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 :)