Pictures and cultural stuff are always more interesting for blog updates, but here’s what’s new with the projects I’m doing at site:
Vanilla—This was an incredibly promising project at first. Vanilla is by far the largest cash crop in my area, and since the prices have dropped to about 5% of their (admittedly ridiculously inflated) high a decade ago, people have been struggling to make ends meet. In a tropical area like the one I work in, subsistence agriculture is entirely possible, but doesn’t make enough money to send kids to school or provide families with adequate healthcare and nutrition. So finding better prices for the three vanilla cooperatives in my area has been a high priority on everyone’s list of Projects for the Vazaha To Do. (Vazaha, in case I haven’t made it clear, is a mildly offensive term for white and presumably French people.)
And the thing is, I had a great deal set up and it almost went through! A larger cooperative was interested in buying vanilla at fair trade prices and possibly helping us set up a library to boot. The co-op had already visited, the samples had been sent to a buyer, the date for the buy visit was set…and five days before the meeting, I got news that the local co-op sold off almost all their vanilla stock. They claimed they were “worried” about wholesale prices dropping, but suspiciously, they sold off right before a large festival that featured lots of booze. Great. I was very annoyed with them to say the least, and they got some lectures before I agreed to work with them again next year.
Well Improvement—This is what that link a few posts ago was about. A lot of the wells in the area are functioning but are a decade old and showing wear that neither the government nor community have the organization or money to fix. So some health workers and I identified five wells in my area that can be substantially improved with minimal input (cement patches to fix platform cracks that are allowing dirty water into the well, a canal to divert rainwater and keep the well from flooding, new pulleys to make it easier for kids to haul water from a deep water table). I received funding through an organization called Appropriate Projects and the builder is working on the wells right now and should be finished next week!
Well Building—There are a lot of towns without good water sources in my area, so it was hard to choose which would get wells (which are not the cheapest things to build). With the blessing of my community counterpart (work partner) I ended up choosing three towns that are very close to the reserve I work with, since well water would reduce forest incursions and also be a thank you to the community for working on cooperation with the reserve. There have been several deaths in the area that were attributed to bad water—since there are few latrines or showers in the area, even the stream water people are using is pretty gross.
I started searching for builders for this project last fall, and only found a reliable builder this spring. Another volunteer introduced me to a nun in a nearby city who organizes teams to build wells in the countryside. She’s a rarity—an educated, hardworking, and well-traveled Malagasy who has a great handle on community issues and does a fantastic job lending a helping hand to those in need. Unfortunately, her organization doesn’t have any money, so I applied to Peace Corps Partnership Programs, which will put my well projects online, hopefully to be funded by a water charity organization. Of course, it takes quite awhile for Peace Corps administration to get the application online, so I’ll probably be twiddling my thumbs for awhile yet, waiting on them.
Fishing Cooperatives—I mentioned these guys awhile ago—there’s a group of students who approached me about building a massive and state-of-the-art pond system, and since that would have been way expensive and they wouldn’t have been able to care for it themselves, we whittled the project down to something more basic. So far, by themselves or with my oversight, they’ve built four fishponds, had a training about pond improvement and fish care, and did the paperwork to become an officially recognized association. Once the paperwork goes though (the agricultural center gave me the wrong paperwork originally, so it’s taken awhile) we should be able to get some funding for new fingerling fish. Once they can sell the fish and make a profit, the profit will go to pay the school fees of the kids who work on the project, but that’s still a year off.
I recently found a new group of people who have supposedly already done the paperwork to become an official association and are just…not doing anything. They still have their pond, though, so in the future I might work on getting their group up and running again.
Beekeeping—There’s a small family-run operation that does sustainable honey harvesting and wants to take on apprentices, and I’ve been helping them try to grow their business—basic budgeting, marketing, and sales improvement, and talking to them about how to use their profits to build more hives. They’ve only managed to build four new hives so far, but they’re optimistic about their business’ potential to expand.
Environmental Education—This started when an education volunteer invited me and a health volunteer up to her high school for a week to co-teach classes on STDs and deforestation. (You wouldn’t think those subjects would normally go together, but we managed quite well.) Since then I’ve been invited to several other community gatherings to give speeches and encourage conversation about environmental issues, in front of a total of about 400 people. At the moment, I’m producing a brochure for the regional agricultural center on environmental problems and solutions.
Etc—First, my English Club is still going strong. I have about 20 regular students now, of whom only three or four actually study and improve their language (the others just show up and hope they’ll learn the language by osmosis). Second, I have about 60 books and magazine ready to start a small library once the middle school director organizes a time and space for students to access them. Third, I’ve been doing some exchange visits with other volunteers, working with them on their projects—computer training for female teachers on Women’s Day at once site, gardening for nutrition at another site, plus the afore-mentioned high school work.