by Alexander Petroff
FROM STARVATION TO SUSTAINABILITY
It was April 2006. After years of imagining and studying and training in every way I could think of about how to start a self-sufficient village, I was about to actually start. I had even set up a non-profit organization, Working Villages International, and raised a little start-up money. Still, up to this point, it was all just a dream. But now, I was finally at the turning point between dream and reality. I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building.
We could pay the workers only about $2.00 per day, but that was good pay in a region where there annual income was $100 and unemployment was 98 percent. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe. They were ready to work!
Thus began WVI’s Ruzizi Valley Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 10 years of war had left over 4 million people dead, plunged the country into anarchy, and just about completely collapsed the economy. Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley, located in eastern Congo, along the Rwanda border had been known as the “rice bowl of Congo.” It is located practically on the equator, with rich soil, and a relatively cool climate because of its high altitude.
Clouds of moisture evaporating from Lake Tanganyika, 40 miles south, collide with the Mitumba Mountains to the north, delivering ample rain, except during the summer dry season. A farmer’s paradise! Congolese refugees back in Maine had told me they learned of the Ruzizi Valley at their high school in Kinshasa (1000 miles from Ruzizi), “One bean plant can grow 5 pounds of beans!” Before the war, the Ruzizi Valley was covered with farms and dairy cows.
But now, practically all that was gone. When Rwanda solved its problem of genocide by pushing the Hutu fighters into Congo, Congo was severely destabilized, and Ruzizi bore the brunt of the fighting because it was right on the Rwanda border. Its farms were wiped out, and most survivors fled to the cities. Nine different countries became involved in “Africa’s First World War.” Unfortunately, their real goal was not to save Congo, but to exploit its reserves of gold, copper, diamonds and the coltan needed for cell phones.
The violence and collapsed infrastructure left the population starving. Even though many local people had been killed or driven off the land, there was a U.N. camp in the Ruzizi Valley, and that attracted refugees who were driven away from other places. The population was quite mixed ethnically, but they were all starving equally.
Two years before I started the project in Congo, I had spent my junior semester abroad, working at the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center in Uganda, and writing a paper on economic development for college. One constant problem when I was in Uganda was poisonous snakes. Karamoja was a dry province, and when anyone mixed up concrete, half a dozen poison snakes would shoot out of the grass towards you, hoping to get some moisture from the concrete. I worried about having a similar problem in Ruzizi.
I asked Chief Ombeni, “What’s the snake situation here?”
He replied, “There are no snakes.”
“But how can that be? This is exactly the kind of place that snakes like.”
“In the war, the people were hungry, so they ate all the snakes.”
“Yes, but, if you have no snakes, then you must have a rat problem.”
“No, they ate them also.”
The miracle of WVI’s Ruzizi Valley project is that we have been able to take these same starving people, and give them the training and the opportunity to produce their own food using sustainable methods. Now, after 4 years, the 600 villagers who work for us, and their families, have an ample diet and are eating much better quality food than the average American. How did we do that?
STARTING WITH AGRICULTURE
In my college travels to different non-profit groups in Uganda, I saw innumerable projects where a school or orphanage or hospital had been built. The services were important, but they depended on a constant flow of cash from Western countries. So once the Western overseers pulled out, you could see numerous ramshackle projects where the cash flow had dried up.
Another weakness was to set up a project to be fully dependent on foreigners for the day-to-day leadership of the project. The most effective projects, like the Namalu Ox Hire and Ox Training Center where I worked, carefully cultivated leadership personnel by selecting and training the most qualified individuals from the local population. This model was more sustainable because it created better loyalty from the local population, made people more receptive to the training, and encouraged local initiative.
I saw the drawbacks of relying too much on Western cash and Western project leaders. Instead, I wanted to develop my project in such a way that it requires less outside funding – not more; and less outside leadership – not more – as time went by.
Thus, I decided to put my first emphasis on agriculture and to find local leadership to manage day-to-day operations, if at all possible. Looking back over the last few years, I’m convinced that agriculture was the best choice to avoid the pitfall of long-term economic dependence on the West. By providing start-up capital and training, we can get people launched on a path of economic development that can keep going even after we pull out. And, I made it clear from the beginning that we would definitely leave: After ten years, we will move to another village: you will be on your own.
That way, based on their own economic power, people can build social services like schools, health care facilities, and care for orphans. These won’t be as fancy as services funded by Western donors, but instead of collapsing when the donor base leaves, the local services they start can continue because they will be founded on the local economic base.
LOCALIZED ECONOMICS = VILLAGE SELF RELIANCE
Africa is strewn with the wreckage of 60 years of failed development programs. Practically all of them have been based on producing something for export, something for the global economy. Even farming is no better than mining, if it is just going to be to sell overseas. There is no profit for local farmers, especially small farmers, because they have to compete with agribusiness farmers abroad who have an unfair advantage due to government subsidies and economy of scale. Any remaining profits for small African farmers are eaten by the skyrocketing price of shipping.
I was amazed to learn that according to US government statistics, the biggest component of food aid to foreign countries is actually the shipping costs, not the grain or milk. Working Villages is also not interested in selling fair trade coffee or making different craft items to be sold in U.S. boutiques. These simply can’t provide widespread economic benefit in the communities that produce them. The global economy is a failure and it will continue to be more of a failure as oil gets more expensive. So what is the alternative model?
The alternative is to build a local economy focused on providing for local needs. Gandhi called it “Swadeshi.” I call it simply “Village Self Reliance.” The idea is not to make one agribusiness CEO a billionaire while everyone who works for him struggles to scrape by. Instead, the idea is to give a village full of people a chance to make a decent living by using local land and local materials to produce food and goods that their neighbors actually need. This idea is so simple that it’s difficult for many people to understand, because they have been taught all their life that “free market” international trade is the miracle that will solve all economic problems. But, ultimately what we want at Working Villages is many locally owned, small farms and workshops that work together to provide for each other to build a community.
When I started my village in 2006, I set up a Congolese friend as project manager. The Ruzizi Valley has vast tracts of scrub land, and we worked hard organizing everyone to clear land and dig up the soil to plant a 60 x 100 foot garden. Villagers were enthusiastic workers. However, they suddenly became skeptical when they found out that I planned to put a grass roof on the dilapidated plantation house the chief had given us. They expected us to simply drive to the city of Bukavu and purchase a tin roof, like all the other foreign non-profit organizations they had seen. They thought I must be crazy.
Behind my back they began to call me “Muzungu Nyasi.” “Muzugu” means “white man” and “Nyasi” means “grass.” “Grass-man.” But really, it meant “Crazy-man.”
But I had learned thatching at Fox Maple school in Maine, and it was important principle to make sure everyone had a chance to earn a little money. We paid villagers 25 cents apiece for bundles of grass, and 50 cents apiece for bundles of matetei bamboo. As they soon realized that they were going to be the benefactors of this policy, they decided that “Muzungu Nyasi” was not so crazy after all.
However, the name stuck. Only now it became an honorable title. (Even a year or two later, if I visited the chief of a neighboring village, my translator would introduce me, “This is Muzungu Nyasi.” “Oh, Muzungu Nyasi! We have heard about your work. When are you coming to do a project in our village also?”) Also, amazingly, our workers had so much determination that they built a half mile road to the project – using only hand tools – in just three days.
The villagers were grateful for work, but we had so many prospective workers we couldn’t afford to keep them all. We set up a policy. For one week, we would hire the first ten men and the first ten women who showed up for work each day.
It was important to hire men, because unemployed men could become lured by various militia groups and cause violence and instability, but it was also important to hire women, because many of them were the head of household since their husbands were killed in the war.
At the end, we hired the best of the best, and these men and women became our core workers. They learned quickly and were hard workers. (Over time we expanded our work force, as we were able to raise more money. These excellent workers set a strong example, which was a great benefit as we brought new workers on board.)
I had to return to the US to graduate from Hampshire College in May, and to raise more funds. According to my previous plan, I relied heavily on my Congolese project manager. He was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the project, but unfortunately it turned out that he had no real managerial ability. I could only be in Congo for a few weeks at a time and whenever I was away, he was not able to develop the project in a focused manner. After about a year, he left the project for some more exciting endeavor. Building a farm project was not for him.
That left me with no one to manage the project. I needed to get back to Congo, to find new management, but there was a huge outbreak of instability and widespread fighting preceding the national elections (the first in 40 years) so I had to wait. Week by week, I grew more worried, wondering if my project had been destroyed during the fighting.
Finally, after several months of anxious waiting, I was able to return to Congo. Some friends in the Congolese community in Maine put me in contact with a Congolese translator named Blaize who would meet me when I flew into neighboring Rwanda. We drove over the border towards the project. As we drove through Luvungi, we had to slow down because of the bad roads. I could hear the people talking. I asked Blaize what they were saying. “They are saying, ‘Is that him?’ ‘No, it can’t be him. After so long, he won’t back. It is some other Muzungu (white man).’”