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The Milk House

The View from Here: ‘We are here to be born, live and die’

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Columns - Mike Gangwer
Wednesday, 14 March 2012 11:47

0512pd_gangwer_1Reporting to you from Eastern Equatoria state, South Sudan, Africa …

I am located in Torit, the capital of Eastern Equatoria state, for the third time in three months. I spend nearly every day working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Cooperatives and Rural Development.

The work is on their compound in a recently built structure by the UNDP, or United Nations Development Program.

In this article, we leave the compound. Five ministry officials and I went somewhere only one of the ministry officials has been, a remote mountainside collection of six villages of about 25,000 people.

The site is east of Torit. Driving time is two hours, including a brief stop at a police checkpoint. There were seven policemen and one policewoman there. At the side of the road was a large blue barrel with no top.

These police officers had no access to surface or ground water. They told me that, hopefully, someone would come along on their way to Koepeta, a larger city further east, load the barrel in their vehicle and then bring it back to the police checkpoint. A barrel full of water can last two days – or they can stretch it to three.

While there, one of the police offers was drunk. I paid close attention to him as he had two weapons slung on his shoulders. Two of the other officers corralled him and locked him in the one-room, jail-like building.

We drove on to our destination. The elevation here is about 2,000 feet and is 40 miles from Torit. The terrain is a series of mountains and the breadth of a savannah plain. I remember sites just like this in Ethiopia. The coarse-textured soils here are volcanic andisols with little intrinsic fertility.

We met briefly with the village leader. He welcomed us and said he has gathered a few farmers in the local schoolhouse. We drove about a half mile to the school. About 35 farmers greeted us, including five women.

My colleagues and I sat in front of the room. Our second director general, Gina Caesar, greeted them and told them this was the first time any of us have been here, with the exception of a young technician, Francis Ochaya.

Our role here is simple. The minister of agriculture, Jerome Surur, would like to build two demonstration farms in two very different ecological regions of Eastern Equatoria state.

We spent several days at a site to the northwest, in a small village called Kudo village. The soils there are much different than in Lolongo village, Lopa payam (a payam is a district within a county, and several counties make up a state.)

We are here to meet the farmers and the community. We evaluate potential sites and ask the question: How sustainable is such a demonstration farm deep in the bush? And what is the purpose of locating it here? Our young technician (39 years old) believes that the area here is in dire need of help.

Generally, the central government and the state government (which the ministry is part of) do not have operational budgets to deliver services to farmers. This is truly an understatement.

My role is simple. I can help show them that their appropriate role here is coordinating resources. That is, the non-government organizations (NGOs), the church-based organizations (CBOs) and the United Nations have the resources. My job is to link these resources with the goals and objectives of the ministry.

This reads pretty straightforward, but nothing is easy. The U.S. government’s development agency is the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. They largely contract out work to NGOs, CBOs and U.N. groups so they in turn can do the actual implementation.

Here in Eastern Equatoria, there are 10 to 12 such organizations; they meet with the ministry once a month to plan together. This also seems straightforward, but in reality is not. While the implementing organizations are desperately seeking leadership and collaboration from the ministry, it simply is not there.

One real challenge is the divergent opinions of those in the ministry. By the way, the ministry staff here is about 30 officials. One group views the ministry as a supplier of tangible items: tractors, implements, training, tools, seeds and the inputs all farmers need to grow a crop or raise animals.

The other group, and I am in this group, seeks to build a legitimate ministry by not building a huge budget so items can be delivered to communities of farmers like this one here in Monolo village, but by providing the governance and leadership to help guide the implementing organizations towards optimizing their pool of resources.

I often measure people in the developing world by gaining insight into what they need help with … and if it’s a laptop computer, or Toyota Land Cruiser or an Internet connection, I have some work to do. For these come after someone has demonstrated to me and us that they exist not to hand out “stuff,” but to coordinate with those who do by linking those whom are in need.

I often tell people that this work in a developing country is about relationships first. If I find someone with that spark of insight into thinking about themselves as leaders instead of deliverers of “stuff,” then I want to help them.

Our team leader here, Gina Caesar, made this exact case to the 30 or so farmers sitting in the room. And we did not come to this village to bring them what they so desperately need: good seeds and hand tools to begin with and then new farming ideas to follow.

At our debrief back in Torit, our views were uniform that this collection of six villages of 25,000 people need the most basic help. Services are a long ways off (distance and time). In a parting comment to me by the village leader, he simply stated:

“We are here to be born, live and die. If you can help us with the living part, we are grateful.”

I did not recommend we gather support for a demonstration farm. Unlike the Kudo payam site, this one is just not ready for the visions of Francis Ochaya. Rather the next step is finding a NGO or CBO to work here and stay here for a while.

The cost is negligible in terms of hand tools and seeds. The landscape, the savannah, is enormous in scope. We climbed a large rock to examine the vista. The sight was breathtaking.

What was not were the reported numbers of young people dying before they are 1 (nearly one-quarter of them) and then a malady of other killers that are manifest in a place everyone has forgotten.

How many more places like this exist, not only in this new country but elsewhere? I am almost weary thinking about what I saw in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan before coming here to Africa.

Yet before we left in mid-afternoon, the village leader asked us to join him in a celebration. So we hiked up some rocks on the side of one of these mountains.

In a large ring surrounded by several hundred men, women and children, a group of about 40 women danced to the beat of an African drum and a man blowing into a large sheep’s horn.

This was a celebration of an old woman’s death. She was born here, lived here and died here. This is the normal progression of life and, for these Africans, one to celebrate.

I have traveled the world in some of the most desperate locations on earth. Yet the human spirit that is the collective human spirit is everywhere.

Thus, for me, the only non-African in the group of hundreds, I felt quite honored to be here and observe people that so desperately seek life and live it to the fullest until it is gone. PD

00_gangwer_mike_0211
Mike Gangwer

USDA FAS Senior Agricultural Adviser
This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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