Mozambique #12 Travel

A common problem that I have when trying to write these blog entries is to find the best way to start. Do I give a greeting to the blog community? Or do I just jump in and start talking about last week? Or in this case do I just write my mind and confess the problem up front, and in the process therefore start the blog entry? It seems that I have chosen to do this and now I will cease with this absolutely pointless paragraph.

So I have been doing some traveling with MOZaic to rural communities and I can now say that I have seen a very large portion of Gaza province. Four pastors (3 Mozambians who are native to this region) and I traveled to rural communities visiting churches, strengthening relations in the community, meeting with existing projects and scouting out future endeavors. It was a blast to travel around with the pastors, everywhere we went we were extremely well received and our group developed a very friendly playful vibe, although we certainly did our fair share of philosophizing and had great discussions. The African bush was really beautiful; green and alive in the places where it had rained, still dry and dead in the locations where the rains have not yet come. The contrast was very stark. Just driving from community to community on single track jeep tracks we saw ostrich, gazelle, amazing birds, insects, trees and plants.

Once out of the bigger communities the level of economic development, infrastructure, health services, government and NGO prescience really diminishes. It felt like I was entering a part of the world that has been totally forgotten about by globalization and development. We visited communities where per week, one car goes to transport people and supplies. I can now say that I met adolescents of 15 years old or more who had never seen white people before. In western culture, with our level of exposure to ideas, technologies etc, I desperately wanted to know what these peoples world was like! How did they see the world? What were their hopes, dreams and gripes? What is their cosmology? Very few people spoke Portuguese so unfortunately communication was difficult however I had an interesting conversation with a few kids in one of the communities. Using my friend as a translator I asked the kids what their dreams were for the future. They were very shy to talk to me, but a bold boy from the group said that his dream was to buy a car. I asked why. He said “you came from far away in a car, I want to go far away in a car and see where you came from”. To me this illustrated the wonderful human spirit of curiosity and the seeking of novelty.

In some of the communities closer to the Zimbabwe border they are suffering from a drought where farmers haven’t had a good harvest in 2 years. There is no employment in these regions, everyone depends on farming or herding cattle for their livelihood. When we arrived in the village people crowded around the car asking for food. Kids saw a loaf of bread that was in the back of the truck and their eyes lit up like Christmas morning. It was really sad, the whole community had an atmosphere of hopeless desperation as they just wait for the rain. However after talking to people another side of this story emerges. First off, I learned that many people who don’t have food on the table own over 50 head of cattle. One cow can earn $500 for a family if they were to sell. However the culture in these communities puts huge emphasis on the number of cattle a family owns. Therefore cattle are rarely sold and rarely eaten by the community members. It appears that people would rather suffer the incessant dull ache of hunger than suffer the needle sharp pain of cultural condemnation. Additionally, I saw people who did not have money for food, yet had money for gin. Priorities are different. Although my thought at the time was that if I lived in this community I would probably drink too.

Access to drinking and cooking water is a huge problem as well in these communities. Seasonal rivers exist but sometimes for only a month or two during the rainy season. Wells must be dug to 80 or 90 meters and sometimes produce salty water. Most people rely on rain water storage or the one well in the region. NGOs have been in the area and have built sand dams to trap water in the ground after the rainy season. A sand dam is basically where you dam a section of a seasonal river so when the river floods during the rainy season the water will collect. Then after the rainy season when the river dries up again the ground has absorbed a lot of this water and will keep it close to the surface where shallow wells can be dug.

The situation is very complex to find a solution. Basic needs such as water and food are routinely not met, yet the effects are compounding. You cannot recommend to someone to plant fruit trees or maintain a home garden for food security when they don’t have access to water to sustain the plants. Life out in these communities is survival. So why do people choose to live in these places where the conditions for maintaining life are so difficult? This is a question I repeated over and over to myself while traveling and I still don’t understand. One hypothesis of mine is that it is plain and simple cultural conditioning. People’s ancestors grew up on this land and there are very strong attachments to it. Yet times are changing. Rainfall rates have fallen in the last 30 years, in all probability in relation to the climate change phenomena that we are witnessing. I cannot say that people should leave their homelands, but perhaps they may not have a choice in the future. I have been thinking a lot about what is meant by the term “development” and I think I have come up with a good definition. Development can mean the ability to procure economic means to choose a lifestyle and location to live. It simply may be that in these rural regions the economic barriers to moving are so high that people are literally trapped waiting for the rain.

As far as what foreign aid can do for rural communities I am learning that the most important things are just meeting basic needs. Rainfall collection systems with water tanks, health and sanitation education, and agricultural training are what is desperately needed in these rural locations. Forget about mosquito nets and condoms, basic infrastructure to maintain life is needed here. I witnessed many fields of corn cut out of the forest with slash and burn agriculture. With this methodology, after 3-4 years of harvests the soil will be completely exhausted of nutrients and the farmer will carve out another chunk of beautiful African bush. Yet there exists techniques of conservation agriculture where year after year fertility is actually added to the soil and production rises, even in poor fertility sandy soils here in Gaza! There exists techniques to take advantage of every drop of water that falls on a field, so even in drier years the farmers can still get a harvest. We as an organization and as human beings have all the knowledge, technology and goodwill to really improve the lives of many people. We just need to find the appropriate way to have this methodology spread and accepted into the lives of the benefactors. I think that people all over the world are extremely resistant to change, even when this change could seriously benefit their wellbeing.

One great event that happened during our trip was finding a Jackfruit tree in a large railroad/border town called Chicualacuala. I was wondering around aimlessly exploring and just so happened to walk down the street that had the only jackfruit tree in all of the city. Perhaps our energies drew us together, or perhaps it was mere coincidence, but I find it a bit frightening how I seem to attract exotic fruits! Anyway of course I spoke with the owner of the house and procured 2 beautiful fruits. One was well ripened and ready to eat. That night we stayed in a community called Mapai where we had a meeting with 20 leaders from churches in the area. After the meeting I gave a short talk about the magical Jackfruit tree and we cut up and collectively ate the fruit. Jackfruit is very rare here in Mozambique and pretty much nobody knows about it. However considering the fact that one mature tree can give over 300 kg of delicious, nutritious fruit per year, this tree has extreme value when taken in the context of diminishing hunger and food security. The church group absolutely loved the fruit! We gave out every seed that was inside with careful instructions how to plant and people promised to plant the tree and spread the word. I hope to see young trees the next time I am in Mapai. The other fruit was shared and consumed here in Manjacaze and we now have 50 seeds in plant bags hoping to distribute this amazing tree locally and in other communities.

Photos: Woman with awesome shirt, however she obviously had no idea what this meant and no I did not tell her. Baobab tree!

This random house in Maxaile where the woman really got the concept of Chaya and how amazing this plant is (it had been brought by my collegue years ago). I spoke to her and she said she was really sick of people coming to her house begging her for leaves to cook with, so she started only giving out branches for them to plant. The best thing was that her neighbor had done the exact thing and basically had an entire hedge of chaya.

Sand dam and the associated water. Would you drink this if you had to? I did.

People cutting Gazelle that I then ate. It was delicious, very lean and not gamey at all.

Jackfruit and associated distribution. Check out the ladies! After we cut up the fruit they crowded around to dig around the skin in case a stray seed or piece of flesh had been forgotten.

Mozambique #11 Connectivity

In a recent phone conversation with my Father, the issue of connectivity in a social context arose when he said “you are disconnected right now”. I have been ruminating over this interesting concept of connectivity and have come to some conclusions. Connectivity is a totally relative, subjective experience. If he meant that I am disconnected from the American political scene, or sports, or the mass media propaganda engines of the western world, then yes I am very disconnected. If disconnected means I don’t get my emails on my cell phone or have advertisements constantly thrust into my face then yes I am disconnected. I have no awareness or fear that comes from constantly being connected to a “news” source, reporting about the latest economic power game antics. On the negative, I am disconnected from important information that could possibly improve my life, information about living techniques, scientific information, social networking and entertainment that could bring me a sense of community and pleasure.

I can imagine people rising to the edge of their seats in protest that the political, social and scientific events of the modern world are very important and one must be informed etc… Things are important only because we give them importance, nothing has intrinsic importance unto itself. Importance is determined and dictated by the mechanisms of personal and cultural conditioning that we all are a part of. The western mindset of being “connected and informed” doesn’t have a monopoly on importance. For example, here in Mozambique rain is the most important topic right now. When the rains don’t come, or the quantity is not enough people suffer. Rain is very important in the U.S. as well, but the awareness of this importance among the general consuming populace is very low (I have images burned into my head of people in FL watering their lush green lawns during extreme drought conditions). Other things are deemed important instead; the latest sporting event, the latest political gossip, scientific reports etc.  Importance is a consensus, connectivity is relative, the world is still a conundrum.

What scares me about this “disconnection” is that with our current state of development of the world, we are radically changing the face of the planet. Climate change, water shortages, pollution etc, are all very real threats. It will be the uninformed, uneducated masses who will suffer because of actions being perpetrated half way around the world. At this point I dont know what the solution is, but it is scary to think that the effects of millions of SUV’s driving around the U.S. is going to alter the world here in Manjacaze. But this could be the reality.

To return to connectivity however, what I am more connected to right now is my daily existence and procuring the necessities in a much smaller community context. I am much more connected to my food, my water, my neighbors, the Earth and her climatic cycles (primarily speaking of rain to grow food) and my body and its capacity to stay healthy and capable. In asking some Mozambicans if they felt disconnected from the rest of the world, they mostly laughed and shrugged. To be honest I don’t think they understood the question. You cannot feel disconnected from something that you have no real awareness of its existence!  Life is much different here, much simpler, this is obvious. But the events of this world are no less important to the inhabitants of this world, than the “important” events of the developed world. Life goes on just the same whether the gossip is about global politics, the newest scientific theory or whose pigs got loose in the neighborhood and munched on everyone’s gardens.

Yesterday we held our cooking class with “Chaya”, which was a great success in my opinion. We had 38 people come to learn about this wonderful plant. The women showed up and everyone immediately began helping to cook; grating the coconut, cutting vegetables, pounding peanuts etc. In the meantime we talked about the plant, nutrition in general and joked around a lot. It was a really great atmosphere and people were very interested to learn about Chaya and other plants that we will offer in the future. We all ate together the finished product (which was delicious) and everyone agreed that Chaya has excellent flavor. We distributed the plants and sent everyone on their way to sow their plants and spread the word. The best part about this is that my Mozambican counterparts at MOZaic and Tchavelela really took charge and ran the show. I basically just came up with the idea to organize the event, publicized it and I said a few words about the technical agricultural aspects of the plant. The rest was done by Mozambicans for their community members. It was not some white guy standing at the front of a room preaching. It was a joint effort that I hope will have a small impact on the nutritional status of the community and I know that we will replicate this model of education. (as soon as all the Chaya leaves we harvested grow back.)

Pictures are from the event: Me showing off my skills grating coconut (have I mentioned that nobody believes I can cook?), part of the group lounging in the shade, giving a few words, serving out the gruel, satisfied consumers and people with their plants.

Next week ill be traveling to rural communities to investigate small business opportunities with cashew production, marula oil (a cosmetic or edible oil) and start up loans for opening small commodity stores in communities where there are no markets.

Mozambique #10 Chaya

Reporting on my work lately, I am in the process of planning my first event as a volunteer. MOZaic has a functioning tree nursery that is loaded with great plants and trees that we are raising to distribute to communities. One of these plants is called Chaya, and is native to central America. (I actually saw it and ate it while I was in Guatemala) My South African counterpart visited ECHO farms in Ft Myers, FL, where they distribute plants to international aid workers and interested plant enthusiasts. He brought cuttings of Chaya back with him to Moz when he returned. ECHO is basically an experimental demonstration farm, and if you live near them I highly recommend you go there and take a tour. They have plants that you won’t believe! www.echonet.org. And if you are working overseas now they will send you free seeds!

Chaya has huge potential to add nutrients to the average diet which through my observations and talking to doctors and medical personnel is deficient in protein, iron and vitamins and minerals. Chaya is a large shrub that produces prodigious quantities of very nutrient dense (better than spinach), tasty green leaves and performs especially well during drought conditions. The plant is actually in the same family as mandioca (aka cassava), which here in Mozambique, is already heavily utilized for its edible roots and leaves. In one of my favorite traditional Mozambican dishes, the leaves of the mandioca plant are ground into a leafy pulp in a mortar and pestle, then cooked with coconut milk, onions, garlic and peanut flour. Chaya has the advantage of producing much higher quantities of leaves and withstanding drought conditions better than Mandioca. Once established, the plant basically needs zero care and in my opinion, the flavor of ‘matapa’ made from  Chaya is better than traditional mandioca leaves. (I have made this dish several times and fooled all my neighbors into thinking it was mandioca leaves, only to surprise them afterword and show them chaya. They immediately asked for the plant, which I gave them.)

Anyway, we have large amounts of this plant in the nursery, waiting to be distributed. The hardest thing in introducing new plant species is getting people to accept the new plant into the diet. It is extremely difficult to break through the wall of cultural conditioning that is the food habits of a people. Where as most Americans I feel are fairly open to trying new foods (perhaps an effect of the melting pot?), I have experienced Mozambicans in general being very skeptical and even fearful to taste new foods or try different methods of preparation. So when trying to introduce a new plant, the most important thing to do is demonstrate exactly how to prepare the dish and actually get people to try it. This coming weekend we will be hosting a cooking demonstration with Chaya, where we will invite community members to come learn about Chaya. Everyone will receive demonstration in preparation methods, a small portion of the finished product and best of all a free plant to go sow in their yards at home. I have made up flyers for the event and handed them out to important community members and neighborhood leaders as well as using networking opportunities through my other organization to get the word out. This even is going to be a lot of fun and I think has the potential to benefit people who are interested in learning about new plants. It will be interesting to see how this event turns out.

This past weekend I rode my new bike to the town of Chibuto, about 45km away. The ride was quite pleasant, mostly dirt roads that pass through small communities and fields of corn and beans. Once in Chibuto I attended a soccer game with another volunteer and explored the town a bit. Chibuto is a bit bigger than Manjacaze and is on a main paved road. My impression was that it was a bit more impersonal and faster paced, and made me feel lucky to have such a great site in Manjacaze. Back to the football, there is a league of 14 teams in Mozambique that compete each year, and it is quite organized with jerseys, sponsors, coaches, etc. Chibuto scored in extra time to win the game, which was awesome because people absolutely went nuts in the stands. There is no shortage of excitement for football here in Mozambique.

Pictures are of a standard road scene while riding in the back of a truck (very standard method of travel) and me and my new bike that my counterpart purchased on my behalf in South Africa. This bike is awesome and is going to carry me all around Mozambique. I am already planning on riding from village to village, staying with other volunteers or pitching my tent and really exploring. Also pictures of the game and a beautiful overlook from Chibuto.