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Notes from the Field
Posted by: Daniel Fava at 11:22AM EST on April 30, 2012
By Suzanne Berman, CARE Field Coordinator
Siaya is a town twenty miles from Lake Victoria, in Western Kenya. I am in town to visit community groups that my CARE Kenya colleagues (Alex, Lucy, and Margaret) have been working with in the last six months. The first group we visit named themselves Twelve Sisters, but they are quick to tell me they have fifteen members, as they have been growing. Six months ago, these women started working together as a community savings and loans group. The women meet twice a month, and at every meeting they contribute money to the group. They are required to contribute 20 Kenyan shillings (about 30 cents) to the group's social fund, and then they can choose the amount of money they want to contribute to the group's pooled funds. The pooled funds are lumped into shares, which cost 100 Kenyan shillings (about $1.50).
At any meeting, group members can take out loans from the group's pooled funds. In April, Dada started an embroidery business. Frances improved her poultry farm. Alice paid the secondary school fees for her children. The women repay their loans a month after they take them out, along with 10% interest.
The social fund, however, is a different matter altogether. The social fund grows every month, and if one of the women has a problem, the group votes on whether or not to use their social fund to help her. Two months ago, Frances' house caught on fire, and she lost many of her possessions. Twelve Sisters voted to nearly deplete their social fund, giving Frances a way to start over. Unlike the loan system, the social fund does not need to be repaid.
Beatrice, the group's president, tells me, "this box is a painkiller…before when we had problems we had nowhere to turn, but now we have a resource." While we only spent a day together, it was clear to see that Beatrice was a force to be reckoned with. In addition to leading Twelve Sisters, Beatrice is a community educator on clean water. Trained by CARE, Beatrice goes into rural villages armed with PUR water packets. Donated by Proctor and Gamble, these packets purify 10 liters of water. The packets cost 15 Kenyan shillings (20 cents), but thanks to Proctor and Gamble, Beatrice and other health workers can distribute samples for free when they conduct community trainings.
Beatrice shows me how she demonstrates the packets. She empties the packet into a bucket of brown water that she collected from the nearby river. As she sings a song about the process, Beatrice stirs the bucket for five minutes. Then we wait. Twenty minutes later, the water is miraculously clear. Beatrice ties a white cloth around a second bucket and uses it as a filter for the sediment that floats on top of the translucent bucket. "Now it is safe," she says. I must admit, I'm impressed.
Alex and Margaret, who run CARE's water and sanitation programs in Siaya, tell me that the funding from Proctor and Gamble will last two more years, and their clients are always asking for more PUR packets. The mortality rate from water-borne diseases has dropped significantly in Siaya since CARE started the Safe Water System Project, and families are eager to use the PUR packets because the water looks and tastes better, and they see immediate improvements in their health.
Beatrice asked me what I was going to do when I got back to the United States. I explained that my job is to tell stories to members of Congress, so they will support programs like Twelve Sisters and the Clean Water Project. I hope to make good on my promise.
There are two bills in Congress right now that could help women like Beatrice and groups like the Twelve Sisters. The Microenterprise Empowerment and Job Creation Act (H.R. 2524), and the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act (H.R. 3658). Please call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121, ask for the office of your member of Congress, orclick here to send him/her an e-mail in support of these life-saving pieces of legislation.
Posted by: Kiera Stein at 4:40PM EST on April 26, 2012
This year, more than 7 million children will die before they turn 5 years old. Nearly all of these deaths occur in poor countries and almost every one of them can be prevented. The good news is that low-cost interventions, such as adequate nutrition, bed nets and skilled health workers, keep children alive. In fact, child mortality rates have dropped 70 percent during the past 50 years.
Posted by: Daniel Fava at 10:50AM EST on April 13, 2012
By Kent Alexander
Driving from Niger's capital Niamey to the town of Konni for five hours through the sand-swept, arid Sahel region, I listened to the audio book The Hunger Games. The novel opens with a scene of bleak poverty in a post-apocalyptic town called District 12. Dirt, grime, threadbare clothing, scarce food.
Looking out the window at the mud-and-thatch structures and the gaunt, colorfully dressed women floating by my window, I couldn't help but think Niger was District 12 on steroids. Here, people are experiencing ‘the hungry season', and it is certainly neither a novel nor a movie. It's very real.
Still, I couldn't help but smile about the difference people here are making in partnership with CARE.
Having joined CARE as general counsel just last April, this is my first trip to a region deep in the throes of crisis. This is poverty as I've never seen.
The facts? Niger ranks 186th out of 187 countries on the UN's Human Development Index, putting it in a dead heat with the Democratic Republic of Congo as the least developed country on earth. Most adults over 25 have precious little formal education, and an overwhelming majority are illiterate. Particularly hard hit are Niger's women and children, always the most vulnerable to poverty. Conflicts simmer on three bordering countries. And among many other challenges facing Niger, a catastrophic drought is underway.
According to a recent report over 10 million of Niger's 16 million citizens will run out of food stocks well before the next harvest, expected around October. All families have cut back on their food consumption. Most who I met are down to one meal a day.
The country is on the proverbial brink. Without help, many will suffer irreparable physical harm; many will lose their lives.
How economically poor are the villages we visited in western Niger? Mind bogglingly poor.
When we arrived at Ayyawane hundreds of people gathered for a welcoming ceremony. During the program, young children presented formal requests in envelopes to the group of visitors from CARE. Their number one request? Not toys, not new clothes, and certainly not a trip to Disney World. Drinking water. Water! This was especially striking because Ayyawane was by far the most ‘affluent' of the villages we visited.
We toured Ayyawane and spoke with the mayor and other people about their lives and their very modest dreams.
Then, at the end of our visit, I saw something that gave me a small but jolting idea of what poverty is like. As we headed to the car for our departure, dozens of young children crowded behind the Toyota and were uncharacteristically pushing and shoving each other. The tail gate was open, and the driver stood beside our cooler containing a few leftover cold drinks from lunch earlier in the day. Philippe Leveque, the National Director of CARE France said, "Kent, this is the face of poverty." Frankly, I thought he was overreacting a bit and said as much. After all, the day was broiling – over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course the kids were elbowing in for a shot at a cold drink.
While in Ayyawane, we visited a garden made possible by five wells that CARE had dug through the years. Outside the garden stood a huge grove of trees, greenery rarely seen in most of Niger. The mayor told us they planted all those trees with support from CARE more than thirty years ago, when he was just 11. The grove now serves as a ready source of wood for energy and construction, which villagers maintain, planting new trees as they log.
In another village, Bangoukoirey (please don't ask me to pronounce it!), I saw one of CARE's savings and loan groups in action. Each of the three dozen or so women members stepped forward to contribute their week's savings of 500 CFA (1 U.S. dollar) or less into a pooled fund, which they could later use to make and collect small development loans. The president of the group, colorfully dressed in a green, black and blue striped robe with a purple scarf, told me she had been saving for six years. During that time she had used the loans to buy poultry, two oxen and a cart, and had repaid all the money with interest. But life was still hard. With the drought underway there is no longer money for the future, and not enough for food and water now.
Back on the road, in the village of Maijanjaré (again, no pronunciation requests please), we went to a rock-hard, barren field with hundreds of three-meter-wide half-moon craters that stretched as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of some television special featuring landscapes pocked with mysterious patterns allegedly left by some ancient culture or extraterrestrials. But in this case there was no mystery.
CARE's Project Manager Nouroudine Pereira told us that the villagers, ingeniously, dug the craters on a gently sloping plain so that when the rains finally do come the water will not simply wash over the baked terra cotta landscape and flood the southernmost point. Each crescent captures the rainwater and becomes a garden, and the villagers harvest millet and other crops to sell and to store for the next hungry season. But they cannot do this without money to buy tools and without food to sustain them. And unfortunately food prices have soared since last fall.
Nouroudine explained the details of CARE's ‘cash-for-work' program, and after showing us the field brought us over to the line of villagers collecting their payments. CARE pays each villager a very modest sum to dig 2 craters per day into the concrete-like soil and provides the tools. This injects money into the economy, which people can use as they see fit. A 36-year-old mother standing in line spoke of how critical the payments are to support her and her four children. Her husband is in the somewhat more prosperous Nigeria (though still a lowly #156 out of 187 countries on UNDP's Human Development Index), scavenging for work to send remittances home, although finding work is never guaranteed. On the other hand, the lack of food and water in Niger is very real.
On the long drive back to the capital city of Niamey, I listened to the rest of The Hunger Games and watched more villages roll by. My mind wandered to the real life hungry season and the onset of a food crisis in Niger. Suzanne Collins's book, compelling to most, seemed almost trite by comparison as I thought – and continue to think – about how to make the crisis in the Sahel compelling to all those who will never see it firsthand. How to avoid a severe crisis like what we are now seeing in the Horn of Africa. How to preserve the development progress made to date through the efforts of CARE, other NGO's, the UN, the government and the people. How to help the adults and children of the Sahel with such strong spirits and determination avoid going beyond the tipping point, when no amount of aid can bring them back.
Kent Alexander is CARE USA's General Counsel.
Posted by: Daniel Fava at 2:24PM EST on April 12, 2012
CARE's cash-for-work program is supporting 11,377 families in the regions of Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder, Niger.
Participants work six days a week and get a cash payment of $50 a month. The work is completed in the morning, so participants have their afternoons free to earn additional income. In households where nobody can work, the community selects families who will benefit from the same amount of cash. Tchima Ibrahim Iro, mother of six, is one such beneficiary.
Because she is unable to work, Tichma relies on her neighbors to help her feed her hungry children. When begging doesn't make ends meet, she's forced to borrow small sums of money that add up to seemingly insurmountable debt. Thus, many poor people like Tchima in Niger and other places that face chronic food shortages become trapped in a cycle of hunger, poverty and debt that grows ever more dire with each passing year.
CARE's support has helped Tchima and other families like hers get back on track. "I have used some of the cash to pay back my debt and I have stopped begging," says Tchima with a smile.
Now that she has a small income, Tchima can purchase food for her family, thus reducing the burden she places on her neighbors. Plus, she's now able to support local farmers so they don't end up in the same situation.
Even though the primary goal of CARE's cash-for-work projects is to help people cover their immediate basic needs, the program brings longer-term benefits to the community. For example, project participants are turning an unused tract of land into pasture in Tchima's village. After removing weeds, they plant grain, which will germinate during the rainy season and create a new area for cattle to graze.
Tchima expresses her appreciation by saying how proud she is to be a part of a village who came together to create the chance for a brighter future.
Posted by: Abdoul Karim Coulibaly at 4:45PM EST on April 5, 2012
CARE’s Access Africa Program and Tableau Software are partnering to launch the Tableau Student Data Challenge. The purpose of the contest is to turn data into a beautiful story-telling tool using Tableau’s data visualization tool. The contest will uses data from the Lesotho Village Saving and Loan Association (VSLA). Analyzing the data, students will tell a story about the livelihood condition of people in Lesotho. The registration opened on March 30 and will close on April 11th. The four-day contest takes place from April 12-16. This is an exciting opportunity for Access Africa to make our work known throughout the world. For more details about the context please visit: http://www.tableausoftware.com/public/datachallenge.
Posted by: Daniel Fava at 1:51PM EST on April 5, 2012
As I sit around a table with four members of the Tuungane Village Savings and Loans Association , I am struck by the colossal change that has taken place amongst the women in Kishishe village in just over a year. Last year when I visited CARE's Mama Amka project, designed to empower women and communities to respond to and fight sexual and gender based violence, I found a traumatized population; women led me to dark corners of their homes and whispered about the sexual violence plaguing their communities. Survivors spoke about their fear of being identified as a survivor, abandoned by their husbands and shunned by their community. While the woman in Mama Amka I found solace and strength in each other, their eyes clearly showed the isolation and trepidation they felt as they attempted to move beyond their nightmarish experiences.
This year, when I arrived in Kishishe, Kharehe, the 25 year old community counselor who I remember being so timid that she found it practically impossible to speak to me last year, grabs my hand and chats about her VSLA group while leading me to a group of women who want to share their experience in Mama Amka II. In a small but well lit one room hut I find 24 year old mother of one Kahambu; 37 year old mother of six, Chantal Kahundo; and 54 year old mother of twelve Flora. All of the women tell me they are widows and do not provide any additional information about their husbands. Flora laughs when I ask if they find being a single mother hard, saying "What man would want to take on a woman who already had children? Anyway, I am so happy now. I am independent. I make money and then decide how to spend it. My children go to school, we eat every day, and when we are sick, I can pay medical fees". The women around her giggle with glee at this new found economic independence which has opened the door to a future for themselves and their families. As one woman put it "before I was short-sighted, but now I see into the distance".
CARE's Village Savings and Loans Association approach, introduced in the second year of the Norwegian MoFA funded Mama Amka project is at the heart of this change. Survivors of sexual violence and other vulnerable members in communities in ten health areas have formed forty of these groups. Almost 70% of the 1,149 members have taken a credit to launch income generating activities. Flora, for example, took a loan of 20,000 Congolese francs (about $35 USD) and started her own local brewery; her first loan provided her with a profit of 50,000 francs (about $87 USD)in sales of banana wine. Chantal has accessed two credits of 30,000 francs (about $52 USD each), which she used to start her own restaurant. Specializing in beans, she serves between 25-30 plates a day. Kahambu and Kharehe became friends and now live together in a rented home they pay with from profits from their respective VSLA loan activities. Although it is rare for young single woman to live on their own in a village, Kahambu and Kharehe are focused on the possibilities of their future. Kharehe made over three times her loan selling corn while Kahambu used the profits from selling salted fish to buy goats, which have already produced two offspring.
The women are energetic and radiant as they speak of their success. They ooze confidence and happiness- I can't remember the last time I heard so much deep, true laughing coming from women in a village in eastern Congo. While their excitement about their new work is palpable, when asked about the sexual and gender based violence this area of the Congo has become notorious for, the women remain realistic. "There has definitely been a reduction in the frequency of rape here", Kharehe explains. "But", Chantal interjects, ‘we still have a lot to do". Woman after woman I speak with repeats that a group approach to sensitizing the community on gender quality is the most effective means to make a difference. Flora explains, "Before women who were raped were alone and didn't know where to go. Now they know to seek treatment at the health centers and to talk to the community counselor. Now we work together to get the community to change. No more should young girls not be allowed to go to school". The economic empowerment has also had an impact on the household level. As Jean-Baptiste, the projects psychologist explains "Economic empowerment valorizes the woman in the home. Once she starts profiting from her VSLA activities, she begins to independently make household decision. The husband respects and appreciates this. This has a positive impact on their relationship and on the household dynamics".
As I leave, Chantal shows me her small restaurant. As she poses for pictures, she gives her parting message "Please continue to help us fight SGBV. There is so much violence here. There is violence in the home, there is violence in their fields. Petit a petit we have made a change. But we must continue to work as a group to address the problems and find the solutions".
Posted by: Daniel Fava at 11:25AM EST on April 5, 2012
By Barbara Jackson, Humanitarian Director, CARE International
March, 29, 2012.
The thick calloused soles of the feet of the women with whom I sat in the tiny village of Maijanjaré in Niger, seven hours by road away from the capital Niamey, tell their own story. It is a story of many hardships, of back-breaking labour to dig a bit of land in extremely rocky, hard and dry soil in order to plant and hopefully harvest a bit of millet. It is a story of having to walk two hours each day to collect water. It is a story of women who have lost their husbands many years ago either to migration, working in another country where they have found new families, or to early death. It is a story of women who are widows and who tell us that without CARE’s cash-for-work project, they would be beggars now and are vastly relieved that for at least these few months, they do not need to beg.
These women are referred to as the elderly, and while they cannot tell us their age given that they don’t know it, they are probably in their late 40ies. The life expectancy for women in Niger is 45 years of age, an indicator of how tough life is in this part of the world. The women eagerly tell us the cash-for-work project, where they are paid a small sum of money to dig half-crescent shaped basins that will form natural reservoirs for the millet to be planted, has helped them to buy a small amount of grain that the government of Niger stores and sells at a subsidized price to community members during this very lean season.
Without food assistance and other support, over five million women, children and men in Niger are at risk of not having enough food in the coming months.
Already we are being told that people are reducing their food intake to one meal a day, and that the seeds that they have saved for the next planting season are being eaten to supplement their diets. The severe droughts of 2005 and 2010 are in very recent memory, with many people having gone into debt to survive those crises - yet people did not have enough time, productivity and stability to regain their livelihoods. The ‘elderly women’ of Maijanjaré will be amongst the first to suffer from this impending crisis if they do not receive help. But they do not want to beg for help. They are eager to work. They want to feel that they are helping themselves during this extremely difficult time.
The situation in the Sahel is a complex one and the small village that we visited is only a small microcosm of what many millions are living today in Niger. In times of hardship such as those, people used to migrate and find work as daily labourers in other countries. However, the conflict situation in Mali, the tenuous situation in Nigeria and the uncertainty and volatility of Libya does exhaust this strategy. Those in Niger are concerned, and wonder what the future holds for them.
Halima, one of the village widows shares with me: “We continue to be strong with CARE’s help and we hope that the rains will come on time.” Hope is a wonderful emotion and can carry one far, but it is not enough for the women of Niger. They must have the continuous support of CARE and others to help them through this very critical time.
It is important for us all to remember that during the food crisis in Niger in 2005, it would have cost us 1 U.S. dollar a day to prevent malnutrition among children if the world had responded immediately. By July 2005, it was costing 80 U.S. dollars to save a malnourished child’s life. Now is the time to help Niger --- not when it is too late to prevent what we know can be prevented.