Saturday, January 28, 2012


My 2-year-old boy loves tractors right now.  The capital letters and exclamation point in the title of this post are for him.  A couple weeks ago I attended a field day put on by another NGO.  A good friend of mine who manages agriculture work in the whole northern region asked me if I would go and give him some feedback about the event, because he was unable to make it there.  So, one of the local staff and I went to tractor day, just outside town.  There was a small group of farmers there, some of them interested in tractors, and some were just there because it was more interesting than sitting at home.  

The prospect of the 2012 crop here seems good.  2011 was a drought because there was no precipitation from April 2010 until late December 2010.  Some snow came in January in February, but too little and too late for rainfed fields.  This year, however, will be good because rains and heavy snows started in November, and although there was a break in December, we are getting more precipitation in January.  Farmers here wait to see if there will be enough moisture, before they plant winter wheat.  In December much of the hillside winter wheat was planted by hand.  This tractor field day took place on January 2, on a 5 acre field.  The field was nice and flat, and was described to me as something between irrigated and rainfed, meaning that it was not flood irrigated, but they would try to direct irrigation water to it at 1 or 2 strategic times in the growing season.

The first demo was a relatively new 2-wheel tractor (2WT).  These have come in through China in the last couple years, and are slowly but surely grabbing interest.  The benefits for small farmers include: cheaper to operate and maintain than a team of cows (they run on 1 liter of diesel/hour and hay is expensive here), very versatile, can get into small fields, and a growing number of people in the country are learning how to tinker with them, so servicing them will only get easier.  On the downside, with a belt drive and power-take-off, they're quite dangerous for a farmer that has never had anything mechanized.  Above is a picture of the 2WT being used with a cultivator (read garden tiller).  The tractor clipped along at a good pace, the only criticism from the farmers was that it did not cultivate deeply enough for melons.  It is deep enough for wheat, but a lot of farmers like to plant a crop of melons after the winter wheat is harvested.

After the small portion of the field was cultivated, another 2WT with a direct seeder was put to work.  This seeder is quite new so it drew the attention of the farmers.  This also seemed to work simply enough, although I'm not sure it really had a good control for seed population.  Still it offered improved control on planting, because the standard practice is scattering seed by hand over chunky plowed soil, and then dragging a log sled over it to put some cover on the seeds.  The 2WT can also be used to harvest (a cutter-bar can be put on the front), pull trailers, and pump water.  Quite a useful technology, and available for right at $1,000.

 On to the big tractors!  These are not as new as the 2WT, but here farm tractors have been used more for hauling trailers than actually in fields.  On this demo day this NGO wanted to specifically start a comparison between direct seeding with prior field cultivation, and direct seeding without prior field cultivation.  So above you see the farmer field cultivating half of the field with a Belarus tractor.

And here they are getting the direct seeding drill set.  I thought at first that the point of the comparison was to show how well the direct seeding did in uncultivated soil.  To that extent, I thought the comparison was weak, because the uncultivated topsoil was still quite soft.  The real point of the comparison, however, was to see if weeds could be controlled without prior field cultivation.  Though it was January 2, there were small green weeds already peeking through the topsoil, so they had broadcasted a generic Roundup on the whole field.  If the wheat can bring a good crop without the prior field cultivation, farmers will be more interested in this direct seeder, because it's a one-pass planting.  

Who uses big tractors?  Not very many people in our province.  It seems to be just a few wealthy men that buy tractors so that they can do custom work at a rate of $20-40 an hour.  At that rate, it's a pretty big deal if planting can happen in 1 pass rather than 2!  

Here's a closer look at the drill.  The front hopper dispenses fertilizer, and the back drops the wheat seed.


I have mixed feelings about bringing mechanization to farms here.  Right now the unemployment rate is miserable, and I do not see how mechanization can improve that, because manual field labor is one of the few things that men can do seasonally.  However, there have been and probably will continue to be some surprises.  For example, the 2WT turned out to be cheaper than keeping a family cow.  Also if the mining industry takes off here like so many hope, it may be profitable for women to manage the ag while men work the mines.  In this case I could see women getting smart, pooling some money, and getting a big tractor to share.

I guess the bottom line is that it is interesting to see farmers gather to consider new ideas, and though I don't know how the future will go here, it is fun to spend time in the fields!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Gap day

Our work week here starts on Saturday.  One of the first items of business is exchanging the weekend “gap” (which means talk, or gossip, in the local language.)  A little bit of gossip at the start of the week is not a bad idea in a place where we have to be very conscious of the security situation, and we need to be attentive to people’s ever changing needs.  So I meet with the men for the first half hour to hear the gap from them, and then I hear from the women in the second half hour.  After this we have a weekly feedback and planning meeting, in which the gap swap continues.  Lately I have come to look forward to the Saturday morning routine, because there has been some good stories and encouraging news shared by the team.  Of course, it’s not all good, there are also some bummer stories, so I will start by sharing a couple of those with you, and then I’ll share some more positive ones.

The bummer stories of the last 2 weeks:

A few nights ago some guys lobbed 2 rockets at the gate of the NATO camp.  It was loud, even here on the other side of town.  It didn’t break the gate though, nor did it injure or kill anyone, and the next morning, it was business as usual throughout the town.  It’s disappointing that even in a calm season some guys decide to do this, just to keep us well aware of what is going on in the rural districts around us.

There’s been a lot of snow and rain this season, which is great for crops in the coming year, but really bad for marginalized people in unsafe housing.  We have heard of a couple of roofs collapsing in old mud homes.  The worst story was about a house just below a cliff, that was completely demolished and covered by a mudslide, killing the whole family sleeping inside.  This was less than a mile away from us, and the community has been somber about this for days.  We are trying to get a disaster specialist here to give us some training in disaster risk reduction so we can better understand how to work with whole communities to help these marginalized people move to safety.

  Last week, in one of the villages where we have sanitation projects ongoing, a woman was using her old latrine when all of the sudden the rotting wood floor beams broke and she began to fall in.  Most latrines here are 6-10 meters deep, so falling in means you could die, or at least it’s going to be really hard to get you back out.  Lucky for this lady, there was a bicycle parked in the latrine (what you don’t have a bike in your bathroom?), and she grabbed hold of the bike’s front wheel as she fell in.  The bike wedged against the floor, and the woman hung on to that wheel for dear life.  Someone came to rescue her, dangling from a bicycle, under the floor of her latrine, before she fell in the poo.  See this story had a good ending, but because it’s so gross I also wrote it with the bummer stories.  After one of our team members told this story to the whole team, they became very concerned that our office latrine (with an old wood floor) may collapse on them.  I told them that I would hang a strong rope from the rafters, and they could tie it around their waist before they squatted to do their business.  Huh, they didn’t take me serious, and instead went on to fix the floor with rebar and cement. 

The better stories:

Our BLiSS (midwife) courses are going awesome!  The interest that these courses have generated is such an encouragement.  We work in a place where the expectation is that people will be paid to come to any training, because that has been done over and over again by the other NGOs here.  Despite that, we have succeeded in filling these classes with volunteer participants!  Not only that, the team reports that these women are gathered in the muddy road waiting for the course to start each morning.  Other NGOs have started to ask us what we are doing to have such enthusiastic participants, and when we say we don’t pay them, they don’t believe it.  The truth is, our facilitators are excellent, and the way they do this training really draws the women in.

Already, two lives have possibly been saved thanks to the BLiSS training.  One was a birthing mother who hemorrhaged, and the midwife, who was in our course, realized that she had to quickly get her to a clinic (she admitted she would not have known prior to the course).  The other life was a week old baby that was struggling to nurse, and the mother had given in to the cultural remedies of giving the baby oil and other things that babies should not have, and it was not well.  After the lesson on breastfeeding, the mother stopped her other work, sat down and devoted an entire day to one task: helping her baby get breastmilk (first from a cup of expressed breastmilk), and learn to nurse.  The baby is doing well now.

The midwives and mothers participating in the BLiSS course are enthused about what they are learning.  This morning our women said that a number of the participants said they never knew that foremilk was so important, and never knew that they should wash their baby in the first month!  Other women said they were glad to learn the importance of using a clean and sterile blade to cut the cord- they had typically just used 2 stones!

In other project news, we are glad to hear that our simple greenhouse program has been sustainable.  Some of the women that we trained last year have made their own greenhouses this spring, with no further input from us!

The Biosand Filters (BSF) have held their value for the most part as well.  It has been very hard to push them to private market, but every now and then we hear a story about a family that had really been suffering from water borne diseases, and when they hear about the BSF, nothing could stop them from seeking out the factory and buying their own.  I heard another one of these stories this morning.

Hearing all of these positive stories, I asked the team this morning to think about how they can make these stories spread throughout the 15 communities we have worked in in the past year, to advocate for these good changes and good learning to continue.  We had a great talk about this, and what we concluded is that we need to treat these stories and topics not like a formal course, but like juicy gossip that just has to be passed on. 

More good news?  The annual report for 2011’s projects is actually going really well.  My local leaders are much better at reporting than at strategic planning and proposal writing, so I’m happy it’s the season for reports, not proposals! 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

2 updates to "Collateral damage has a face"

Before reading this extra comments, read "Collateral damage has a face," posted earlier.

Monday morning I was in a field just outside of town, for an agricultural demonstration put on by another NGO.  I was the only foreigner among the 40 or so men there.  There were lots of long beards and tall turbans, but I was confident I was safe.  Some insurgents waffle back and forth between between being pro  and anti government, but on days when NGOs come with something to offer (this day it was tractors), these fellows will swing to the pro-government side, leave their weapons at home, and come participate like the common villager they are, in the event in hopes of getting something nice from the NGO.  My sense of security was rattled by the approaching sound of Apache helicopters.  These 2 choppers buzzed right over our heads.  I could clearly see all the artillery on these huge war machines.  They passed us quickly, then swung to the left and made another pass over our heads, this time slower.  I started to think myself, "I wonder who is here that they've been looking for."  The choppers passed us a second time and made another bend to the left, slowing and coming around for a third pass over us.  This time they really slowed to a near hover, making the dust in the field fly everywhere.  I had no idea what was going to happen next.  The possibility of the helicopters opening fire on us right there crossed my mind.  What could any of us do about it?  We were all sitting ducks, in a field, watching tractors complete a direct-seeding test plot.  They didn't open fire or drop missiles or anything like that.  Maybe it was impossible for them to do that, I don't know.  It seemed pretty possible for them to "kill them all, let God sort them out" (a slogan and bumper sticker I have seen several times in America).  It really would be a shame if I were killed by the military of my own country, because I was confused to be a bad guy, wouldn't it?  Do you feel that pain?  This is how I feel about the civilian casualties here.

And today I read an article titled "The forgotten wages of war".  It is relevant to the topic of civilian casualties, and I recommend you read it:

Click here to read the article

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hurray for the women

Since the other foreign couple that worked in our community development project left in October, I have learned a lot about the women’s work.  My wife T comes over to the office to socialize with the women’s team, but for work matters, I’m the only foreigner left for them to voice their concerns to or get help from.  There are 8 women on the team, 4 that have been with the project since the start in 2005, and 4 that we hired new last March.  We doubled the size of the women’s team because their participatory tools, courses, and monitoring and evaluation is more time-intensive than the men’s often “one-off” style of working. 
In a culture where men and women seem to live in different worlds, our teams have found a smart way to work together.  Our men’s team assists our women’s team by being the sort of chaperons and gateway guards that women in this culture must have.  At least one of the men always travels with the women, and hangs out near where the women are working, to stand up for them if some trouble arises.  Before our women can bring any sort of material to share with village women (training materials and aides, films, etc), the men take samples of the material and have a quick sitdown with the mullahs and other big men of the village.  Without this simple explanation and introduction by the men, our women run a great risk of being labeled as proselytizers, harlots, or spies- all of which could get them stoned.  Once the men get the nod, our women can safely go ahead, and any gossip that starts will be stopped by the male leaders of the village.
Our women’s team assists our men’s team in return by being informants about the inner-workings of each village.  While the men can walk throughout the whole village (unlike the women), they cannot freely go into private yards, which are surrounded by tall mud walls.  The women, however, can and do go into private yards all the time, and so it is very useful for our men and women to have a discussion early on in their time in each new village, to compare the information they have about life and needs both inside and outside the walls. 

With all of this introduction out of the way, I am pleased to share some actual results of the women’s WASH (water, sanitation, advocacy, hygiene) work with you.  In the past month the women have been doing the first +1 year evaluations of their WASH courses.  This is our first chance to get a real statistical gauge of the learning and change that happened in the hygiene courses 1 year ago, and that which still remains.  The way that this evaluation works is that our women conduct a KAP survey (knowledge, attitude, practice) before the course, and then repeat the same KAP survey 1 year after the course has concluded.   The KAP surveys require excellent facilitators who know how to turn the list of questions into a fluid dialogue which elicits the village woman’s understanding and belief about WASH.  Then the skillful facilitator also weaves an actual walk around the yard into the visiting time, so that the WASH practices can be observed.  By doing the same survey before the course and 1 year after it, findings from both surveys can easily be compared to see the impact on the cognitive, emotive, and practical levels of WASH in each village where our women have a course.  Below I will give you a summary of the most significant findings from the first three villages we have evaluated:

Knowledge changes:
  • Understanding that unclean water is the most common cause of diarrhea increased from 64%-100%
  • Understanding the causes of diarrhea in children:
    • Flies: 10% - 90%
    • Germs: 25% - 80%
    • Not washing hands: 25% - 90%
  • Understanding how to prevent diarrhea in children:
    • Washing hands after toilet: 45% - 100%
    • Washing hands before cooking: 27% -100%
    • Washing hands before and after eating: 19% - 89%
    • Preventing and killing flies: 10% - 90%

        Attitude changes:
  • ·      Reasons for washing hands:
    • To avoid food contamination: 33% - 93%
    • To keep good hygiene: 20% - 89%
    • To prevent disease: 52% -100%
  • ·      Reasons to have a latrine and keep it sanitary:
    • Disease prevention: 38% - 97%
    • Preventing flies: 26% - 100%

     Practical changes:
  • ·      Pre-treatment of drinking water (boiling, filtering) increased from 30%-100% (this is in villages where drinking water is gathered from streams).
  • ·       Handwashing with soap increased from 41%-100%
  • ·      Treatment of children when they have diarrhea: giving ORS: 20% - 100%

And my favorite finding: Before the course, over of 90% of the women in the courses had at least one family member with diarrhea.  Exactly one year later, close to
90% of the women reported no diarrhea in their families at that time.

Certainly our work is not about stats, but this evaluation does help us to know that this course has been worthwhile, and worth continuing! 

In 2011 the women’s primary purpose was these WASH courses.  For 2012, this course will be continued by 4 of our women in new villages, and the other 4 have just started a training we call BLiSS (Basic Life Saving Skills).  The BLiSS course is a very interactive course for traditional midwives and mothers.  We feel this emphasis is also critical here, where maternal and infant mortality figures are still so disturbing.  In one of the BLiSS courses we just started, the women reported that just 3 weeks ago a mother and baby both died during labor at home, just a few kilometers away from the hospital.

Please pray and cheer for our women’s team to continue to serve the women of this country with excellence, and that lives would be saved and transformed because of their interventions.