Thursday, November 11, 2010

One Year in the Peace Corps

November 7, 2010 - One Year in the Peace Corps - Food Security Survey and Trip to Mahajanga

Since I last wrote, I have passed the one year mark for being with the Peace Corps. I marked the occasion by climbing the hill behind the school, where I can get cell phone reception, and texting congratulations to several of my friends in my Peace Corps group. I also made banana chocolate chip pancakes, but that's more of a regular occurrence, not just for special anniversaries!

One year with the Peace Corps, 10 months at my site. It's something to wonder at, since I've been nomadic for so long, and also been struggling to figure out how to work with my village. But here I am, still working on it and haven't given up in frustration yet!

Also on the one-year anniversary of beginning this Peace Corps "experience," I presented the results of my food security and farming survey to my community. After visiting 38 households, I began compiling the answers to the survey, learning some interesting things along the way. For instance, while almost 70% of households make charcoal as their main source of income, only about 50% actually use charcoal for cooking, and half of that 50% purchase it. So making charcoal is often a "wage" activity--not something that everyone owns the rights to. I also learned that most people can only farm on one piece of land for a year before moving to a new spot and leaving the old land fallow, usually for 3-5 years.

Out of the 38 households that I interviewed, only 10 of them said that they have enough food for the year. I looked at those 10 households to see what the differences between them and the rest of the households were, and found that they farm more and different types of crops, most save their rice seed from year to year, and they have learned more about farming techniques (for instance, using manure on their field) than the rest of the population. The differences between their farming practices was striking, and I tried to convey that to those who attended the meeting, but I'm not sure if it got across.

The other interesting "finding" was that of all the "techniques" taught by the 10 (or more) non-profits who used to operate in the area only 20% are still in use. The reasons people gave for no longer using the skills taught by the non-profits were things like, "I'm too lazy," "It's too hard," "I learned about irrigated rice paddies but don't have one."

I spoke about how this was discouraging to me, and explained how the things that are important to me are children having enough to eat, and taking care of the land and soil. I read to them their responses to the questions about what they most like about their community and what they least like, and about what they have seen change over the years in the area. After I was done with my presentation, several people got up to speak and expressed agreement with everything that they saw in the presentation (not surprising, since it was their words simply written down by me!).

As I spoke, I tried to express that I am a resource for them, and am here to help explore ideas to address some of these problems related to food security and farming. About 35 people were at the meeting, and then more came the following Sunday, when I opened up the community room so that people coming home from church could see the big flip chart papers that I had written with all their responses. Later in the week, the doctor did his bi-annual trip to my village to vaccinate children, so we opened up the community room and some of the mothers read the papers as they waited for the doctor. So hopefully quite a few people got to see their ideas up on paper, and read the ideas of others, and hopefully someone is inspired to do something. I still haven't had anyone coming to my door interested in doing anything, but I'm trying not to be disappointed yet!

Right now I am in Mahajanga, a town on the north west coast. I just spent four days helping a fellow volunteer, Jennie, prepare a similar town meeting, and kind-of 'consulted' with her about her site, walking out to visit people in her area and see what things they are doing and what kind of potential exists at her site. Her town is in a dry area, beautiful red and pink rock formations and huge red sunsets and sunrises that reminded me of Niger. The area is severely deforested, yet beautiful, and the people friendly and already asking her to help with tree planting and other activities. Needless to say, I was envious from the moment I drove up to her house with the Peace Corps car. I walked around soaking it all up. Then we went and spent two days at another volunteer's site on the beach--she takes a boat to get to her site, runs on the beach every morning as the sun rises, and drinks coconuts!.

But in a few days I will be back home, and will have to make the best of my own place. No gorgeous vistas, no dramatic sunsets and sunrises, not much in the way of people interested in working with me, but hopefully I will find ways to stay positive and move forward.

What else have I done since I last wrote? Rice planting season has started, so I have been trying to learn all of the different steps to upland rice farming. I've gone out to the fields to help clear the fallow land, then watched as they burned it to get rid of all the branches, brambles, and field rats, and then returning to plant. The seeds that we planted have already sprouted, and the small rice leaves are poking up bright green from the charred ground, along with lots of weeds! I can imagine if I had three or four more seasons here, that I could find a few people to test out some improved planting methods for soil conservation especially, maybe ways to plant without burning (I'm still looking for ideas!) but unfortunately this is the only full season I will be here. Next year, our group completes our service (Dec.) before the harvest will be in (April). Still, perhaps someone can learn some ways to experiment with some ideas and carry on after I go.

So after this visit to Jennie, and seeing how quickly time goes by without still having identified a way to work at my site, I have been a bit discouraged. But I'm trying to remind myself that I'm doing the best I can, I hope, and I am learning a lot, and at the very least encouraging people to see the resources that they do have around them, whether they take that encouragement or not is up to them.