Recently, I was talking to a few Irish Farmer's supporters down home about my recent trip to Africa with Irish Rugby player Rob Herring, where climate change and now the deadly Ebola virus is affecting peoples livelihoods in parts of Central and East Africa and thanking them for their generosity, kindness and support to our work.
I was telling them how it takes two days to travel from my in home in Ireland to the rural poor families with whom Self Help Africa works with in Uganda, particularly to Sorroti and Teso in Northern Uganda. After two days of travel, your eyes are heavy and your legs are stiff but your mind is racing. You cannot but question why there are people living in such poverty. It is inevitable then that you ask ‘what can I do to help?’.
We read and hear a lot about changes that Africa is going through, and make no mistake there is change happening. Almost everyone is connected by mobile phone, the internet is spreading to the remotest corners, and with these and other technological changes, a transformation is taking place.
Despite this however, the biggest challenge – poverty – stares you in the face, everywhere you look. Children are barefoot and in rags, schools are dirt floored and overcrowded, and electricity, if it exists at all, is not much more than a bare bulb hanging from a ceiling. Life expectancy in Uganda recently topped 60 years of age. By our standards that is low, but when you consider that it has increased from 52 years of age just a decade ago, that is evidence of significant change. Rural unemployment levels remain alarmingly high, and basic services — sanitation, basic healthcare, education and electricity — are way behind what we should expect in any country in the 21st century. The social and economic challenges that are faced by poor families are vast and now they face into the real threat of the Ebola Virus after it has been recently detected along the Congolese and Ugandan border.
It’s difficult for us to imagine growing up in a world where you lack the very basics in life such as food, clean water, medicine, shelter, safety, a bed of your own. Beyond that, there are few toys for children — no dolls, no soccer balls, no sweets and treats. Families struggle to fund the cost of sending their children to a school other than the very rudimentary, overcrowded primary schools available at village level and, because of that, huge numbers of young and innocent children are condemned to a life of poverty from the earliest age.
Growing up brings its share of problems wherever you are in the world, but growing up in a place like Uganda can be a struggle beyond imagination. You can often count yourself fortunate to be still alive at the age of five; some of your friends will have died of things such as malaria, dysentery or malnutrition. If both of your parents are still living, that can be considered another miracle. Malaria is still the number one killer in East Africa, but AIDS comes in a strong second place. Wherever you go, you can see the evidence of the ravages of AIDS. In a country like Uganda, with a population of just over 40 million, there are as many as 1.2 million AIDS orphans. AIDS is the silent killer that sweeps through offices, villages, banks, schools and government institutions. In fact, many businesses refuse to give time off for more than one funeral a month to their employees, since death comes so frequently to families. And now everyone is afraid to mention the Ebola Virus and what that could mean for people’s lives.
Self Help Africa is committed to reducing poverty and hunger, by focusing on agriculture, which means increasing the capacity of small farms to produce the food that a family might need, while also generating an income from which the family can invest in food, clothing, school fees, medication and the other necessities of daily life. We visited a wide variety of communities and households that Self Help Africa is working with, and we saw first hand the impact that the simplest activities can have on ordinary daily life. Introducing farmers to new crop varieties, supporting families to set up their own modest backyard vegetable plots, and promoting new breeds of goats, pigs and poultry, are just a handful in a myriad of activities that are slowly, but surely, changing people's lives.
The communities we visited on this recent trip have been supported by a Self Help Africa project with funding from Irish Aid since 2017. The project facilitated the development of 15 smallholder farmer groups directly benefiting 440 families. The groups, of 30 members in size, operate a five-model committee system, with almost every member sitting on a committee: Village Saving and Loans Association (VSLA), Procurement, Marketing, Advocacy and Monitoring. Each committee received training in their area of expertise. One member told us that he thought he’d be asked to pay for the training, as they are required to with school fees, but instead he received ‘good free knowledge’. They received training on how to produce compost manure and keyhole gardens, alongside the distribution of good quality seed such as cassava, maize, groundnuts, tomatoes, eggplant, cabbages and peppers for both sale and home consumption, benefitting household nutrition. They received knowledge on how to market produce, what a fair price is and how to find a market.
The first harvest will be this season and SHA have helped them to quantify what yield to expect and set them up with potential buyers. One of the groups has a contract to supply sunflowers at a minimum price of 1,000 shillings (0.20p) per kilo. They expect to produce 6,000 kilos on 8 acres, so the potential income at harvest will be 1,300 euro which can then be reinvested back into the group. The manufacture of clay-soil ‘Lorena stoves’ has transformed cooking. The grass-thatch hut that serves as a kitchen is no longer filled with smog from an open fire, for the Lorena stoves are fitted with pipes which take the smoke outside. They require less wood than an open fire, so are more fuel-efficient, meaning women can spend more time in the household and less time collecting wood, which also benefits the environment as it means fewer trees are being cut down.
The majority of the beneficiaries we visited were women, because ‘if you empower a girl in Uganda, you empower a nation’ - such a powerful sentiment, that really struck a chord with me. Women feel the burden of household problems such as school fees and household nutrition, so when you empower a mother, you build the capacity of the family, because women are more likely to invest money back into the household. Problems still exist - right now, the rains have arrived two months late which results in a shorter planting season and a reduced yield. People have to rely on stored produce and cut down their meals, only eating once a day. But by diversifying their activities and increasing incomes, we’re creating resilient and self-sustaining farming communities. A little hand-up is all it takes to drive things forward. Underpinning all of the activities that are being carried out by Self Help Africa’s Ugandan team is a relentless focus on training and education – so that farmers and their families can do it for themselves, and can make the changes that they want to in their lives.
Farmers can be risk averse. In Africa, where the stakes are high, and the margin for error is narrow indeed, it’s understandable. It takes courage and it takes belief to try something new. After all, if a new farming activity doesn’t work out, or a crop you know nothing about succumbs to a disease or a virus and you don’t know how to treat it – there could be lives on the line. That’s why it’s important that the training that is provided is spot on, and the people providing the learning are able to gain the trust, and provide the back-up support so that farming families are prepared to make the changes that are needed to improve their lives and the circumstances for themselves and their families. Self Help Africa achieves that in part by identifying and supporting community-based ‘lead farmers’ in the villages where we work, and by also establishing ‘demonstration plots’ to provide farming households with evidence to show them the potential of one particular crop, or of one particular type of compost or method of growing a plant that should be used.
‘Lead farmers’ — men and women who are of the community and from the community — are given the best quality training and support, with particular farming practices that they carry out on their own small farms, and are then supported to become village-based advisors who can help and support others with similar activities. Community-based storage depots, where rural poor families can deposit their crops to a central point for collection and transport to markets are another simple example of identifying both a problem and a solution to the challenges that people face in their daily lives. In the far north of the country, Self Help Africa is supporting approximately 3,000 rural youths with training, so that they have some chance of earning a living in the communities where they were born and reared. For too long, young people have been fleeing a life on the land in Africa because they feel it doesn’t offer anything for them. And who would blame them? If the family only has a small portion of land, and if that has to be tended, day after day, using hand tools, why not strike out for city life – which looks so glamorous and exciting.
Sadly, city life for millions of rural poor Africans isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. Indeed, some of the fastest-growing slums and shanty-towns in the world are springing up in Africa, while closer to home we are seeing all too often the terrible risks and dangers that migrants have faced as they attempt to seek a better life for themselves, away from the village. Many millions of people in rural Uganda are living in chronic poverty, a crushing cycle where people are born in poverty, live in poverty and frequently pass that poverty on to their children. In spite of all the interventions put in place in Uganda, poverty and corruption still remain obstacles to its efforts to develop. But this should not stop us from trying to make a difference for the good of the genuine people in Uganda that need our help and support. The call to overcome poverty and to uphold human dignity is not new, but today this challenge is especially compelling because we have the capacity to make a difference. Building on past progress and new opportunities, we can make this a time for hope. Hope offers the promise that, with shared sacrifice, wise investment and renewed commitment, we can actually reduce substantially the levels of poverty, hunger, and human deprivation around the world.
A Billion Hungry
Now, as enter into the second half of 2019, more than half of the world’s population lives on less than €2 a day. More than 1.2 billion people live on less than €1 a day. More than a billion people across the globe, most of them children, live with hunger or malnutrition as a regular fact of life. They live in desperate poverty, which means they die younger than they should, struggle with hunger and disease, and live with little hope and less opportunity for a life of dignity.
Also as we all know, climate change has always been a political issue but it is even more so nowadays. At its roots are huge imbalances of power and inequality. Those imbalances define who is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, whose lives and livelihoods will be or already are upended. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the gender divide: the struggle for climate justice and gender justice must go hand in hand. Climate change affects women in a profoundly different way than men. Culture and tradition in many places puts the role of caring for families on women. It is women, for example, who are responsible for collecting firewood, fetching water, and growing food to feed hungry mouths. So as the impacts of climate change take grip, it is women who must be on the front lines of adapting and finding solutions: new sources of water; new ways to feed their families; new crops to grow and new ways to grow them; new ways to cook.
Climate Change Challenges worse for Women Farmer's
In Uganda, one of my Ugandan colleagues Viola told me that women and young girls in a lot of cases already walk up to four to six hours a day to fetch water. As dry seasons become longer, women will be forced to walk further still. Anyone who doubts the science of climate change should try debating it with women walking further each year to collect water. Rich nations were put to shame recently at the climate talks for their failure to recognise the urgency to limit the impacts of climate change. While climate-vulnerable countries called for an emergency response, a handful of wealthy and largely oil exporting countries - including Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States - denied the science behind those calls for urgent action. Climate change affects everyone, but poor people who already live on the margins are hit hardest. They often rely on rain to grow crops, live in poorly built structures, and lack savings or insurance to fall back on when disaster hits. When disaster strikes, like the hunger crisis in the Sahel right now and in other parts of Central and East Africa, it is girls who are being pulled out of school to help struggling families make ends meet. It is women who go without when there is not enough food to go around. Women have fewer assets to fall back on – and they are largely absent from decision-making, compounding their vulnerability.
How vulnerable you are to start with and what your status is in our unequal society, has a huge influence on how you will be impacted by climate change. For women, already vulnerable, climate change exacerbates their existing burdens of care. Few disagree that women are hit hardest by climate change, but there is little agreement on what to do about it. It was a long struggle to elevate the importance of gender in the climate talks. It seems the mention of human rights, particularly women’s and children's rights, is too much for some countries to stomach. If we are to stop climate change from trampling on the rights of women and the most vulnerable in countries like Uganda and others parts of The Sahel, then we need to fight for more equal societies. This means questioning unequal gender roles, sharing work more evenly between men and women, and increasing women’s participation in decision-making. It also means we need to look at our economies, which do not value women’s contributions. Our economies ignore the invisible, unpaid care work of billions of women around the world.
There is a striking parallel with how our economy overlooks the cost of runaway climate change – failing to make the polluters pay. These are both consequences of a broken economy. It’s an economy that counts the wrong things, pursuing GDP growth at any cost. The people in the boardrooms and governments who make the decisions that fuel climate disaster and inequality are mostly very wealthy western people. Also remember, eight out of every 10 billionaires are men; the majority of the world’s poor are women. It is boom time for billionaires and their disproportionate share of emissions! At Self Help Africa, and in the wider humanitarian sector, we believe in a world free from the injustice of poverty, a struggle that cannot be isolated from the fight for climate justice and gender equality. To get there, we need far-reaching changes to our dominant economic model, and to the way we conduct politics. We need to recognise the burdens and inequities placed on women in the home, on the land, in crisis situations, and in our economic structure and begin to address gender when addressing the impacts of climate change. And with the scientific community telling us we have just 10 years to prevent global temperatures soaring out of control, we need change fast. In the months ahead, governments must follow the lead of the world’s most vulnerable nations and immediately begin strengthening their commitments to take action, including adding women's voices in the process.
The problems of the world can seem pretty overwhelming and it can sometimes feel that simply looking after our own is all we can do and yet, just a little would help so much. Families in these poor countries cannot wait. They have but one humanity, one opportunity. That opportunity, that time, is in the here and now. Their needs must be met today, not tomorrow. The fight against hunger, disease and poverty in Africa — and in Ireland — is not anyone’s responsibility. It is everyone’s.
• To help Self Help Africa with its work or to chat to Ronan Scully about how you can ‘act locally but impact globally’, you can get in touch on (087) 6189094 0r (01) 677 8880 or simply send whatever you can afford to Self Help Africa, Westside Resource Centre, Seamus Quirke Road, Westside, Galway. More details on what the organisation does are online at www.selfhelpafrica.org You can drop a note to Ronan at ronan.scully@ selfhelpafrica.org