelty of both them and me will wear off, and I will be faced with the reality of the situation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad reality, it’s all about perception. Since I realize this now and am anticipating it, I’m sure I’ll be able to mitigate the downsides of culture shock. But if all else fails, I can always jump on the adventure wagon with Hilda and Fred and be assured of a good time :)

If you ever feel inclined, you can call or text me at:


I would love to hear from you!


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

I'm off!

Why is my heart beating so quickly?

It’s difficult to describe the tumult of emotion I’ve been feeling for the last few weeks. I spastically alternate between giddy excitement and nail-biting apprehension (for those who know me well, don’t worry, it’s the former that tends to dominate), with moments of calm, clarity speckled in between. I’m feeling anxious in a good way, because despite my apprehension, I’m comforted by the fact that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. In T-minus 10 hours, I will be boarding a plane on-route to Zambia to begin my 13 month placement with Engineers Without Borders.

The details…well, as much as I know.

The details of my placement are still being figured out, but I will share the general gist with you. I have been placed on the EWB / CARE Zambia “Sorghum Market Enterprise Project.” Sorghum, eh? Well I’m glad you asked.

The staple food crop in Zambia is maize, which is prepared and eaten as a thick porridge called nshima. Everyone loves nshima. No meal is complete without nshima. But all is not well in the world of maize. It requires consistent rainfall to thrive, and the Southern Province of Zambia has been hit by increasingly frequent droughts over the past two decades. As a result, the area is suffering from chronic food insecurity, so in 2005, EWB partnered with CARE Zambia to address this in a sustainable manner.

Sorghum is a drought and heat tolerant cereal crop native to the region that appears to have real market potential in Zambia. This project aims to promote sorghum as a viable alternative crop in drought prone areas. The idea is to establish a sustainable, market-driven “value-chain” whereby farmers can grow and sell sorghum as a cash crop. And in years where their maize crop fails, the surplus sorghum can be used to supplement their food supply, thereby improving food security. This is the ultimate goal.

The project has fared well in its first two years, and Nina Lothian (fellow EWB volunteer) and I will be coming in to help with scale-up and expansion. But while all this seems like a great idea and I’m very excited about it, I’m also very aware of the many challenges still ahead on the long road to food security and sustainability.

Who, what, where, when...why???

Me. Sorghum. Zambia. 13 months. And the big why…

There are many reasons why I decided to take this next step, and I don’t think I can fully articulate them, except to say it just seemed like the right thing to do. This probably sounds like a cop-out answer, a not-so-clever way of avoiding a hard question. But it’s the best way for me to describe it – the right thing to do.

During our pre-departure learning session, we were asked to pick 3 things from an enormous list that describe what we value most. My 3 things were: Do the right thing, fun and laughter, and of course, love. And if you look at it this way, it becomes obvious why I’ve chosen to take this path.

I have an incredible appreciation for community, for it is fun and laughter and love all made manifest. But I also feel very strongly about the injustices facing humanity. And so it is my belief in this common humanity, this global community that has compelled me to be a part of the solution, to do the right thing.

I expect this placement to be the funnest time ever. I also expect it to be one of the hardest. But that’s why I signed up…I’m ready for the challenges, and I’m open to the good times. I’m looking forward to getting to know the people of Zambia and letting them get to know me. And hopefully, I’ll have some impact along the way. It will be a roller-coaster year of awesomeness, and I’d like to invite you to join me on the ride.

Lots of love,


Thursday, July 26, 2007

I'll post soon...

...I promise!

T :)