The visit to the Millennium Village was inspiring, emotional, tiring, and moving. I want to focus on all that rather than on the facts and figures. So I'll remind you that the Millennium Villages website (www.millenniumpromise.org) has all such data as well as links to many other important websites.
The part of Mali we visited is blessed with the wide Niger river flowing through it. Where the river has been used for irrigation, the land is verdant. The MV cluster of villages is right on the Niger river, but they are as dry as dust.
During and after the rainy season the river overflows its banks, covering land as far as you can see, and the people plant rice. At the end of the rice harvest, water remains in depressed areas. Even during the dry season, water remains very close to the surface. A well just 30'-45' feet deep could be used to irrigate crops and provide drinking water. (For comparison, our well in NJ is at least 400' deep.) But this water generally goes unused.
One of the goals of the Millennium Villages Project is to show that with a relatively small investment - within the amount already pledged but not paid by the developed world - people in places like Tiby could have access to water.
In fact, this area could be the breadbasket of Africa. So here's something you may not know - I certainly didn't know it: Libya and Saudi Arabia are buying up huge tracts of prime land with access to the Niger River. Their own water sources will not last forever, and when they are gone, these countries will have locked up enormous areas of arable land for their own populations.
Two questions pop up: what will happen to the impoverished Malians when this happens? And why would a government allow its land to be sold off this way, rather than leased for some period. I certainly don't know, but one thing is immediately evident when you visit Bamako, the capitol city: Libya is making major investments in Mali. There are Libyan hotels (we stayed in one). We flew in on the Libyan national airline. Khaddafy is building a beautiful, expansive, modern campus for the Malian government. Draw your own conclusions.
Now for some background on our involvement in Tiby. The Tiby cluster consists of 11 villages with a total population of 55,000. One of the smaller villages, Sama, is located along the Niger River. Sama has a cooperative of 275 women who farm a 6 hectare (12 acre) vegetable
In this part of Africa there are 3 seasons - a "cool" dry season (temperatures can get well into the 90's) that runs from October to March, a hot dry season (temperatures can hit 120) From April to June, and a rainy season from July to September. Until recently, the women have been limited to growing 2 crops of shallots during the cool dry season. While theoretically the garden could support 4 cash crops per year, the lack of proper irrigation and perimeter fencing to keep out roaming herds of goats and cattle has limited its potential.
For the last several years, we have been talking to Rustom, the head of economic development for Millennium Villages, about projects that can showcase the potential of agriculture to substantially increase local income. In this case, Rustom came to us with a proposal to upgrade the garden's capabilities and operating practices with the potential to triple the income generated. We were excited by the economics and by the ability to provide income directly to the women.
(If you haven't read Nicholas Kristof's article about the many benefits of providing income-generating opportunities for women, you should check it out online. The NY Times devoted an entire Sunday magazine to it last summer. It's important reading.) So we agreed to fund the startup costs and implement the proposal.
The plan called for installing an effective irrigation system and perimeter fencing, procuring good quality seed and fertilizer, and planting off season crops so the women could grow 4 crops per year and maximize the revenues generated. We all hoped that in showcasing what can be accomplished with proper upfront investment and best practices, we could attract the attention of much larger donors, multiply the number of gardens under cultivation, and substantially raise the income generated throughout the Tiby cluster.
I did not know what to expect. I didn't know what 6 hectares looked like. I don't know how long shallots take to grow. But I have done a lot of gardening. And I lnow what hard work it is to grow vegetables, and how many things can go wrong. I would not have been surprised to see a few plots or rows of spindly sprouts struggling to thrive in the parched soil.
Imagine how overwhelmed I was when we drove up to the garden - there were shallots as far as you could see, thick tops waving in the breeze, healthy and GREEN. Women were watering their plots, many with babies on their backs. It brought me to tears that day, and it makes me cry to remember it.
The women welcomed us with songs and speeches. Mawa, the head of the women's cooperative, explained that they had planted the shallots 2 months ago and would harvest them in March. The women told us that by fencing, irrigating and fertilizing their crop, they were able to produce 500 kg on each 200 sq meter plot, where before they only produced 250-300 kg. I have no idea what that means but it's about doubled, right?
Every woman pays a small amount of money each week to pay for fuel and maintenance of the pump and fencing. When the crop is sold (hopefully at the peak of the market), they will negotiate as a cooperative so that buyers do not drive down the prices. And the money they earn is theirs alone! Each woman will use it for her own needs: paying for her daughter's wedding; buying dresses, animals, a cart; starting small businesses, or lending it to others.
You can imagine how all this made us feel. At one point, the women broke into dancing. I was so immersed in the experience that I was jumping up and down with the rest of them. (Don't tell the orthopedist!)
Before we left, I realized I wanted to make a gift to Mawa in honor of all the hard work of the women's cooperative. She is a beautiful - and forceful - woman, beautifully dressed as are all Malian women (more about this later), wearing beads, earrings, bracelets - as well as a baby on her back. It may have been a grandchild because she looked to be in her 40's.