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.
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?
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.