Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hope in a Corn Crop

It’s early November in Tanzania, Africa – high on Mt. Meru. The annual corn crops have been planted everywhere there is available land – in large and small farm fields; in fields both on level ground and on steep hills. Corn is an important staple food in this region.

By early November, there are fields with corn plants that have grown to a height of just a few feet, and fields with plants stretching up to 5 feet into the air. The corn is planted in hand tilled and hand planted rows separated by shallow troughs to aid in irrigation when it does rain.

There is green everywhere, unlike so many of the prior years when seasonal rains never really came at all and grass and crops alike were withered and brown from the ongoing drought.

But the green on Mt. Meru this year is deceiving. Hopes were high a few weeks ago when there were several days in a row with light rains, but the rain never amounted to anything significant enough to soak deep into the soil. Scoop up a handful of the dirt in these farm fields, and it is light as dust, carried on the breeze that only gives temporary relief from the heat of the African sun.

Look closely at the corn crops and there is no real corn to harvest. By late November, the abundant rains needed to nourish these crops had not materialized. There are no tassels at the tops of so many of the corn plants, and the corn stalks that do have tassels bear only immature and underdeveloped cobs of corn.

By the end of November and the tail end of this “rainy season,” and with a resolute acceptance that is heartbreaking to watch, the villagers head out with machetes in hand, and begin to cut the drought damaged corn and clear their fields. They have given up hope for this year’s corn harvest. There will be no fruits from their months of labors. The corn crop has failed yet again.

In a sad twist of fate, the corn stalks and drought damaged corn will become a supplemental food source for the local livestock. But even for cattle, the nutrient value of the corn stalks and drought damaged corn is minimal.

As sustenance farmers living high on the slopes Mt. Meru, the people simply cannot afford to give up and become the victims of another failed crop. With their unwavering faith and simple acceptance that “God will provide” they resolutely head again to their now cleared farm fields, hoes in hand, to plant the seeds for the crop of the next growing season… potatoes.

But they are not simply planting the seeds for potatoes… they are planting seeds of hope.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

As you give...

We are about to begin a food distribution to the people in the village of Seela in Tanzania, Africa. We’ve purchased at the Tengeru market 100 kg of beans and 50 kg of rice to supplement the 1,000 kg of maize which has already arrived to help alleviate hunger here.

Despite best efforts and unwavering faith, year after year much of the maize/corn crop fails due to the ongoing drought in this Mt. Meru region. To further exasperate the situation, the economies of supply and demand push food prices beyond the means of those already “living on the edge” – those struggling to survive on an income of less than $1 a day.

We know this distribution is just a “drop in the bucket” of the hunger in this third world country, but it is a start, and we know this food will save lives. And despite the silent apology in my eyes of “I know it is not enough,” there is a palpable appreciation among those who are about to receive this precious gift of food.

The distribution goes on for hours as representatives from each family come forth when called to accept their share of rice, beans and maize. There is a determined patience. When the day is done, and the last spilled grain has been swept from the floor, we at last rest.

Weeks later, I am saying my goodbyes to the people of this Tanzanian village. I love these people as much as if they were my own family. Our goodbyes are bitter sweet. But we all trust and hold the faith that I will be back the same time next year.

During the midst of the goodbyes, I am approached by a small, frail woman who greets me and timidly says, “Zawadi kwa ajili yako” – a gift for you. I recognize the small black plastic bag. It is the same type of bag in which she received beans from the food distribution earlier in the month.

She places the bag in my hands, presses my fingers around it, and gives me a motherly kiss on each of my cheeks.

The bag contains a portion of the beans she and her family received just a few weeks prior. I know I would offend if I insisted she and her young children needed the beans more than I did.

It is a selfless gift. A sacrifice, really.

Yet it is given with genuine love. And it is given with a faithfulness and trust that, “As you give, so you shall receive.”

As I reflect on this gift she has given me, I realize the actual gift is not so much the beans, as the lesson that is learned through her sharing.

“As you give…”

Sometimes Orbitz coupon codes are available for humanitarian travel for those interested in serving in person.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Black Plastic Bag

As we get closer to the Tengeru market in Tanzania, our senses are increasingly bombarded. The sights, sounds and smells vividly announce to us that we have arrived. Vibrant color is everywhere – in the clothes worn by the people, and in the fresh produce for sale. In the food stalls, vendors announce their prices and encourage potential buyers to purchase from them instead of from the 20 people near them selling the same produce at the exact same price. There are street vendors frying fish and roasting corn to buy for a tasty snack. Even the sense of touch is not spared as we navigate shoulder against shoulder, pushing through the crowds.

As we pass stall after stall displaying huge bags of beans and grains, women busily sift beans and kernels of corn over a wood-framed screen to remove stones and other debris. Heaping buckets of beans and grain are measured out for buyers, and then poured into baskets, buckets and those black plastic bags seen everywhere at Tanzanian markets.

Young boys, trying to earn an income to help support their families, walk among the potential customers with the handles of empty, black plastic bags draped over their forearms. These boys are alert and street smart. They instinctively know when a purchase is about to be made, and are standing close by ready to sell to you a black plastic bag at the exact moment that you need to buy a black plastic bag for your purchase.

Unlike the proliferation of plastic bags available at stores here in the USA, plastic bags are not free with your purchase in Tanzania. If you need a plastic bag, it will cost you 100-shillings (about 7-cents). Yet, for the Tanzanian family struggling to survive on an average annual income of less than $400 a year (about $1 a day), even the purchase of a 7-cent bag is financially difficult.

Shopping at market without buying a black plastic bag from one of the boys is certainly possible if you’ve brought your own basket or bucket with you (which is at the same time an unfortunate “catch 22” for the boys trying to earn an income selling 7-cent bags).

But sometimes the purchase of one of those black plastic bags becomes a necessity. If you are fortunate enough to have money to purchase a piece of beef or goat meat from the butcher, the meat is unceremoniously hacked off of the hanging animal carcass, tightly wrapped in layers of old newspaper and handed directly to you. Suffice to say, at this point, with blood from the meat beginning to seep through the newspaper, a black plastic bag passes beyond luxury to necessity.

When I go to the Tengeru Market, I look for the boys from our village. They aren’t too hard to find once I am near the entrance to the busiest area of the marketplace. Or rather, maybe it is I, the lone white woman in a sea of Africans who is not hard to spot, and one of the boys from our village usually finds me before I find one of them.

Greetings are exchanged, and one of the young boys follows me as I walk through the marketplace. Even as he watches for other potential customers in our vicinity while I am shopping, he doesn’t stray far from me. He is always ready with a black plastic bag whenever I purchase something, and then insists on carrying all of my purchases, too.

When we are done, I press several shilling coins into the palm of his hand. He looks and sees an amount more than the cost of the few black plastic bags I needed. As he reaches in his pocket to give me change, I smile at him with a small shake of my head, and I close his hand tightly around the coins and motion for him to put them safely in his pocket. He understands. There is a shy smile on his lips, but his dark eyes reflect a solemn appreciation.

In that simple, silent exchange, he knows that I understand the struggles of his family to survive in this 3rd world country.