Friday, December 5, 2008

What is she doing??

The short answer.

At the beginning of October, I started my second placement with Engineers Without Borders. This time around, I’m partnered with International Development Enterprises (IDE). Their mission: To increase the income of small holder farmers through the production and sale of high value crops, namely vegetables. How do they do it? The gist is this:

+ Training (in vegetable growing)
+ Access (to micro-credit, inputs, and irrigation)
+ Opportunities (to sell their vegetables at a fair price)

= Rural Household with $

This is an easy thing to write in a proposal (1+1=2, right?), but it is actually an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice. It involves taking an approach that is radically different from those taken in typical agricultural projects.

This is all about business. Nothing is given away for free. Everything is accessed for full price through the private sector. Easy peasy? Not quite. The agricultural sector in Zambia is very under-developed and poorly functioning. It tends to exploit or completely exclude small holder farmers. Small holders can’t make money from farming, and if they do, not fairly.

There is a lack of confidence in the system. But because of this, there exists an opportunity for NGOs, like IDE, to act as honest brokers to help create a functional market in which small holders can fairly participate.

What am I doing? My mandate is to build the capacity of IDE’s field staff to better facilitate market linkages. Disregard the jargon and read on.

The long answer.

My work with IDE has me abuzz with new thoughts on development and (gasp!) even some hope. Yay! Gone are the days of thinly veiled cynical melancholy. I’m excited all over again! This time, though, I’m a bit hardened, a bit more realistic, and perhaps even a little contentious. Watch out!

What am I so excited about? Simply put, it’s about the people.

“Well, Thulasy, if it wasn’t always about the people, what was it about??” Good question.

I spent my first 14 months overseas trying to define this problem of poverty for myself and coming up with some reasonable solutions to it. It was about ideas and how those ideas relate to people, mostly village farmers. What did I learn?

I learned that there are a lot of smart people out there coming up with some pretty ingenious solutions to the ginormous, multi-dimensional, infinitely complex problem that is poverty.

The main challenge, however, is not really in finding the perfect solution, per se, but in actually applying a good-enough solution to the real world. In development-speak, we call this “implementation”.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just givin’r and gettin’r done.

When it all,
all falls down.
I’m tellin’ you all,
it all falls down.

– Lauryn Hill, The Mystery of Iniquity

Markets and trust.

Local field workers are at the front lines of development projects. They are the ones who are ultimately responsible for translating those great ideas - seeming panaceas for poverty - into meaningful impact.

Problem is, big time donors, who are wildly excited about the great-idea-of-the-moment, expect big time results from these field workers, not just by now, but by yesterday.

Expectations like that cannot be met in the blink of an eye. This project may be about getting more money down to farmers, but it takes a lot of time and concerted effort to get money to flow in a system that is completely devoid of any semblance of trust.

Functional markets are built on trust. Think about it: You implicitly trust that you’ll get the perfect non-fat, extra-hot, half-sweet venti chai latte from the stranger behind the counter mere seconds after you order it (at least I do). The barista, in turn, trusts that you will front the cash before you indulge in your afternoon pick-me-up.

Small holder farmers, however, have never been able to trust seed suppliers to offer reliable products and services, and vegetable buyers have never been able to trust small holders to supply a reasonable quantity and quality of produce. There is zero institutional trust.

[L]ow income societies have less trust than rich societies….What is important is the radius of trust. Do you trust only the members of your immediate family? Or does the circle widen to include your extended family, or your clan, or your village, or your ethnic group, or all the way to strangers? In a low-trust society, you trust your friends and family, but nobody else.

– William Easterly, White Man’s Burden

“And you’re excited about…?”

Luckily, field staff are excellent trust builders, particularly with farmers. But the role of field staff is changing. They’re responsible for more than just the farmers. They’re responsible for transforming the tenuous (or oft-times non-existent) relationships between farmers and private sector actors (like seed suppliers and vegetable buyers) into healthy, mutually beneficial ones.

I’m here to help the field staff take on this new mandate. I’m responsible for designing and rolling out a tailored, long-term training program for field staff to improve their ability to build these relationships. This is exciting for two reasons:

1) I have a growing hypothesis that investing in good people will improve the implementation process (and, by extension, the impact-generating process) far more than simply pumping more great ideas or money into the system. This will be a great chance to test this hypothesis and hopefully demonstrate success.

2) I am particularly psyched to be working with the up and coming generation of development workers, young Zambian folks like myself, who are unsatisfied with current approaches and are willing to try new things. Many of them are incredibly intelligent and capable but they just need a bit of a boost (training and practice in the short term, coaching over the long term) to take it to the next level.

I’ve spent the past few weeks visiting all of IDE’s 6 field offices, getting to know the field staff, their work, and their challenges. I spent my first placement in Zambia trying to understand and empathize with small holder farmers, and now, I find myself doing the same with field staff.

It’s important for me to consider them as whole human beings - just like myself, just like anyone in Canada - to understand their aspirations, their limitations, and how we can work together to achieve the goals of the project.

It’s always been about people.

This time, the people are just different.

T :)


Order your 2009 wall calendar and holiday cards from EWB, and help us build a world of opportunity. / Commandez votre calendrier 2009 et vos cartes des fêtes d’ISF, et aidez nous à bâtir un monde d’opportunités.

Visit / visitez le

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Choose your own moralizing pitch

I know this is a cop out. I know I owe you all a post about what I'm doing right now, and I promise, it's on the way! Just so you know, I'm working with International Development Enterprises (IDE) on their Gates Foundation funded Rural Prosperity Initiative in Zambia. More to come, but you can peruse their website while you wait:

In the meantime, I wanted to share this, an article I wrote for Dalhousie's Gazette/Sextant newspaper. Much love to Graham Lettner for pushing me to write something that says all the things that usually go unsaid.

T :)


Choose your own moralizing pitch

Today, I wandered into the market in search of a lady selling roasted peanuts.

When I lived in Kalomo, small town Zambia, I knew exactly where to find the ladies hawking their little bags of salty goodness. I also knew with 96% certainty that the nuts were grown locally – so a hard-working small scale farmer got a cut, the struggling market lady got a cut, and I gots me some peanuts. It felt like I was having a bit of direct impact in this world.

But now I'm in big city Zambia. Lusaka. The market has lots to offer but no roasted peanut ladies. So I headed to the grocery store and found some roasted peanuts at the counter. The not-so-impressive label stamped on the not-so-fancy plastic bag said these nuts were grown, roasted, and packaged in Mongu, Zambia.

“Locally grown, locally processed. I’m going to buy local. That seems like a good thing to do.” But before I could pat myself on the back, I hesitated:

Did a village farmer grow these nuts? Probably.
Was the farmer given a fair price for the nuts? Maybe.
Is the processing company good to their workers? Gulp.

I was suddenly reminded of the anxiety I’d feel back in the supermarket in Canada. How could I know that farmers half way around the world were getting a good deal? Now, here I am, in country, and I still don’t know for sure!

This is where you, kind reader, roll your eyes into the back of your head and think, “Buy the peanuts already, you self-righteous, melodramatic hack. While you’re at it, take that patronizing bleeding heart of yours and shove it up your…”

I’m aware that you’re aware of the food crisis. The energy, financial, and climate crises. You’re likely tired of the barrage of pleas to eat less meat or buy a Prius. Plant a tree. Exercise. Talk to old people. I’m not trying to convince you of any of this. Here is where you get to choose your own adventure:

Go to A) if you want to hear a didactic rant about why you should think more about your food.

Go to B) if you want to hear why I bought the packaged peanuts.

A) The world is going to hell in a hand basket, and you – YOU – should care more about it. You should be worried about where your food comes from, how the environment and people get hurt all along the way. You should be worried about the long term effects of fertilizers and pesticides on your pituitary gland. Or those of your unborn children.

Maybe you should consider that 100-mile diet. Or maybe you should think about the farmers in nowheresville Zambia that would rather get something from YOU than nothing. Think about sweat shops. Think about the bird flu. Think about bird flu inoculated terrorist bombs. Think about whatever it takes to make you ACT, because let’s face it, if we don’t act soon, Chernobyl won’t look all that bad.

B) I bought the peanuts. I bought them because this isn’t an either-or kind of thing. It isn’t about thinking global and acting local, about being guilty or being noble. This isn’t about us and them and it.

I bought the peanuts because I had a hankering for them. And when I bought them, I appreciated the work of the farmers, processors, and transporters that brought them to me, and how those people have as much a right to make a living as I do.

At some point you have to put your stake in the ground and say, “I think I’m ok with this.” This world is wrought with complexities beyond my comprehension. I don’t claim to have answers.

All I know is that change is possible as long as good, sensible people around the world (like you) are allowed to make decisions not from fear or anxiety but from prudence and sincerity.

Or maybe we should just buy Fair Trade. It’s easier.

For the past year, Thulasy has been working to increase the participation of small scale farmers in fair and sustainable agricultural markets in Zambia.


If that's given you some food for thought, these might too:

Farmer in Chief

Britain on a Plate

And if you're in Edmonton on November 12th, you might be interested in attending an event at City Hall regarding Food Sustainability for the Edmonton Region. Email Debbie Hubbard at: for the deets.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Vacation: NAMIBIA!

Road-trippin' in the desert...can make you a little crazy

Namibia's #1 attraction: Sand. Watch out!

Sunrise from the top of Dune 45

Wee little me!

Laura and I basking in the gloriousness

Powder soft sand

Razor sharp colours

Meet a member of the desert ecosystem

Deadvlei ...or Dali painting?

Sossusvlei in a word: Otherwordly

DIY sandboarding does NOT work

This sandstorm nearly destroyed me; sadly, it took my camera

Me in a tree, my favorite place to be

T :)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A walk, a hurried walk.

Inspired by a scene from Amelie...

[She] has a strange feeling of absolute harmony. It’s a perfect moment. Soft, light…a scent in the air, the quiet murmur of the city. She breathes deeply. Life is simple and clear. A surge of love, an urge to help mankind comes over her…

The weather is getting warmer, it’s HOT hot. Dry and dusty.

Can you smell that? The air is filled with smoke and fire…

Farmers are burning the grasses to coax a bit of new growth.

The jacarandas are starting to bloom.

The president died.

“No! I don’t want to go to Mtendere!”

But I do want some of those gorgeous red tomatoes across the road.

Alas, there are no more avocados…

But look! The mango trees are starting to flower!

The price of gas is rising so quickly…

The taxis drivers are either ripping me off or are in the red.

Little girls squeal, big girls sing Alicia Keys.

That woman just scorned my sandals…admittedly, they are falling apart.

I’m parched.

The sky is so big and blue. It is like this everyday. It reminds me of home.

Sometimes, it seems that things change slowly…

I should cut my hair.

And yet, the times, they are a changing…

The mosquitoes are back…

And soon, so will the rains.

We’ll have a new president or prime minister, wherever we are.

Friends are leaving (farewell, Nina).

But babies are born…

Hilda’s girl is Nkomana (meaning happiness).

And families grow…

Tangson’s granddaughter is Sudha (named after Amma).

I will be leaving sorghum and Kalomo soon, but it’s hard to let go.

As I reflect on what Zambia is right now, I can’t help but think…



I can’t wait for those mangoes.

I will leave you here,

I should heat water for a bath now.

T :)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Who is responsible for "development?"

Big city living.

I haven’t been in Kalomo for the better part of the last couple months. I’ve been working from the head office in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, on a variety of higher level activities – a mid-term assessment of the project, year planning, and a market research study.

While the hustle and bustle of the big city makes Lusaka one of my least favorite places in Zambia, I must admit that it does have a lot to offer. Lusaka is a (relatively) thriving metropolis that offers many luxuries that are simply not found in Kalomo – a wider variety of consumer products, fantastic restaurants, even a movie theater (where I was able to join in on the global frenzy that is Dark Knight!)

And it just so happened that my time in Lusaka coincided with what might very well be one of the city’s biggest events – the annual agriculture and commercial show.

The event is kind of like Zambia’s version of the Calgary Stampede (without as much debauchery…well, maybe a little). It’s a time when the government, the private sector, and civil society all come together to show off and share their work with each other and the general public. It’s a fun event, full of excitement and optimism.

A promising picture of development?

The theme of this year’s show was “Growth in Diversity”. Organizations from all across the development board proudly displayed the fruits of their labour – plenty of positive, feel good stories. It all sounded so great, if this were one’s first experience in Zambia, they would surely think, “Hey, this country is on the move!”

Perhaps that’s true. But I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the disconnect between the positive stories and the realties I’ve seen on the ground, away from Lusaka, out in the villages surrounding Kalomo. Here are a few examples:

This fertilized and treadle pump irrigated garden looks like a dream compared to the tiny bucket fed plots the farmers in the village painstakingly tend to. With the price of fertilizer sky high and a chronic lack of water in the Southern Province, is this a realistic picture of development?

Since the lack of robust, locally suitable seed varieties is a major challenge for small scale farmers in Zambia, this stand boasting several sorghum seed varieties looked promising. But how many of these varieties will actually leave the research station and reach the farmers that need them?

There are lots of important messages in this poster…but would they make sense to a villager? To what kind of villager? My supervisor put it well when he said, “Not all villagers are farmers, and not all poor people can be business people.”

The realities in the field are so far removed from the spectacle of the trade show, the relatively wealthy urban centre of Lusaka, and even the 3rd floor of an NGO’s head office. Why the disconnect? Is there value in telling the feel-good story?

The proof is in the people.

So I’m not trying to be cynical. There is value in telling the feel-good stories. There is value in marketing positive pictures. What makes this acceptable, to me at least, are the amazing people behind the stories who are actually trying to make things happen.

I met a number of exceedingly competent and capable Zambians at the show, people who are genuinely excited about seeing and making “Growth in Diversity” happen. Of all the conversations I had, it was a chance meeting with one extraordinary woman that put a perma-smile on my somewhat skeptical face.

Nina and I went out of our way to check out Sylva Food Solutions because we had heard that, in addition to providing food services, they were working with small scale farmers to preserve traditional vegetables and other forest products using solar driers. I knew nothing more than this and entered the stand with curiosity.

I was impressed by the quality and variety of the dried products they were purveying. Wanting to learn more about the company, I picked up a pamphlet only to learn that this was no ordinary business venture. Sylva Food Solutions was started by a most entrepreneurial woman, one Mrs. Sylvia Banda. The extraordinary growth and success of her business had attracted the attention and recognition of the African Business Awards, which put her in the top 6 of all African business women!

“This is pretty cool,” I thought to myself as I looked up from the pamphlet to see none other than Mrs. Banda herself walking into the room. I had to talk to this lady! So I sidled up to her and stuck out my hand, “Mrs. Banda, if you have a moment, I’d love to hear your story.” Though she was likely one of the busiest people at the show, she took a great deal of time with Nina and me to explain her rise from humble beginnings.

The one of 7 daughters of a large village family, Mrs. Banda’s enterprising nature was evident from a very young age. At primary school, she sold fritters to her classmates. At secondary school she tailored outfits for girls attending school dances. At college, she cooked and sold traditional meals from her dorm. “I believe in my hands,” she told us. I believe in her hands too.

An unabashedly shrewd business woman, Mrs. Banda is a shining example of what entrepreneurialism really means, the different forms “development” can take, and the positive impact one individual can have (even if only driven by self-interest).

Down and out or on the up and up?

The development world is full of a lot of doom and gloom, cynicism and gravitas. Years and years of trying have led to very little movement forward. Zambia sits at number 165 (out of 177) on the Human Development Index, which puts it among the 22 least developed countries in the world, all of which can found in Africa.

What will it take to move forward? Who is responsible for it?

There are on-going debates that pit the merits of the public sector versus the private, the collective action of civil society versus the onus of the individual. The current development wave puts the burden on poor people themselves who, once “empowered”, will not only work their own way out of poverty but will build the nation while they’re at it.

I feel the debates skirt the crux of the matter…I’m of the belief that it will require the effort of good people doing good work everywhere in the system:

NGOs who will improve access to technologies, like treadle pumps, to those who both need and want them;

Governments who create pro-poor seed policies so that village farmers can demand and buy the seed they need; and,

Entrepreneurs, like Mrs. Banda, who not only make their own way in the world, but provide products and create jobs for many more.

One thing’s for sure, this ain’t gonna to be easy:

If there is a formula [for development], it is ten per cent foreign inspiration and 90 per cent domestic perspiration. – Michael Edwards, “Future Positive”

Needless to say, I left the show feeling much more energized than when I entered. I’d like to attribute my new found energy to those people whose perspiration I commend. But there’s an outside chance it was just a sugar rush!

Lots of love,

T :)

BTW, I've changed the comments settings (finally!) to allow people to comment without creating an account. So feel free to comment away!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

You are what you share

Writer’s block.

Almost one year ago, I was packing my bags in Edmonton in preparation for this wild journey. I was getting ready for one month of intense but fun-tastic pre-departure training in Toronto, and I was in giddy anticipation of what was awaiting me in Zambia…

Now, one year later, I’ve been doing some serious reflection about the time that’s passed oh so quickly. My reflective head-space, and a timely (and lovely) visit with my parents, pulled me up – waaaaaay up – from the day-to-day of the project and allowed me to take a much needed look around (and a welcome breath of fresh Capetonian air!) It also, unfortunately, brought on a crippling case of writer’s block, hence my long silence. What was so crippling?

On safari (and hiatus) with Amma and Appa

There was just so much on my mind and so much in my heart that couldn’t possibly put into words. The increasingly somber tone of my posts worried me, as they both accurately described the internal challenges I was battling but inaccurately implied that I was no longer excited or having any fun.

During this time, I also read a book that introduced me to an idea that I suppose I’ve always intuited but never really put into practice. The idea – You are what you share. How very true. This blog was my attempt to share my experience in Zambia with my friends and family.

But I think I could have done better…my desire to fully immerse myself in Zambian life, my insecurity in writing and sharing with a wide audience, and not least of all, my lack of access to a speedy internet connection, all impeded my ability to share.

Sharing anyone??
(I wish I could’ve shared this
peanut butter with you!)

But since, as some of you know, I’ve decided to say on for another year, I’ve taken on a personal commitment to share more and share better. In doing this, I’m hoping to take advantage of all that Web 2.0 has to offer (internet allowing!) I’ve started by adding an RSS feed for my blog, including some social bookmarking links at the bottom of each post, and (gasp!) joining Facebook (feel free to ridicule me…but I still stand by all previous Facebook related sentiments!)

In the spirit of sharing (errr...self promotion?), here are links to a couple of articles I helped write:

Bright Ideas EWB-ISG Canada's e-newsletter May 2008:
The unpredictability of development

APEGGA's The PEGG June 2008:
EWB Builds Sorghum Crop in Zambia

As for this post, I will share some fun photos I should’ve shared a long ago.

Cooking with Ba George

I've mentioned my co-worker and friend George's mad story telling skillz in a previous post. Little did I know that he had some more mad skillz up his sleeve...

What follows is a play-by-play of an eventful morning I spent with George, as he shared with me his passion for cookery and horticulture.

George may seem like an everyday, ordinary Zambian guy...but George likes doing what no other Zambian guy likes doing...

George LOVES to cook!

After discovering this about George, I did what any other disbelieving person would do...I invited myself over for lunch. I needed evidence.

Worried that the program would be canceled due to a power outage, I tentatively entered George's yard only the find him already busy tending to some beans (my favorite!) on a charcoal stove.

He was NOT going to let me down.

George jumped up and immediately started with what I soon realized was a tutorial.

He started by deftly cutting a pumpkin into bite-size pieces, readied it for some solid steaming, then moved onto his personal favorite, kalembula (sweet potato leaves).

George says the key to preparing kalembula is to dry the leaves in the sun before frying them in a little bit of cooking oil.

"Zambian women have forgotten how to cook traditional meals," George explains, "They think cooking means cooking oil!"

"Most daughters just do what their mothers do, they add the tomatoes at the end. But I found that it makes the dish too watery, so I started adding them in the middle, so that the water boils off."

"Even after telling my wife this, she still doesn't know why my kalembula is better than hers!"

George's comments provide an insight to the strict norms that guide Zambia's food culture. People rarely stray from what's always been done, let alone experiment and innovate.

George, however, is far from normal.

When George was young, he spent hours toiling away in his uncle's garden. This was where he learned how to plant okra and beans, how to cultivate pumpkins and sweet potatoes, how to nurture tomatoes and onions.

He LOVES gardening.

"It requires dedication, passion, and ingenuity," he says as he shows off his most prized item...a young pumpkin with sprawling leaves that are often used in cooking.

George moved onto to the chicken next, which he had seasoned and left to dry in the sun before deep frying to perfection.

It soon became time to prepare the nshima, the thick porridge made of maize flour that is the core of every meal.

George showed me how to avoid making lumpy nshima. "This is important," he says, "to impressive the in-laws."Apparently lumpy nshima does not show well.

Before I knew it, it was time to eat the feast!

On the menu: Nshima with beans, kalembula, and fried chicken

For dessert: Steamed pumpkin and baked potato served with gooseberry jam

As we sat down to enjoy the fruits of George's labour, he told me how his aspiration is to own a restaurant, where he can serve traditional meals made with garden-fresh ingredients.

In his spare time, he wants to write. His dream is to see his stories, the ones I LOVE to hear, in print.

I think George is a rare individual, not just here in Zambia, but anywhere really. And I consider myself lucky to have him as one of my friends. He's living proof that you are what you share, for George will always be what he's shared with me - a dedicated gardener, a passionate chef, and a riveting story-teller.

T :)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Somewhere over the moonbow...

A pixie named Leroy.

A friend of mine and I went on one of those post-high-school backpacking-around-Europe misadventures back in 2001. In Munich, we befriended a bunch of Irish folk who were squatting at the Big Tent hostel…which is exactly as its name suggests. After a night of campfire sing-a-longs and indulging in bevies as the Irish are wont to do, our new friend Connor claimed to have seen a pixie in the bushes. “I saw a pixie named Leroy,” he boasted, stating this without a hint of sarcasm but as a clear, conscious, and absolute truth.

A pixie named Leroy, eh?

Maybe it was the moonlight. Maybe it was the Irish. Maybe it was the Jager.

Or maybe…

I never did meet the pixie named Leroy. I often derided myself for not being able to suspend my disbelief…why is it that I allow myself to automatically deny the inexplicable? Have I completely lost my sense of imagination?

Last month, however, I saw something that reawakened my imagination. I saw a moonbow – yes, a moonbow – over the Victoria Falls during the last full moon. Lunar rainbows are a spectacular phenomenon to behold. All you need is a big waterfall. Check. A big moon. Check. And a big night sky. Check.

Viewing it with a few close friends certainly helps, as does an irreverent attitude towards getting drenched.

We ran through the spray of the Falls in darkness, chasing moonbows as if they were pixies, trying to touch them with our fingers and toes (one of us claimed to do so…she said it felt like crystals). We screamed at the top of our lungs, giddy from enchantment (but also ridiculously cold from the Fall’s spray). We marveled at the beautiful circle in the sky as its light fractured into a spectrum of colour, made sparkles of the billowing mist, and all the while, lifted our spirits.

“Why Bother?”

I must admit, I’ve had a pretty rough last couple of months. I lost a lot of my gusto. Pffft. Gone. A few of my previous posts have alluded to the frustrations I’ve been feeling with development work. My oh my is it hard. It tests your faith, faith being a word with laden meaning in these parts. My faith in the realization of a better world has certainly been tested. In fact, it was almost broken.

In low moments like that, one hesitantly allows the big question to creep in, “Why bother?” A recent article in the NY Times with that exact title articulated this feeling of hopelessness quite well. In the context of the ever-mounting environmental challenges our world is facing, the author observed this of Al Gore’s suggestion that we all change our light bulbs:

The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

Sink your heart indeed.

But that’s just in the first paragraph. The author goes on to provide a compelling argument as to why, exactly, we should bother. Now, I’m personally not one to be motivated by big, empty statements like, “Every little bit counts” and was worried the article would go down that same, worn, futile path. I’m also not one to respond positively to the militant shouts of activists that pass judgment on and make unreasonable demands of us lay folk. Thankfully, he did neither.

What I appreciated about his thesis, which is for us all to start gardening, is not the technical merits of the act itself – such as reducing your carbon footprint, saving money on food, reducing household waste through composting, or losing weight by exercising – but his emphasis on the “habits of mind” that come from a “solution that begets other solutions”.

At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen… The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

When in doubt, go to the village.

Ndatebula mapopwe, ndagama inhombe, ndapanga garden…

(I harvested maize, I milked the cows, I made a garden…)


(You are lying!)



Coincidentally, (or perhaps not, as I tend to lead myself around in self-referential circles) I found myself in a garden shortly after reading this article.

I was down and out and in desperate need of a pick-me-up, and there’s no better place for that than in the village. In the village, you say? Yes, in the village.

Whyson, my co-worker, says that when outsiders see images of village life or drive through in roaring white land-cruisers, they say, “Oh, these people are suffering.” Yes, one cannot deny that there is a fair bit of suffering in rural Zambia. But what visitors fail to see, Whyson says, “is that these people are living.”

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the village, many of which fall into those “habits of mind” the author described in the Times article. Waking when the sun rose, sweeping the ground, harvesting the maize crop, milking the cows (and making tea with it 5 minutes later), watering the garden, bicycling to see the relatives, greeting everyone we passed, heating water for a bath, and sleeping when the sun set.

I worked very hard alongside my hosts, trying my best to keep up and realizing all along that not only have my muscles atrophied from under-use but so has my mind. The abundant world in which I was raised has actually limited my ability to conceive of what is possible, of what my body is capable of, of the elegance in simplicity.

There is so much we can do.

At the end of the moonbow…

Romanticizing life in the village is clearly not going to move any of us any further ahead.

I didn’t fail to notice the queue at the doctor-less clinic; the bare foot children walking over 7 km to go to school; the piles of dead trees used for fuel; and, the fields and fields and fields of maize and sorghum destroyed by a season that saw a drought follow a flood.

I could’ve easily let these things turn my bad mood into a more worrisome cynicism, but luckily, my cathartic release at seeing a moonbow (!!) did much to heal my soul, assuage my doubts, and spark my imagination.

It allowed me to open my eyes to more than the obvious…to the amazing community network that has been built up around the clinic; the earnestness of the school children to get that oh so valuable education; the sparing and careful use of fire wood because of its high costs (time and energy to collect it); and, the delicateness that is our relationship with the earth.

Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.

I still don’t know if Connor really saw a pixie. I’m also not quite sure I can explain what kind of spell I was under when I felt what can only be described as Joy at Victoria Falls. But I do know that in all the complexities of this world, there is a lot of room for the inexplicable. And if I’m ok with that, I can also hope to one day discover a pot of good things at the end of the moonbow.

T :)

(Note: I purposefully omitted photos from this post to spark your imagination. "What does a moonbow look like?" That's the same as asking, "What does a better world look like?"...just close your eyes...)

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Story of Muzya

At a loss for words.

There are plenty of words swimming around in my head. Important words…community, trust, cooperation, solidarity, respect, pride, love…and yet, I simply cannot find the words to tell this particular story.

So what follows is a simplified (and some may say romanticized) version of the story I want to tell.

It’s about the amazing community of Muzya.

Once upon a time…

Not so long ago, there was hunger in the Southern Province.

Another year, another drought.

There was no maize. When there’s no maize, there’s no food.

But when there’s no food, there’s always chiholehole – food aid.

Food aid is important. Food aid is necessary. Well…food aid is necessary sometimes.

Other times it destroys people. It destroys their ability, nay, their desire, to feed themselves.

Chronic drought begets chronic food aid...chronic food aid begets dependency, and dependency leaves people…wanting.

Farmers and observers.

In rural Zambia, you will find farmers, and you will find observers.

Farmers farm. Observers watch…and wait…and follow…slooooooowly.

In Muzya, you will only find farmers.

But the farmers in Muzya have not been spared from drought. They have suffered deeply.

And yet…

They have not let it – or the food aid that followed it – destroy them.

In Muzya, you find that rare blend…that elusive, intangible, yet unmistakable quality of a community that every development project dreams of working with…

Muzya has social capital.

What is social capital?

Dictionary definitions don’t seem to suffice with this one. Again, I can’t seem to find the words. But there are a lot of words. These are some of my favorites:

In Muzya, you find…

An authentic sense of cooperation.

A genuine desire to learn.

A genuine desire to make things better.

Friends and families and acquaintances working side by side…

For themselves and for each other.

And from all this, given the right conditions, you find…


Why does this matter?

Many development projects are designed around the assumption that people can be banded together to cooperate towards ends that are seemingly beneficial to all.

They assume social capital can be institutionalized.

Taught. Learned. Forced. Imposed.

I’m not sure how much confidence I have in this assumption, for among all the communities we’re working in, Muzya is the only one I can safely say is succeeding.

And my hunch is that they’re succeeding because they came after us instead of us coming after them.

You see, Muzya was never meant to be part of this project.

They were never identified from our “assessments” as being a “strong” community group.

They came of out of nowhere, not only demanding our attention but proving themselves worthy of participation.

They grew sorghum and they even out grew our selected communities!

They demanded more sorghum seed. They said they were willing to buy it.

They demanded a contract with the sorghum buyer. They said they were able to meet the targets.

And in a year heavy rainfall, when all seems to be lost, where farmers all over the province are reporting significant crop failure, where even commercial farmers aren’t harvesting sorghum…

Muzya’s harvest will be plentiful.

How do you make or find more Muzya’s?

This is the hard part.

So many rural communities are suffering from not only drought, but also deep mistrust and jealousy and apathy.

Is it possible to just get everyone to play together?

Methinks not.

Or maybe we’re just not thinking about it in the best way. Maybe there is another way to meet the same end. Maybe we need to change the way things are done…or maybe we need to change the way we think about the way things are done.

This development business keeps throwing me curve balls. I’m fighting hard to stay in the game, but while I swing and miss, the practice will hopefully serve me well one day.

In the meantime, I will learn as much as I can from the people of Muzya. For they have the hard part figured out. Given the right opportunities, I’m sure they’ll hit them out of the park.

T :)

Monday, March 3, 2008

An unabashed 10!

Sharing happiness (scores).

Despite the somber tone of the previous post, I can assure you that the fun wheel is still a’turnin’ for me in Zambia. Life here continues to make me smile on a daily basis. And the reason I’m still smiling (borderline dopey grinning!) is because of my deep appreciation of the things that are keeping me emotionally healthy and happy. When the project gets me down, it’s my home community that brings me back up.

Every quarter, all the EWB volunteers in Zambia and Malawi get together for retreats where we reconnect, share experiences, work on a number of exciting development challenges, and of course, have a ridiculous amount of fun. These retreats give us an opportunity to step back from the day-to-day of our placements and take a broader more objective look at our work and our lives. Last weekend, we met in Zambia, along the Lower Zambezi.

We begin each retreat with a round of updates: Each volunteer stands in front of the group and describes their current situation with respect to their 1) Project, 2) Partner Organization, 3) Home Life, 4) Impact, and 5) Overall Self. After describing them, we’re asked attach a happiness score (on a scale of 1 to 10) to each. Obviously there is no standard scale with which to measure “happiness”, but simply asking someone how happy something is making them is a surprisingly great way gauge it.

For the most part, volunteers are very happy. It’s rare to see happiness scores below 5, but it’s equally rare to see a happiness scores higher than an 8. When considering my own scores, I didn’t have to think twice about what I’d rate my Home Life. Without any hesitation, I threw down a big ole 10! This post is all about why I love my home life oh so much.

Life on a farm.

The advantages of living on a farm are many: the fresh air, the quiet serenity, the big family community feel, the simplicity. But one of the things people like most about living on a farm is that food is plentiful, if the season is favorable and you’re lucky, of course! And we’ve been pretty lucky (so far) this year (fingers crossed!)

We have a massive mango orchard here at the farm, planted back when white farmers ruled this roost. Mango season has ended (something I’m still mourning), but back when all the mangoes were just ripening on the branch, it became urgently apparent that we must raid the orchard. We ran amongst the trees and scrambled up their excessively climbable branches (is it possible that evolution has naturally selected for mango trees with excessively climbable branches?)

While one hand was throwing mangoes in a sack, the other was greedily feeding them straight off the tree and into my mouth. We gorged on what can only be described as succulent gifts from god. We couldn’t help ourselves. It was wonderful…until that night, of course, when our tum-tums suffered from the gluttony that was the raid. But it was worth it. Everyone needs to raid a mango orchard at least once in their lives. Mmmmm, I can’t wait for the oranges to be ready!

Me in a mango tree

We started harvesting fresh maize from the garden in early January. There are two ways to enjoy these hearty cobs – either roasting them or boiling them. And boil and roast we did! For the whole month, I would come home from work to find a cob (or four!) waiting for me. I came to enjoy chewing on these not for their yum factor (they are not as sweet or soft as corn on the cob back in Canada) but for the social factor.

We would huddle around an open fire, roasting the maize beside the hot coals, preparing tea in a pot on top, and laughing about something or other. This family loves to laugh. And to this day, my favorite moments at the farm happen under a clear star filled sky, beside a warm fire, as the lightening of distant storms flash all around us, and we sit, smiling and chewing.

Cob on the coals

About one hundred days after we planted them in mid November, the Irish potatoes are now ready to be harvested. There are piles of potatoes everywhere I turn in the house! We sell the big ones to the local market where they fetch a pretty penny. The rest are for the family, for home consumption. We have chips for breakfast, we have boiled potatoes for lunch, we even have potatoes with nshima and relish for supper.

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many potatoes on a daily basis, nor have I appreciated them as much. Potatoes are a treat for most Zambians, and I think this family’s potato gorge fest is driven by the fact that we’re incredibly lucky to have so many around.

Pile o' potatoes!

Nyarai cools one down

Friends I can count on (and laugh with!)

Sylvia is my closest friend here in Zambia. Unlike other friendships I’ve made here, ours is not one of convenience but one of substance. I can speak to her just as I would with any of my close friends in Canada. No filters. No tip-toeing. No holds bar. She is my sounding board, and I’ve become hers. It’s wonderful.

We also make fun of each other quite openly, which is the sign of any healthy friendship! I’ve recently felt free enough to ask her if there’s anything I do that the family thinks is completely ridiculous. I haven’t been able to pry any really good stuff out of her (she’s not a mean person), but apparently I have a strange laugh, so she says the family is often laughing at my laughing, not at my funny stories. Haha! I also tend to go, “Mmm hmm, mmm hmm” a lot when listening to someone speak. I never noticed this before, but the baby did and has fully adopted it in her repertoire of pre-speaking gibberish.

Sylvia would kill me if she knew I posted this one

“Simon!!” “Moto?” Simon, one of my host brothers, should be blamed for causing me to laugh so hard (and apparently strangely). Simon is a proper Zambian comedian. He’s always got a clever little smile on his face and something funny to say. Our love of laughter has made our friendship a fun one. But he’s also a sweetheart who helps me with my Tonga lessons (in exchange for help with his English lessons) and shares with me his precious cobs of roasted maize.

While riding our bicycles home to the farm one day, Simon decided to give me a Tonga name. He named me “Cholwe” (pronounced Jol-way). It means “lucky”. Many people have tried to give me a Tonga name while I’ve been here, but none of them stuck. That’s probably because they didn’t mean as much to me as Simon does.

From left to right: Peter, Sandra, Simon
(of course),
Twaambo, and Benzu

At work, I’ve made an unlikely friendship with our office administrator George. George has become my official story teller. He tells me long, animated, and often hilarious stories all the time. He first started telling me about animals because he loves them so much. And each story begins with a fact.

“FACT: Dogs can smell in a 10km radius.”

“FACT: Hyenas can be domesticated like dogs.”

“FACT: Badgers will attack if provoked despite their inferior size.”

The stories have since become more elaborate and grand in scope but no less amusing.

“FACT: You can have all the qualities in the world, but if you don’t have etiquette, you can’t dine with the Queen.”

“FACT: Tailors, watch repair men, shoe repair men, and the bus stop boys cannot be trusted.”

I nearly die laughing during each of his stories, as I’m genuinely swept away in his wit and wild gesticulation. I’ve always been a sucker for the excessive use of onomatopoeia: “Kakakakakaka! Qua, qua, qua! Chweeeee! Chweeeee!”

The wonderfulness of Kalomo, in general.

Perhaps I’m looking at life through rose-coloured glasses, but I really do like the sleepy small town of Kalomo. There’s not much going on. It has no particular aesthetic appeal. It’s described by some as just being a big village. But I don’t know, there’s something here I just like.

Perhaps it’s the yummy whole wheat buns Mrs. Mainza makes just for me on special order, out of her home and at no charge. Whole wheat bread is hard to find in general and is non-existent in Kalomo. But I pick up whole wheat flour whenever I go to big towns like Livingstone or Lusaka. And she uses it to make me and my host family her famous “John Cena’s”, named so because they’re BIG.

Maybe it’s the Saturdays I spend at my friend Hilda’s place. She doesn’t have much to speak of in terms of material possessions, but she has the biggest, warmest heart, and a zest for life. I spend many a Saturday at her place, sitting under the shade of a tree and drinking her perfect cibwantu, a milky sort of drink made with ground maize. We are rarely alone as friends and family come by to visit. And we are rarely hungry, as Hilda and her sisters generously feed everyone that comes by.

Feast a Hilda’s - note my lumpily made
sorghum nshima on the far left

Or maybe it’s my recent discovery of a commercial farm just outside town that has a small cheese factory that makes gouda. Gouda! In Kalomo! It’s absurd. Zambians don’t really eat a lot of cheese, so it simply can’t be found. If I now see potatoes as a treat, you can only imagine what a treat cheese is…especially gourmet gouda! I procured a 2kg wheel of cheese for the EWB retreat so that my fellow muzungus could share in this most amazing of discoveries.

I guess all these things comprise the great community I’m a part of here. I don’t see community as simply being a group of people who happen to live in the same place. My personal definition of community is that it’s a group of people who live in the same place and are connected together in a particular point in time.

Community is something you can create for yourself if you make it a priority. But community changes as people flow in and out and as the place itself evolves. Therefore it’s not something to pine for (from the past) or hope for (in the future), it is something you must continuously cultivate and make sure to enjoy in this moment, as it will surely change in the next.

So maybe Kalomo isn't the land of milk and honey (gouda and John Cenas, maybe), but right now, it sure is good to me.

Thulasy :)

Friday, February 1, 2008

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I woke just as the sun was rising, groggy from the previous day’s 2 hour ride on the back of a transport truck piled with maize, fertilizer, and people. It was a rough ride, but I made it: I was in Sipatunyana, in the home of Tangson Sialanga, 45 km away from Kalomo town.

I walked outside and found his 2 wives sweeping the ground between the village huts. I offered to help – they giggled – I insisted – and they gave in. It was the least I could do. They were going to host me for the weekend, as Tangson, a contact farmer for the sorghum project, and I were going to venture deep into the village to find us some sorghum.

In the village

My unwavering optimism is being tested.

The last few weeks have been frustrating. The rainy season has made it incredibly difficult to get into the field and see how sorghum is doing with the unusually heavy rainfall we’ve been receiving. There have been reports of widespread flooding in neighbouring districts. The power keeps going in and out. And my excitement about the project waxes and wanes, which is healthy, I think…but is nevertheless de-motivating in the lulls.

I have many frustrations. I fear that sorghum won’t demonstrate itself because of the heavy rainfall…that the cooperatives won’t meet their contracts…that we’re holding on too tightly… that the project is not going to be sustainable (when do we let go of the bicycle seat?)

My fears notwithstanding, I was hopeful as the project team was riled up to do some innovative things – to try some crazy ideas! But our hands are ever tied by donor conditions. “Failure” is not allowed in development, not by the standards for “success” that are set by donors. Ironically, it is the process of taking risks, failing, and eventually succeeding that ensures sustainability. This seems to be lost on most donors…or maybe it’s just politics.

In any case, I feel that by not taking risks, the project is doomed to fail. Is this the fate of every development project – you get to a point where you say, “Does this really mean anything?”


The skies were ambiguous. It was either going to pour all day, or we were going to get sporadic showers interspersed with sunshine. It was hard to say. Regardless, we had a program. After stuffing our guts with maize porridge made with busika, a bitter wild fruit, Tangson and I set off on bicycles to visit our sorghum farmers.

Things got off to a dismal start. Farmers had planted half their sorghum seed around mid December as a test to see if it would weather the heavy rains. And while germination was great, their young plants were, as they feared, hammered by rain. Sandy soils were leached of nutrients. The plants turned yellow and are stunted. Farmers gave up and plowed their first lot back in and planted their remaining seed.

Gulp. 50% loss. I was not encouraged.

Mvula ipati, mapenzi mapati
…roughly translated, mo’ rain-y, mo’ problems

The real drivers of development.

If you worked for an international NGO, and I told you I could find people with over 15 years of experience in development work and various agricultural activities, an intimate understanding of the local context, an energetic and pragmatic attitude towards their work, and a natural and genuine leadership style, you’d probably want me to hire them ASAP. And you’d likely give them a sizeable salary for their efforts too.

But what if I told you that they only have a grade 7 education? That they probably live in the same conditions as that of the intended beneficiaries? That they have likely been on the receiving end of aid more often than not?

Tangson with, I kid you not, Gender and Focus

“In the world of international development, too much is being asked of civil society; pausing only to do the washing up on their way to their fourth meeting of the week, poor people (which usually means women) are now expected to organize social services, govern their communities, evaluate projects, solve the unemployment problems, and save the environment. But most poor people are too busy making a living to do these things and most of the time others are too lazy.” – Michael Edwards, Future Positive

These people can be found in every village you visit. As Edwards’ quote suggests, it’s often the same people, those leaders who tend to emerge naturally, who take on the responsibility of driving development projects on the ground. Whether they do it out of genuine altruism or a sense of obligation or for the power and status is beside the point. The point is that they do it, and they do it for free. How can I expect them to work so hard for something that I’m not even certain will work?


Tangson and I covered A LOT of ground that morning. He wanted to show me a selection of fields from all over the vast village. But we only managed to see 2 (!) farmers before 14:30.

Waiting out the rain

The wives of Edward, the second farmer, kindly offered us some hot maize porridge with pumpkin before we left. I, weary and drenched, was happy to receive the piping hot bowl of pumpkiny yum. Having “filled up with diesel”, as Tangson said, we headed off to our next farmer.

It wasn’t until we left Edward’s that I realized how profound his family’s gesture was – it is hunger season in the Kalomo District. CARE was here last weekend distributing food aid to the community’s most vulnerable households. And in a time of scarcity, I was generously offered some of the little that they had. Now
that’s hospitality.

On change, learning, and persistence.

Change – Yes, I am idealistic, and yes, I’m borderline insolent about it. I believe change is possible. However, as I venture further into a world that is full of uncertainty, I can see that change isn’t easy. But even though creating change takes time, things are changing all the time. In that, there is a great deal of hope.

“Our growing expectation and aspiration for change is itself the engine of change. ‘Development’ is nothing if not change.” – Eric Dudley

Learning – So, I must continue to learn. Learning is the only way out of this mess. Learning is all we can and thus must do. We can’t always be sure that what we’re doing will be “successful” or “right”, but we can be sure that we’ll learn from what happens and move on.

“If we are to have any hope of success we require an approach of constructive humility.” – Dudley

Persistence – And while we must believe that change is possible and learn from all our attempts to create it, we must never stop trying

“Progress is not achieved by those who wring their hands with worried uncertainty and yet we have every reason to believe that we should be uncertain. The greatest leaders, whether in politics, the military, business, or science, are those who manage the paradox of confident action tempered by profound doubt.” - Dudley


From Edward’s, we rode on to Kennedy Meleki’s place. He is a contact farmer responsible for 40 farmers who are scattered over a very large area. His field and that of his brother’s, Richard, were very promising. Healthy, knee high sorghum! I smiled and said, “Maila mabotu! (nice sorghum!) Ah, Kennedy, you’ve made me very happy today.”

Richard's sorghum!

But he said he could show me more, if I was up for a ride that would take us even deeper into the bush. I looked at Tangson and the answer was obvious, “Tiye! Let’s go!”

I had thought the previous few hours of riding was rough, but this was getting ridiculous. We pushed our bikes barefoot through mud, waded through streams, climbed up rocky hills, and veered down barely-there paths. A motorcycle or 4 wheel drive wouldn’t have taken us to where we were going. But I was enjoying it…I was getting my mountain biking fix, albeit on a one-speed, no-brakes, pedal-less farmer bicycle. Needless to say, the downhill bits were particularly terrifying :)

We waded through numerous streams

We rode through uninhabited bush for an hour and a half before finding what I had hoped to see all day…a field full of sorghum that was taller than me! The three of us were giddy with excitement, our persistence had paid off.


This particular family has grown sorghum before, but they were also lucky enough to have fertile, stony soils on a field that sloped, thereby minimizing the leaching and erosive effects of the heavy rainfall. From what I saw, they are going to have a bountiful sorghum harvest.

To put a cherry on top of what had become a great day, the skies cleared as we walked down to see the Kalomo River. We had rode very far today, but we weren’t tired at all, we were all grinning from ear to ear.

Mulonga Kalomo

The family wouldn’t let us leave without eating, so we “ate like soldiers”, filling our tanks with nshima, vegetables, and what I like to call village lattes, hot, sweet tea made with fresh milk. The sun was setting as we said goodbye, knowing that we had a good 2 hour journey in the dark ahead of us.

But I wasn’t too concerned. I didn’t even feel the ache in my muscles or the cuts on my feet. I could barely see Tangson’s white shirt in front of me, as the night was lit only by the fire flies that flickered around us (and the distant beacon of a Cel-Tel tower that marked our three-quarters of the way home point).

I think I was smiling the whole way. Though my frustrations about the project still stand, they’ve been tempered by my sense of hope. Yes, some of the farmers won’t harvest a lot of sorghum, but some of them will. The cooperatives can still meet their targets. There are people like Tangson and Kennedy who want to see it succeed. So this thing we’re trying to do…there’s a chance it just might work after all.

T :)