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Africa: Notes From the Field

This is a roundup of blog posts of Concern US aid workers blogging from Sub-Saharan Africa. Concern US aid workers blog regularly about their work and challenges they face as they help to transform lives of people in Malawi, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Concern US is an affiliate of Concern Worldwide whose mission is to ensure that people living in extreme poverty are able to meet their basic social needs and achieve their rights.

Our roundup begins with Cormac Staunton from Dublin who shares takes part in an old tradition in Zimbabwe called Field Day:

I watch as Mr. Chinamo, an 83-year-old farmer from Gokwe North in central Zimbabwe, stands proudly in his field. Flanked by his wife Clara, he surveys his crop, picks up a bullhorn and begins to speak.

As many as 500 people are watching, the majority of them also farmers from the same district. This is the centerpiece of their “Field Day,” an age-old tradition in rural Zimbabwe.

Mr Chinamo has been selected by a panel of agricultural experts as the “most successful” of 366 famers in Concern’s Conservation Farming program, which I have come here from Dublin to learn more about and document. In addition to receiving a prize, the Chinamo family have the honor of hosting this year’s event.

Cormac continues to describe activities involved during Field Day:

As the crowds move from the field to the homestead, food is cooked in large pots for all the guests. The celebrations are a community-led ceremony, with singers and dancers from villages and schools, and speeches from community leaders and representatives of Concern’s team in Gokwe.

The highlight of the festivities is the presentation of the awards to all of the winners. In the end, Mr. Chinamo is hoisted by local villagers and given his prize, which includes seeds, fertilizer and cash.

These prizes come from donations from private companies as well as contributions from all the villages involved. The competition is designed to reinvigorate communities who had lost faith in farming for many years.

Seeing the success of this program, especially for 83-year-old Mr. Chinamo, is a spur and a tangible motivating example to others to show that despite the uncertainty, following the conservation farming methods can lead to a successful harvest.

Isla Gilmore discusses the challenges of living in rural Tanzania:

Water has always been readily available to me

As a city girl it’s hard to imagine life without clean water. Being in Tanzania I have had to adapt to not being able to drink it, and constantly being cautious about boiling, filtering and washing food in clean water. But I live in Dar es Salaam and I have access to all the water I need.

Life in rural villages in Tanzania is completely different

I visited Concern Tanzania’s water programme earlier this month. Biharamulo District is in Kagera Region, close to Rwanda. It looks a bit different to other parts of the country where we work because the villages are located in hills and valleys.

This means that the houses are spread out and many essential services are far away, including the water points. It’s a long way from the coast and major cities; it doesn’t rain much; and it is lagging behind in development. Many villagers live in extreme poverty.

We learn from Isla that women and children benefit the most from clean water:

Hadija faces problems most of us never have to experience. For women and children in rural areas the impact of clean, safe water is incredible. For Hadija’s children it is life changing. “I hope they can go on to secondary school”, she said, “and then who knows what else they can achieve”.

“Forced marriages still common for school girls in Malawi,” writes Joseph Scott.

Martha is a shy yet intelligent twelve-year-old girl from Nsanje, in Malawi. This year, she was supposed to earn her primary school leaving certificate (PSLC).

Her teachers believed she would make it to high school, as she had been the best student in her class since the first grade. Last school term, she was also at the top of her class.

Bursting with confidence, she eagerly presented her exam report card to her father. Like any other child who has done extremely well in class, Martha was expecting to be showered with praise. But that wasn’t to be; her father passively gazed at the piece of paper and folded it into his pocket.

What Martha didn’t know was that her father had already found a suitor in marriage for her, and that over the next few days, she would be the new housewife of a man old enough to be her grandfather. And for Martha, despite her excellent academic record, this was to be her last term in school.

Joseph argues that poverty and traditional customs are the cause for forced marriages in Malawi:

In Nsanje, where Concern is working, this scenario has abruptly cut short the dreams of many young girls. Some 12 percent of all females in the country are aged between 6-13 years, and it is estimated that 74 percent of the population here live below the poverty line.

Poverty and traditional customs allow parents to marry off their daughters when they think they have come of age. Since the suitor pays a bride price, the trend is now that the younger the girl, the higher the bride price.

“Some 12 percent of all children in Malawi do not survive to celebrate their fifth birthday,” notes Megan Christensen in her post about preventable deaths in Malawi:

In the United States, the majority of people benefit from robust water and sanitation departments, easy access to primary health clinics staffed with sufficient numbers of nurses and doctors and an ample source of food to ensure proper nutrition.

By contrast, in Malawi, we are grappling with some of the worst statistics in the world. Nearly 12 percent of all children in Malawi do not survive to celebrate their fifth birthday. Some 20 percent of children here are underweight, which predisposes them to other illnesses like pneumonia.

Diarrhea continues to be a common problem as a result of poor water, sanitation and hygiene, and contributes in too many cases to death. It is estimated during any given time that 30 percent of children aged under-five are suffering from diarrhea.

These deaths are preventable or what some have titled “stupid” deaths. Children should not be dying from poor nutrition, diarrhea or common infections that can easily be treated with antibiotics. It’s just one of the reasons that it is crucial this program gets underway soon.

Aoife Gleeson in Angola talks to Abraham, the Livelihood Program Manager for Concern Angola:

It’s nearly eight o’clock in the evening and I can’t believe I am still in the office. The working day here in Angola starts at 7.30am, so it feels longer than a typical day. I finished working a while ago but have been chatting with Abraham, the livelihood program manager for Concern in Angola.

His story is so compelling and he tells it in such an open and engaging way that I’ve found myself completely hooked.

Abraham was born in a small village in western Ethiopia. He is shy about revealing his age, and could confirm only, that he is over 50! Growing up, he led a simple village life and encouraged by his parents, who were both illiterate, attended the local missionary school.

Being a natural student he worked hard, and in time went on to win a coveted government scholarship to attend university – the first in his village to do so.

His interest in development and in helping people – as he put it: “improve their circumstances” is something that has always been in him. Abraham joined Concern five years ago and has been living and working in Angola ever since.

They discuss about the effect of civil war and the signs of healing around the country:

We talk about when he first came to Angola and he tells me that he remembers being really struck by the scars of war that were still so visible:

“There were abandoned tanks by the side of the road and in the middle of the town there was a building that was leaning sideways – like the leaning tower of Pisa – one half of it was blown up and people were still living in the other half.”

For me, the healing in Angola that Abraham speaks of is very evident. Old buildings are being torn down, new roads have been laid and modern shops and offices have been built. But what is not easy to see are the deeper issues that take much longer to resolve.

They discuss development work and its impact on the community:

Abraham tells me about a widow in one of these communities who was given two goats, two years ago: “Now she has 6 goats and has been able to send her kids to school,” he explains.

“She is currently replacing the grass roof of her home with metal sheeting – these goats really made a big difference to her life.”

Feargal O'Connell meets Ndoole, a 35 year-old woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Ndoole is 35. She has seven children and has been living in an informal camp for seven months since she was forced to flee conflict and her home village. She fled to a place called Bukombo where other displaced families were taking refuge. We ended up chatting with Ndoole because one of Concern’s drivers, Eddie, was helping her with her vouchers – the Cash Voucher Market is a new experience for all those participating, so some need a helping hand.

I was shocked when I heard her say she wanted to pay for school fees for four of her school-aged children: such a decision would reduce her spending power for essential food items. I asked her why she was using 26 of her 28 vouchers on school fees. Her response was profound: “I want my children to go to school so they will have a better life than I did”.

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