05 August 2007

Let's start at the very beginning

The picture above shows some of the children of the village of Nyaluai, Gbarpolu County, Liberia. Nyaluai is 150km north of Monrovia. To get there, you drive 2 hours on a paved, but potholed road and then 2 hours on a dirt road which peters out into little more than a track by the time it reaches the St Paul River. The final stage in the journey is to cross the river by dugout canoe and then a ten-minute walk to the village. We were met by the village elders, who dispatched runners to neighbouring villages to invite more elders. The women and children were on their farms and came back at nightfall to find some curious white-skinned giants who were inexplicably excited about taking pictures with them!

Molly and I are tall: but more importantly, these kids are short. They grew up in refugee camps a few days' walk from the village, near the main road where the UN soldiers protected them against the fighters roaming the bush. Food was scarce in the camps, because the aid they were sent was diverted and sold before it reached them. Vitamin A deficiency and anaemia are endemic, kwashiorkor (swollen belly from protein deficiency) universal. 40% of Liberia's population are substantially, 80% partly malnourished. As the camps have closed and people move back to their villages, they are able to grow their own food again: but even if there were enough, kids can't live on rice alone. They don't, our guides assured us. Sometimes, they get greens and palm oil to mix with the rice. Once a week if you're lucky, once a month if not, they get some stringy chicken or bony fish.

Nyaluai has always been poor: the superficial boom years of urban Liberia passed it by. The difference between the 1980s and now is this: then, there was a rice mill in a neighbouring village, so the women didn't have to pound rice all afternoon. There was a district health post a few hours walk away, so childhood bouts of malaria were less likely to be fatal. Then, a few children got scholarships to attend a town school. Two of them ended up at university: Moses and Henry, founders of an NGO that aims to help their home region improve its living conditions, our friends and guides. When the war broke out in 1989, these services collapsed. When the village was abandoned in 1993, the rice fields were swallowed up by the bush. Charles Taylor's rebels burnt the huts - how does a mud hut burn?

Now, Nyaluai is at the most base level of economic life: it is literally subsisting. After 12 years in the camp, the villagers returned in 2005 to rebuild their huts and employ the tools and seeds the UN gave them - distributed by my Ministry - to restart agriculture. But the most basic level of economic life - growing slightly less food than you need to survive, but surviving anyway - is not the most basic level of human life. For the people of the village, things are looking up. They don't have to rely on NGOs for food handouts any more. They are back in their own homes, which they have rebuilt with thatched roofs because zinc roofs cost $100. The war is over: the children with guns have left the bush. They sleep well at night. I slept on a straw mat on the mud veranda of a mud hut. With the full moon, and without the whirring of a generator or distant sound of traffic, I slept better than I ever do in the city.

What motivates, what drives these people who have suffered so much to return to a life of such incessant toil? The women of the village had arms like steel pistons: they spend all day either planting rice, or weeding it, or pounding it to separate the husk from the grain and cook it. Their daughters fetch water and mind the babies. The men's work is less regular, but gruelling: every year, they have to clear the bush to create new fields. Shifting cultivation means: you spend two months thinning the brush, a month felling the trees and another month burning the stumps and grubbing the small roots. The big roots stay in the ground, because even the strongest man cannot pull them out. Then you plant rice and get a harvest, if the birds and groundhogs don't eat it all. The following year, replant and harvest again. Then, you move on and let the field lie fallow for EIGHT YEARS. Small wonder that the end of the war also marks the end of a 15-year reprieve for Liberia's dwindling rainforest.

Yet the villagers do this, because the alternative was worse. Living in refugee camps, or the hellhole slums of the capital, they were cut off from their land and their livelihoods. The children of the war may scratch a living hawking peanuts and cassette tapes, but the elders and farmers have reclaimed their land, their poverty and their dignity. They were not proud of their living conditions, but they were proud - so they told us - of their traditions and their resilient spirit. They were proud to present us with a few chickens, which we gave our driver, Ernest, to thank him for taking us across flooded tracks and the raging rivers to the remotest village any of us have ever been. We brought them a sack of rice, a sack of salt and a box of soap. We gave them 50kg of rice, which will enable them too save more of this year's harvest for replanting. This is the grim essence of economic growth: starve yourself this year and if you survive, there will be more next year.

They have plans: they held a 2-hour village meeting to talk about them and exchange gifts. The chief elder told us about his dream of getting a rural health post like he used to run. The women asked us whether we could use our contacts in the Ministry of Health to get them some training on safe birthing practices. (More Liberian women die in childbirth - often after days of agony - than almost any other country in the world). Moses and Henry briefed us on their scheme to develop one of the swamps for rice cultivation. They asked me if I could get them any help from the Ministry of Agriculture. No, I said: the Ministry can't come where there are no roads. But if you cultivate a swamp by working together and grow enough rice to sell it on the market, they will want to know how you did it.

As we drove home, we spent hours discussing with Moses and Henry what we had learnt. We plan to buy tools and seed for them to develop the swamp, as well as vegetable seed to diversify the diet. Nobody asked us for a handout: this is an investment to feed those kids and maybe a small surplus to buy drugs and send a few of them to school. We are also looking for a small, manually operated rice mill. Any ideas?

Nyaluai is the poorest place we had ever been, but it is far from hopeless. There are thousands of villages like it that are rebuilding, working all hours to try to reclaim their old life and maybe one day improve it. Development happens one rice field, one clinic, one child at a time, but it happens. The government's slogan says it all: the process is on.


Nathan said...

I just wanted to say "Hello!" and "Keep up the good work!" I found your blog through a post of Dani Rodrik's, and I'm pretty excited that I did. I didn't know that people did his kind of work in development econ...I'd been hoping that people did, but I hadn't yet come across anyone actually doing it (I guess I haven't been looking all that long). This looks great, though; I'm definitely going to be a regular reader.

Best of luck!


Dan said...

Hi Rupert,

Brilliant blog: fantastically inspiring. I hope to follow in your footsteps at some time during my current PhD.

A quick question: you say the straing of rice grown in Liberia is only about an eighth as productive as hybrid strains in India. Did you hear anything about anyone working on producing more productive strains, either in Liberia or elsewhere in Africa? My girlfriend is a plant geneticist, and she can't quite believe no-one's doing this. I wonder...

Briana said...

Sawubona, and well done. I truly enjoy your blog, which I recently discovered through Dani's. Is this your first time in Africa? I'm an American living in South Africa for the last few years. I did my Masters at the School of Development Studies in Durban. Sala Kahle ("Stay well" in isiZulu).

Rupert Simons said...

Hi Dan, thanks for your interest! On the technical side, we are getting improved rice varieties that have been developed by the West African Rice Development association (WARDA) in Benin. For other crops, like yams and cassava, we are getting a lot of support from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria. I had no idea until I came here that steps were finally being taken to adapt the Green Revolution to Africa, but it's happening - as fast as we can get roads to those villages!

Rupert Simons said...

Hi Brian, I've worked in Kenya and Tanzania before, but this is my first time in West Africa. Thanks for your interest!

Beth said...

Fascinating information on your blog and good work you are doing. Found your blog through Shelby Grossman. Is the Votex rice thresher the manual milling machine of choice, is it available in Liberia and how much does it cost? If not, what is available in Liberia and what is the cost?