Another exciting, but exhausting day out to the bush today. I had arranged for a meeting with all of the women’s groups who entered our “Man/Women of Peace Development” gravity feed drip irrigated garden project last dry season.
With our simple economical drip irrigation designs, women can easily grow gardens through nine months of no rain, on 70-80% less water. Not bad for $50 a pop. If we can ever get a local supply of drip irrigation supplies going in the local market here, we could see this stuff selling for as little as $10 – $20 per garden kit. It’s about the most economical way to help subsistence farmers double their income.
Being a Muslim country, we truly thought that the real way to achieve community development would be through the patriarchal lines. However, Africa often creates a lot of misconceptions, even in Muslim contexts. This is not the middle east. Women are often the most stable people on which to base community development. Honestly, I thought our regions would be an exception, and it proved not to be so.
We started our promotion of drip irrigation by setting up a huge demonstration site in Sikasso. We rarely had to invite people to come and see the simplicity of drip irrigation, and other methods, at work- its popularity spread by word of mouth. The first three months we had over 400 site visitors, and by the end of the first eight months around 1200 visitors that we directly interacted with. Every day new people were coming to look it over and talk. We are also aware that many came when we were not around, looking over the setup, and progress. People we explained the concepts to previously would bring friends by in our absence, and repeat everything we taught them. So we have a suspicion that the number of visitors to the demonstration site was probably well over 2000.
At this time, we also set up a few gardens with men in the surrounding villages, to varying success. Some had a great harvest, some ended up not really that interested in the drip irrigated gardening scheme, as it is about food on the table, vitamins and minerals for the health of the family, and a little extra cash from excess sales; not a get rich project.
Generally, we find that men here are looking to make quick cash. Curbing family malnutrition and earning only a few extra bucks seemed more an annoyance to the men. Frankly, my impression is that they had just enough experience with other NGOs who build big things, these men were expecting greater things, more glorious things, from this white, Western NGO.
In the beginning, we had dozens of suited rich guys come to my site saying they wanted me to come and irrigate their five hectare field of this or that product. I simply told them that that is not the size of a project we do. We are helping women feed their families in a healthy was to curb malnutrition. The men get so excited when government, or NGO money arrives to set up projects requiring huge diesel pumps, solar powered electric pumps, huge water towers, building buildings in the village, or introducing any flashy new complicated technology.
That is not how I roll. Simple, economical, easily repeated solutions, or go home. The men soon lost interest, because they don’t cook the meals, and they are accustomed to the same, vegetable-less sauces, and seem to be oblivious about how the health of their family suffers terribly because of a lack of vegetables and fruits in their diet. It is alarming how few vegetables people eat here. Almost none through the nine months of drought each year. Too many men would not feed the vegetables to the family anyway. They would harvest vegetables and scoot them all to the market, making cash for themselves, but not making any improvement in the health of the family. It’s vexing to observe decades of broken patterns of living, and an unwillingness to understand.
Our project is not about making people rich. Our concern is that a family have enough vegetable rich vitamins to bring health to the family, and a little extra produce to sell for some cash too. Our real desire is to boost family health. Eat the vegetables as a family, don’t treat it as a cash crop and sell it all at the market. EAT SOME OF IT.
Malnutrition is so alarmingly common in Mali, one of the worst countries in the world. Even though our Sikasso region is one of the more productive regions in Mali, it actually has slightly higher than average malnutrition rates. Why? Because they sell their harvests for cash money, and then survive by eating the less nutritious, but cheaper things all year. They consume little of the products they grow, and they do not use the cash to buy fruits and vegetables to eat. It’s a broken, habitual pattern of living that needs to be addressed.
As a result of these deeply rooted mentalities, not one of the men we set up with drip irrigation with ever planted a second crop on the a drip irrigated vegetable garden kit. It stopped at one harvest. Some never even got to their first harvest because they stopped filling the irrigation system water supply.
A little known fact is that most development projects help the moderately poor, not the desperately poor. Very few actually work with the bottom billion poorest on earth, most of whom are subsistence farmers, with less than a hectare of land.
Why is this? The poorest of the poor are a very hard bunch to work with. Living so close to the edge of survivability, they are not risk takers. They will do what consistently works for them to get by, rather than risk trying something new that might not work, and cost them what little they have. They can’t afford to lose on a risky venture. They need the food to grow, period.
I suppose if I were in their shoes I’d be the same. It’s like me and the stock market. I see no sense in investing in something where I might lose my principal. NOPE that is not for me. I want the sure thing. That is why I’ll be the poorer, among the Canadian rich, while you have a nice nest egg growing.
Last term we began a concerted effort in a village region working with a women’s literacy group. This literacy group was helping elderly women learn to read and write. It was some sight to see grandmothers learning to read and write for the first time in their lives because in their youth they never had the opportunity to go to school. We decided to partner with this literacy group by setting up a huge community garden with twelve irrigation systems on a decent sized plot of land.
We trained these spunky elderly women in the use and setup of drip irrigation. Then we planted. It was slow going at first. We had to spend a lot of time following up with them. But, they finally got the hang of the workings. This group of grannies then taught the next group of fourteen women to set up a second community garden.
It was exciting to watch as another fourteen women were taught how to use and set up drip irrigated vegetable gardens, all trained by these grandmothers of the first project. We were present to observe this transition, and we watched and tweaked where needed. However, we still had to do considerable follow up last year. Frankly, we were run to death with all the gardens we had to verify.
After the meeting today, we learned that, unlike those first men , EVERY single one of these women are setting up their drip gardens again this year, for a second time, for a second growing year.
This is an important cycle. We have gotten over the hump and transitioned into a new year. The women taught last year are back at it again this year with our simple drip irrigation kits. What is more, we have two more women’s groups entering the program, and expanding to a whole new village as well. The training will be led by our Grandmothers, as we observe this year.
The other exciting transition is hearing that these Grandmothers wish to teach their granddaughters how to drip irrigate drought season vegetables as well. So this year, not only have we been able to navigate to a second year cycle of drip gardening with these older women, but we are also transitioning in to the next generation this year too with about twenty young girls entering the program this year.
Each family vegetable garden drip kit represents a family of ten people on average. So this touches the health of a lot of people. My wife and I were responsible for oversight of 62 gardens last term, that boosted health for about 620 people. And this year, all those gardens will be set up again, and with the new entries the program, we should reach at least eighty five, but more likely one hundred families total this year. We are going to be SWAMPED…. but loving it.
Before the whole group, I asked the chief of Women’s Literacy Group to give us all a summary of the observations about drip irrigated gardens last term. Also, I asked her to clarify if they saw the value of drip irrigated vegetable gardening, and do they wish to move forward. I was fully expecting to hear many women wanted to drop out. That’s the reality of life for a Humanitarian.
However, Madame B. stood up and gave this six point speech, with translation into French for me between each point. What she said totally blew me away. Remember, this well organized six point speech, with a conclusion came from the mouth of a grandmother in a literacy Program learning how to read and write for the first time. Here is a quick summary, as best as I can duplicate it here.
1. We learned that the drip irrigation takes time to understand. Our understanding for the first few months was slow and the plants suffered because we were not coming to water consistently, we were not verifying the drips as we should have, and we were not cleaning the lines when they got dirty. We were doubting drip irrigation at first. But with your visits, and encouraging us to do the simple verification, we organized the watering plan. About halfway through the garden cycle, we began to understand better and knew we could do this, it was working. We could see that we were able to easily have a garden in drought season. We never had gardens in drought season before. So we thank you for your patience with us as we were learning.
2 We learned that Drip irrigation is much less tiring than hand watering. We organized three teams for the garden and we had a group fill the buckets in the morning, another at noon, and a third group in the evening. We filled the buckets, did the checks, and we were then able to leave, letting the drips do their work. We do not have to be in the garden very long because this needs so little water, and work. Now we can garden AND we still have time to do our other work. Without the irrigation, we could not garden before, because we did not have the time to haul all that water to hand water, and spend all that time in the garden.
3. We noticed a difference between hand watering a garden versus using the drip irrigation too. Not only was it MUCH less water, but the little bit of water on the drip irrigation did its job better. When we hand water, the soil would get hard and compacted from the watering can, and then with the next watering the water would just all run off, not able to penetrate the soil. When we water with the can in the morning, and come back at the evening, the soil is all dried up already, the plants suffering because the water does not go very deep, only 10 cm deep; most of the water dries up and runs away. But the soil with the irrigation does not get compacted and with the drip irrigation we had been measuring (Funny eh? They were checking) and there is always water in the ground with the drip irrigation. The surface may look dry, but the soil is wet all the time underneath. They noticed the drop goes down on average 30-35 cementers in depth, and most times they were finding damp soil down to 45 cm Depth. With hand watering the water rarely went deeper than 10 cm.
4. We received a great harvest in the middle of a drought season. At the first the plants were not doing well, because we were not working properly, so the plants suffered at first. However, once we understood and watered consistently, and checked the drip, the plants really did well quickly. We were very happy with a harvest of over 100 kg of beans plus buckets of okra. (It was here that I interrupted her and asked is that a good harvest? According to her, it was excellent for a drought season garden. I took the time to explain that the plants were stunted a bit because of the first really difficult month with them. But now that they understand, and will water consistently from the start, they will have an even better production this year from non-stunted plants. And what is more, I only had them plant two plants per drip last year. This year we are going to plant 4 plants per hole now that they understand. And their harvest will be at least double, probably 3 to 4 times as much. They were excited. It was here that I also informed them that I have a few other things we are adding to the project that will also help production too. But I did not bother to explain what that would be yet.)
5. We started grinding up the vegetables and green beans into a mush, and adding them to our sauces for the family, and we could soon tell the vitamins were good for us. We often had stomach problems and stomach constipation (an African thing they talk about a lot) But once we started adding the vegetables and green beans, we noticed we were feeling better, and had far less stomach problems. It was like someone gave us medicine, as we had more energy too.
6. All the years we lived here in Africa, I have never once seen, or heard of making Organic Compost Tea to fertilizer a garden, but it works. That was something new for us all. But you showed us how to do this, it was so easy, and we saw that it works as well, or better than the fertilizer we buy in bags. Shortly after putting the organic tea in the irrigation, the plants sprang to life with it. We now understand we can do this. We no longer need to waste money at the market for fertilizer; our tea works very well, and it’s so easy. We have all kinds of animal dung in the villages to be making this tea, and we are telling others about it.
Conclusion: This project needs to continue, and we want it to grow to more womens groups. Please help us teach more groups of women this year. We hope you will consider adding several more women’s groups from the village project. Also, we have made a decision for literacy group. Last year we had mostly old women in the course. This year we now have a bunch of young girls in the literacy program, and since we as a literacy group all agree to share the production with all the families in our literacy school. This year, the old women are stepping back, and we want to train these younger girls how to do this, so they can do this for the rest of their lives, and we will guide them through the process, and we older ladies can rest a bit, and let the young girls help us out too. They can haul water for us, and we will teach them what to do so they can easily garden for the rest of their lives.
Needless to say, today was a good day. If you are humanitarian NGO or a community development worker, you understand what I mean when I say this was a good day.
This is about as exciting as it gets. It’s not every day that people get it, pass it on to others, and their children. Many projects for many a Humanitarian never ever arrive to this point. We were even wondering if ours would during those difficult few start up years.
It was a good day indeed.
Now we take a big deep breath and try to help these wonderful ladies “Get ‘er done”. This is going to stretch us to our physical limits again this year. Running out to remote villages on a motorbike, on rough road, and then working in the hot sun with soil and plants all day is not a picnic for a cold loving Canadian. I’d had my share of dehydration issues, and near heat strokes last term. But, this is going to be so much fun.