Saturday, July 2, 2011

Moringa: Arbre de Vie

I have two main projects going on in village. The first, creating a training center for raising agoutis, will hopefully be funded in the next few months by a program at the US Embassy and is causing me lots of head ache and frustration. The second project is composed of small trainings on cultivating and using the tree moringa oleifera, whose leaves are packed with vitamins and are in my opinion the cheapest, simplest, easiest solution to problems with malnutrition racking sub-Saharan Africa.

This second project seems to be going much better than the first. To start off with, the only two inputs that are needed are a moringa seeds. I have been doing small trainings in the groups of clay houses between my house and a community partner who already has moringa growing. Whereas with my garden training I asked people to come all the way to my house and failed, I am now going myself into groups of houses and getting a much larger turnout. Going to meetings that have already been set up, whether with groupements or at schools and churches, or stepping outside the door is much easier for villagers than taking their time, leaving their children, and coming all the way across Anfoin to my door.

Each small training has been very successful and rewarding for me. To start them off, I meet with the ‘togbui,’ or leader/head of the group of houses. We decide on a time that would be good for the women and men to talk about moringa, and here I really stress that it is the women who need to participate because it is the women who do the cooking and will be putting the moringa leaves in the sauce. I give him moringa seeds, ten for each woman coming to the training, so he can soak them overnight before the meeting. Also I leave it to the group of houses to find sachets for making a tree nursery.

People happily holding future moringa trees

When the day of the training arrives, I show up on time even though the meeting usually doesn’t start for another half hour. This time is not wasted though because I have time to greet the men and say ‘Okay, I said there needed to be women at this training, so where are they? Go get them.’ Each training is part lecture, talking about the benefits of moringa specifically for children and pregnant women, and part hands-on filling up sachets with dirt and making a small nursery of 10 seedlings to give to each woman present. If possible I ask a woman who has previously attended a training and seems motivated to come and assist me, and I leave it as much up to her as possible to teach the other villagers what moringa can do for their health and then how to plant it.

Who knew the leaves of this one plant were sooo awesome?
The benefits of moringa are endless. Different parts of the tree, from the flowers to the roots, help cure a myriad of diseases. The leaves are full of Vitamin A, B, C, and on down the alphabet, as well as calcium, potassium, iron, and even protein like one finds in meat and fish (super expensive for villagers). They can be either put in the sauce fresh or can be dried in the shade and ground into a powder for later use (say towards the end of the dry season when there aren’t many veggies available). People have found that the tree improves vision like carrots, builds strong bones, and leads to the growth of healthy, alert children.

Essentially, a natural resource management volunteer like myself could go on for hours about how awesome this plant is. But all this information does not help villagers and often serves only as a barrier to getting people to use it. Ever go to sleep during a long lecture where the same things seem to get repeated over and over? Happens a lot easier for Africans tired after working in the field or watching kids all day. So, it is better to have a simple phrase, like ‘Put moringa leaves in sauce for good health,’ and leave it at that. Or better yet, look the women in the eyes and tell them about how often women who eat moringa throughout their pregnancy had the baby with hardly any problems, recovered faster, and had healthier babies because there was moringa in the breast milk. Their eyes light up and they get interested, especially if it is another woman from the group of huts next to them saying this. I also talk directly to the women and look them in the eyes as much as possible. Gender equity doesn’t mean anything if all you do is say ‘les femmes d’abord’ (the women first) and then give all your attention to the men the whole time.

Filling sachets with dirt

So, lecture part finished. Next we move on to filling sachets with dirt, poking holes in the bottom so they don’t flood with water, and putting the seeds in at the depth to the second knuckle of a finger. I do this second because if you try doing this beforehand, everyone just stares at whoever is doing work and no one listens to the person talking about moringa. After each woman has been given 10 sachets with seedlings to take back to her hut, I ask them questions to make them plan for the future. So, what are you going to do to take care of these trees? Where are you going to plant them? How are you going to protect them from the goats? Hopefully they put the trees right next to the kitchen to make it easier to use leaves in the sauce. In asking these questions, the women make their own plan for their tree nurseries, which they are much more likely to carry out than if I told them how to do it.

Each nursery of 10 trees is a small responsibility, but it is still a responsibility. There are only a few trees for every household, and their realizing the benefits of the tree is entirely up to that household. It also helps that her next door neighbors are doing the same thing, and they talk about it. I have given information and helped them start, and continuing is entirely up to them.

Women celebrating their moringa tree seedlings

I have used several guiding principles in promoting moringa in my community. First of all, I have started slow and small. When I first came to Anfoin, there was a surge of interest where everyone wanted to learn everything I had to teach (mostly to make me happy in the hopes that I would bring in money in the future), and then it subsided. If I start slow and small a project is much more likely to last. Another principle I have is to involve community members as much as possible as teachers. When a woman from a nearby house can teach everything about moringa that I can, I leave her the word and let her do it. Lastly, I address a felt need. I ask the villagers how often their kids got sick since the last rainy season, and they say a lot. I say well, if want them to be healthier, do this simple, easy, cheap thing that will help take care of this problem.

The agouti project has gotten me frustrated. We are going to be building more enclosures, buying agoutis, starting to train people how to raise them, etc. But I feel like the vision I have of the project in my mind is very different from the groupement’s. In the application we talked a lot about an agouti bank and helping participants start raising agoutis, but in reality the groupement members seem to think that all the agoutis will belong to them. (sidenote: the project was just too cool to pass up, I would love to go home and say I did nothing for two years except help people raise bush rats, would be awesome)With moringa, I let the community make its own plan, its own vision, and that is why it is working. Funded projects create a lot of headache, and while I love the US Embassy’s project application because it forces applicants to plan their project very well and actually significantly help the community before it will get accepted, the moringa seems like it will have the greatest total impact in the future. I’m hoping I can teach it to enough people and get them started planting it next to their kitchens that it will become the norm, villagers will start telling other villagers about it, and I will leave my quartier in Anfoin a little greener than when I found it.