Empowerment Obstacles (how to deal)

While in Uganda last August, I (Mackenzie), walked through a village with BOH’s Bead Project Advisor, Ahamed, on our way to a meeting. We shuffled single file along narrow paths cut into the dirt by feet, hooves, and motorcycle tires. After a while, the bushes thinned, opening a view of about a quarter acre of land preceding a handmade brick house. Ahamed stopped and swept his arm over the property.

"Look, Mackenz," he said, "It did not use to be this way. This land is much too small to feed a family. When I was a boy, everyone owned land and it was much bigger than what people have now. Uganda's population has grown so much and people wanted to make money. So, they broke up their land in pieces and sold it and sold it and sold it. Now everywhere is crowded and the gardens are too small."

This memory of walking with Ahamed resurfaced when I spoke with my fellow staff-members Natalie and Jordy during their visit to Uganda this January. While touring the women’s gardens, they heard that harvests were fair overall but still far less than anticipated. Why? Cue an empowerment obstacle. Here's what's up:

Fill in the Blank(et)

In 2015, BOH initiated its Agriculture Program basing its techniques on those taught by another local organization in Uganda, Farming God's Way (FGW). Before the women learned these techniques, they planted seed largely by throwing seed into their fields and harvesting whatever came up. FGW teaches the women to plant in rows, use homemade fertilizer, and cover their fields with a layer of dried leaves and twigs to keep the seedlings protected and lock in moisture - especially helpful during droughts. Besides planting the actual seeds, this mulch "blanket" is perhaps the most essential part of the planting process, sometimes making the difference between a low and plentiful harvest. The trick? Finding the dried leaves and material to make it.

When they began testing these techniques, the women planted on small plots of land and were just able to find enough leaves to blanket their seedlings. The first harvest brought increased crop yields by 6-10x - our jaws were on the floor when we read those stats! Due to the early success, some women are now planting on larger plots of land. While this has potential for huge harvests, the harvests haven't yielded as much as hoped. This is very significant for women depending on these harvests to feed their families. It all comes back to the blanket. More land requires more blanket, and even with their small plots, many women said the required amount of dried leaves was hard to come by. What's to be done?

A mother looks over her field covered by dried leaves, the essential mulch "blanket".

Namboira Florence overlooks her garden covered by the essential mulch "blanket".

O Blanket, Where Art Thou?

During my trip in August, we drove through villages on bodas (small motorcycle taxis). Sugarcane field after sugarcane field whipped past, packed with long stalks with drooping green leaves, and underneath those, layers of dried leaves. Why not use sugarcane leaves for the blanket?

Remember what Ahamed taught me about people selling their land. Ahamed explained further that when people need quick money, they also sometimes rent their land to sugarcane plantations for a one-time high price. While the high price is initially attractive, these leases can last for up to 10 years. If the farmers kept their land and farmed it during those years, they would end up making far more than the immediate rent price from the plantation. Nevertheless, people still rent the land.

All this to say, there is one crop that creates heaps of long, dried leaves and there's plenty of it around, even neighboring many of the women’s gardens! The catch is that the landowners and sugarcane plantations also know that these dried leaves are valuable--good for preventing weeds from growing and needed by others, meaning they can charge a fee.  

So how much is too much? Are these dried leaves really out of reach? This has been a discussion during this trip’s meetings with the women. Could the women get permission to clear the dead leaves away from the landowners? Or at least buy the leaves at a low price? This will be a topic for 2018!

Uganda Farming Empowerment

Biryeri Elizabeth walks a sugarcane-lined road as she returns home after gardening. 

A Reminder

At times, working towards empowerment can feel like an endless path of obstacles. The old, "two steps forward, one step back," idea. How do we face the endless, rocky path? As we know, what we believe affects the way we walk each day. Do we believe empowerment to be possible, or impossible? Overrated, or worth a struggle? This month, we honor a special empowerment hero, Martin Luther King, Jr. In his words, we approach empowerment like this: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

These obstacles can be overcome. How do we deal? With Hope. Tenacious, communal hope! Together, we move forward with this hope one step at a time. In fact, isn’t the journey what it is all about?

Blog by Mackenzie Lanphear.


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