Category Archives: Mozambique

The Future of Travel


I have seen the future. At least the future of travel. Two weeks ago, on my way to Mozambique on assignment, I connected with Delta through Atlanta.  Boarding my overseas flight required no need to show an ID nor a passport, no need to show a boarding pass.  I just stood in front of the visual scanner and in a couple of seconds the screen read, “Welcome, Mr. Nichols to Delta flight 200 to Johannesburg.”  Facial recognition is here. I expect this secure and rapid passenger identification process will eventually be the way to board all flights.  Discussion about invasion of privacy we can save for another time.  I was blown away by the technology.

My assignment is anything but high tech.  My NGO for the southern tier of Africa, CNFA, asked me to help them formulate their development program for the upcoming five years in Mozambique.  I have concentrated on businesses serving small holder farmers.  Such businesses include seed suppliers, tractor services, irrigation providers, agricultural loan companies.  My job has been to interview a range of these service suppliers in three of Mozambique’s eleven provinces to determine what sort of development assistance they and their client farmers will benefit from.  We expect to offer 44 volunteer assignments in the service sector over the next five years.  Those of you interested in, say, tomato irrigation better get your bids in early.

We drove west from Nampula toward the tomatoes. We passed burnt corn fields.  Now is the dry season, the farmers have harvested their grain and they remove the now bare stalks and crop residue by burning…effective, but bad for the soil.  Fire kills micro organisms that are beneficial to soil fertility.  But without mechanization (a tractor, say) or even oxen, clearing the crop residue or plowing it back into the soil is not likely.  Fire is likely. And it burns not just field rubble, but also nearby trees.  Some agricultural NGOs are trying to convince the farmers to replant trees around the perimeter of their fields.  Trees provide a habitat for honeybees. And wild honey is an especially valuable commodity as it brings in needed cash to poor farmers. But meanwhile I mostly see charred fields.

I never tire of the rural scenes along the highway: kids in uniform on their way to school, mud brick homes with thatched grass roofs, wandering goats and chickens, and at this time of year, fruit and nut trees heavily laden with their produce. Mango and cashew trees were especially endowed. On this stretch of road I saw something new, striking rock formations called inselbergs. These are giant granite mounts jutting hundreds of feet out of the surrounding plain. (see photo above)

Beyond the tomatoes we came to the onion fields of Malema.  In this country Malema onions are famous for their flavor.  Some call these onions, the Vidalias of Mozambique. Actually, no one calls them that.  No one here has ever heard of Vidalia, Georgia. I only called them that because it sounded clever.

Some 500 miles south of the onions lies Chimoio, the capital of Manica Province.  In the countryside surrounding this small provincial city are many maize and soy bean farmers.  Both crops are used to produce poultry feed needed by Chimoio’s chicken growers.  We met with one organization that is assisting small farmers to improve their growing techniques and to band together in order to receive better prices for their crops.  This assistance comes in form of Village Based Agents. VBAs are local farmers with leadership talent.  They are trained in advanced agriculture skills and in marketing.  By improving their fellow farmers’ yields and by finding markets for the crops, they can improve the lot of these small holder farmers.  In reward for successful sales results, the VBAs receive a commission.  The most successful among them will bring in an extra $800 per year. Add that to earnings from farming and from honey, one should be able to replace his grass roof with a corrugated aluminum roof in short order.

One morning while in Chimoio, I went out for my (slow) morning jog.  I passed the Che Guevara Bar, complete with his famous image. Then a second with the same name and image, and soon, a third.  A couple of observations:  First: this guerrilla leader from the 60s was a folk hero in Mozambique.  Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s Mozambique was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba, so Che Guevara became well known and loved. And apparently, he is still revered enough for three different and independent bars to claim his name. Second observation: trademark protection in Mozambique is not well developed. I also came across multiple Bamboo Bars. This morning’s jog took me down a gently sloping road.  However, on the return of my out-and-back route, someone had ratcheted up the incline.  The return was much steeper.  I’ll have to research the physics behind this phenomenon.

The changing climate is frequently a topic of discussion among farmers. Despite what some political leaders say, the farmers know that rainfall and temperature are changing.  We met with an American NGO that assists these farmers.  The NGO had started a program called Climate Smart Agriculture.  The director of this organization told us that the current US administration – – which seems to deny that humans play any significant role in climate change – – did not like that name containing the word, Climate.  Consequently, this NGO changed the program name to Resilient Agriculture.  They continue to do good work under the camouflaged name.

Fresh Chicken Tonight

One of my NGOs, Winrock International, sent me on a three week assignment in northern Mozambique.  Our effort has been to develop a market intelligence system that will inform small holder farmers the current price levels for their crops.  At present, the farmer has little access to such information and thus relies on hearsay regarding prices. Often a crop trader will show up at his farm gate to purchase the crops.  The trader knows that the farmer is poorly informed and thus will offer a lowball price. The farmer will not know if other prices in the market are higher than the offer at farmgate…so he will accept the lowball price.

Our idea is to set up a price gathering system that is accessible by mobile phone.  Surprisingly, most farmers – – even poor farmers – – have cell phones.  With this system the farmer will be able to check current prices in his region and at major trading centers. He will not be at the whim of the crop trader to learn the price. Living the life of a small holder farmer is difficult enough without also being subjected to unreasonably low prices.

We gathered opinions about what sort of market intelligence the farmers wanted so as to allow them to make more informed decisions. We set up a series of interviews with farmers, grain transporters, wholesalers, and exporters.  Interestingly, most of the people we spoke to in the agricultural trade did not initially address price information as their greatest need.  Almost universally they said they wanted a governmental authority to regulate crop prices. By this they mean they want the fixed prices once offered by the Soviet-leaning government of the 1980’s and the Portuguese colonizers (until 1975) before then.  We explained that fixed prices are not likely to be instituted. The world has changed.  We operate in a market economy, not a command economy. And we now live in a globally interconnected world where the price paid by large importers of crops, like India, will influence the price small farmers receive at farmgate.  And besides, the government is too poor to provide a price guarantee.

_ _ _ _

Imagine that you are driving down a country road in Iowa and decide to stop to talk to a corn farmer.  But in order that you may converse you must first visit the county seat to get approval to hold a discussion.  This happened to us in Mozambique.

Before we could wander the countryside to talk to farmers we were required to report to the County Agriculture Manager to get permission.  The agricultural manager was out of the office and neither of his two lieutenants was willing to grant us authorization.  So we waited for the manager to return.  Once he appeared we explained our quest – – merely talk to several individuals in the county.  He decided that we needed permission from his boss, the County Commissioner. So we piled into our vehicles and drove across town to another office.  Again after waiting, we were ushered into the Commissioner’s office.  He and I discovered that we both had served in the army: Mozambican and US, respectively. Consequently we bonded and our team received permission to talk to people.

Later we also had to seek authorization to talk to traders in a farmers’ market…from not one, but two individuals: the business manager and the security manager. It seems bureaucracy is alive and well in Mozambique.  Fun fact: the first official we met, the Agricultural Manager, is the son of the second official we met, the County Commissioner…and was appointed by his dad. So nepotism is thriving here too.

After braving all this bureaucracy and a splash of nepotism, I needed a break. So, I went for a late afternoon jog past a high school that was just letting out.  A stranger jogging through the ranks of the students seemed to interest them.  I was enthusiastically greeted by shouts of “Americano,” “Branco” (white man), and also, “Mexico.” The Mexico greeting befuddled me, but had they inserted the adjective New in front of Mexico they would have covered my nationality, ethnicity, and state heritage within just a few strides.

The next day we interviewed Stefano Justin, a small scale maize trader.  He transports 330 pounds of maize in three large bags on his bicycle: two bags behind the seat and one bag in the bike frame above the pedals.  How he is able to ride this way was not clear to me, but he makes two trips daily across the nearby border with Malawi to sell the product in that neighboring country.  The customs officials turn a blind eye to small scale businessmen like him crossing the border. Stefano can earn $5 each day through his trading activities.  Now $5 dollars per day may not sound like a lot of money, but he assured us that he is able to support his family on this income.  This is well above the rate of extreme poverty, pegged at $1.90 per day. But, by the worn state of his clothing and the rickety repair of his bicycle one would never guess that he was earning a robust living at a level twice that of extreme poverty.

Traveling in rural Mozambique is always a visual treat. Alongside the highway were homes of sun dried mud brick topped with grass roofs.  So picturesque. The highway itself had few cars, but many, many bicyclists and pedestrians: school kids in uniform, farmers hoisting hoes on their shoulders, and rural vendors flashing small offerings of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains.  Bags of charcoal and bundles of grass roofing thatch were displayed.   The most eye catching of all were the poultry sellers.  They stood beside the road holding a live chicken upside down by the legs.  As our car passed they would swing the bird right side up causing it to flap its wings vigorously.  Passersby could not miss this advertisement – – more eye catching than a neon sign – – Eat Fresh Chicken Tonight.

Guaranteed 40% Return – – Monthly

In a very poor country one does not often find a functional olympic-size swimming pool.  Surprisingly I found one in Beira – – Mozambique’s third largest city. My NGO for the southern tier of Africa, CNFA, had sent me here to work with a women’s self-help cooperative.  I needed a break from work and some exercise so I paid the $1 fee to enter the pool.  Sunday mid afternoon is usually a crowded pool time in most places, but I found myself alone in the pool.  Even the ticket taker was absent.  (I paid the entrance fee to the custodian.)

The water was a refreshing milky color. Apparently neither the custodian nor the filtration system was up to snuff.  Post workout, I noticed that the restroom had a sign posted, “Nao xixi-xixi. Não drena.” Or roughly, “No pee pee.  Doesn’t flush.”  So I guess with the restroom inoperative, that leaves the pool as an option.  I wish I had read the sign pre-swim.

Swimming aside, my task here has been to train a group of 20 individuals in personal financial skills, including how to set up a uniquely poor country institution: a VSLA – – Village Saving and Loan Association.  The VSLA concept was pioneered in Niger in 1991 and is now in 73 countries worldwide including Mozambique. Variations of this approach reach more than 12 million people around the globe.

There is a strict organization to the methodology. It is designed specifically to benefit very poor people who are illiterate and even innumerate and who require simplicity and structure. For example:

  • Weekly meeting with mandatory attendance (accompanied by fines, about 10 cents, for unannounced absence and for late arrival)
  • Requirement to purchase at least one and no more than five savings shares each week. The shares are valued at around $1, based on local currency.
  • VSLA members present their savings passbook to be stamped with a symbol representing the shares purchased. The use of a symbol precludes any difficulty an illiterate/innumerate person would have understanding his savings account.
  • Members’ savings are pooled and placed in a wooden lock box secured with three padlocks. Three different association members each hold a key, thus always requiring the presence of three people to open the box.
  • Members borrow from their common savings pool and repay their loans back into the pool, thereby paying themselves the loan interest and thus increasing their personal savings.

This VSLA methodology is ideally suited for low income people whose savings would be far below the minimum account size required by a traditional bank.

I was vaguely familiar with this concept, having come across it a few years ago in Uganda.  But I was far from knowledgeable.  Fortunately, I found a VSLA field guide on line (thank you Mr. Google) and was able to stay one day ahead of the class.  I don’t think they noticed my narrow knowledge lead on them.

My class of low income women (and a few men) included a chicken grower, used tire proprietor; auto parts dealer, market vegetable seller, and owner of a sundries kiosk. Even a Catholic nun and a sprinkling of high school students in light blue shirts with dark blue ties showed up.

Before teaching them how to establish and manage a VSLA, I instructed them on personal financial management.  That is a topic I do know something about, having worked many years in the financial services industry. However, my attempt to teach them the time value of money spun out of control.  I asked them to choose between receiving $100 today or $150 one year from now.  Of course, $150 represents a 50% return on $100, so waiting one year is the wiser financial choice.

Everyone in the class opted for $100 today. I asked them why.  They variously reported that they could get a substantially higher return than 50% – – which by the way is an incredibly attractive return – – by putting the money into a business.  I asked about the level of risk they might face.  The best response was, “Everything we do in Mozambique takes risk, we must take risk to survive.”  The chicken grower stated that if he bought one hundred dollars worth of new chicks, raised them to maturity, and sold them, he would ,without doubt, earn 40% each month.  I have no idea how he came up with figure and I doubt he did either.  But I didn’t press the issue because my rich country perspective clearly did not jibe with very poor peoples’ perspectives.  They did agree that spending on expensive wants instead of needs was not a good idea and that making a budget was a good idea.  So, all in all, we did have mostly similar financial beliefs.

My interpreter was worried about his three month old baby daughter.  She was refusing to nurse and was crying way too much.  His wife took their baby to a traditional healer, not a trained pediatrician.  The daughter did not improve.  My interpreter and his wife surmised that the traditional healer had, instead of instituting a cure, had cast a bad spell over the baby.  That was the reason for crying and not nursing.  My interpreter said, “You must always be careful with African magic.”  The ironic part to this story is that my interpreter is studying to become an MD and yet patronizes an untrained traditional healer.

The happy part to this story is that his daughter recovered to full health one day later.  And the even happier part of the story is that he now knows how to save $1 – $5 dollars per week for his daughter’s future.

$1.59 per Day


I recently wrapped up an assignment in Mozambique; my fourth assignment in this charming and oh so poor country.  Just how poor you might be wondering.  The average annual income in Mozambique is $580.  That is $1.59 per day.  You try living on that.  The country ranks 183 out of 196 tracked by the World Bank.  (By comparison the average annual per capita income in the United States is nearly 100 times higher: $54,960.)

In fact they are so poor that along one highway I saw 200 people collecting rocks by hand from the side of the road to sell to home builders and to small construction companies.  One doesn’t get much money for a basket of stones, but every little bit helps.

My mission was to help the members of Tadzera Kulima farmers’ co-op improve the business handling of their crops so that they would earn more than $1.59 per day.  Tadzera Kulima means, “We came for farming.”  And I came for teaching farmers.  They needed it too.  They even admitted, “We don’t know how much we sell, we don’t know how much we pay for inputs.”  Consequently, they did not know if they were making or losing money from their farming business.

The co-op has 28 members.  All came for training plus an additional eight of their neighbors, 36 in total. I suspect the members had told their neighbors about my side splitting farmer’s daughter jokes. Why else would they come?  Actually I know better than to tell that genre of joke to farmers.  In fact I seldom attempt to deliver a joke during my trainings.  One never knows if it might upset cultural sensitivities.  And any joke would need to be translated from English into another language.  Of course a joke which might rely on timing, inflection, or word play, would not carry those essential delivery characteristics though an interpreter’s mouth into that other language.

In this case my assigned interpreter, Mateus (Mathew to you gringos), translated English into occasional Portuguese and more frequently into Sena.  This is the tribal language understood by most in this rural part of Mozambique.  Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique – – due to Portuguese colonization – – but is not so widely understood by the less educated.  Countryside dwelling farmers are generally less educated.

I taught the farmers how to make a simple ledger so that they could track their income and their expenses.  For every sales transaction I demonstrated how to enter the date, customer, crop, price, and quantity…similarly for each expense like purchasing seeds or hiring a tractor owner to plow their fields in preparation for planting.  I told them to make an entry every day money changed hands.  They embraced the lesson in the classroom.  I just hope they apply the lesson.  This will be a challenge for the illiterate and innumerate ones.  In rural Mozambique women are more likely to fall into this category. Families tend to spend their very limited resources on education for their sons.   “Free” public education is not free.  One must pony up for school fees, books, uniforms, and materials.    Furthermore girls are more likely to get married underage, thus ending any schooling that was underway.

And speaking of non-free public education, my interpreter passed out cheap note pads and pens to our training class.  The next day one of the women returned to class without her pad and pen…and asked for a second.  The following day with neither pad nor pen, she made the same request.  Eventually we caught on to her scam: She was illiterate and had no use for such tools. She was collecting these materials for her school aged children. At the end of training I offered my few remaining note pads and pens to the farmers. There was a small riot over who got these 33 cent items.  All wanted them for their school children.

In addition to the 36 attendees mentioned above, 14 toddlers and nursing babies also attended training on the hip or breast of their mothers.  The good news is that not all were crying at the same time.  But at any given moment some of them were.  And others were learning to walk in my classroom. Really disruptive – – but I just taught through the clamor.  I couldn’t tell them not to bring their little ones, that would have been insensitively countercultural.  Besides, they take them everywhere: to work in the fields, to the market, to church.  And to training class.

The average mother in Mozambique has 5.15 kids. To bear so many the women must start at an early age. I visited one farm where the farmer, a mid 30’s woman, already had 7 kids.  Her 18 year old son was married himself and had a one year old child. My interpreter married his wife when she was 16. He was 25 at the time. They had their first child one year after their wedding.

Maybe next time I will teach family planning.

Taduka (Thank you in Sena)





Sweet Potato Juice

Early in the morning is when I like to take my occasional jog. Here in Chimoio the air is cooler…but, not necessarily fresher. Before 7 AM moms have fired up charcoal stoves to prepare breakfast for their families. Vendors are sweeping the dirty streets and sidewalks in front of their shops, stirring dust back into the air. Delivery trucks and swarms of minibuses have begun their daily runs, contributing diesel fumes to the dust and charcoal compote. Running is healthy; just don’t breathe here while you do it.

Chimoio is the capital of Manica province in western Mozambique – – itself lying in southeast Africa along the Indian Ocean. I have worked in this former Portuguese colony twice before, each time in or near Chimoio. I like it here, so when offered another assignment by CNFA, one of my NGO partners, I gladly accepted.

My client this time, Zebra Farms, grows soybeans and sweet potatoes on a 30 acre farm – – quite large by local standards. The owner, Lucas Mjuju, sells the crops to his own vertically integrated food production company. The production company intends to process the soybeans into soy milk and onward into drinkable soy yogurt. This is a rare beverage in Mozambique. They also plan to press the sweet potatoes to create sweet potato juice. This is unusual and unknown here…perhaps unknown anywhere. We’ll see how that goes.

My task: Help Lucas develop a business plan that will allow him to secure funding for irrigation equipment. With this equipment he can expand his growing fields and improve the quality of his crop. If Lucas is successful in securing funding – – and more challengingly, successful in making a go of selling drinkable soy yogurt and sweet potato juice – – not only will he and his family benefit, but so will the suppliers of inputs to his farm, as will nearby farmers who will have an outlet for their soybeans and sweet potatoes. And consumers will have additional healthy beverage choices. A lot of parties stand to gain if we get it right.

Besides the proposed beverages Lucas plans to make snack crackers from the pressed soy and sweet potato residue. So consumers could as well benefit from a high protein, high fiber, low fat snack choice. I sampled one: still needs some tweaking to the recipe. However the yogurt drink was perfectly fine. And now I am waiting to test the sweet potato juice. I did see cartons of maize (corn) drink on sale in Chimoio’s largest supermarket. So, curious plant-based beverages are not unprecedented here.

I met my client briefly the evening I arrived in Chimoio. He left town the next morning for unannounced meetings over the following five days. My laptop went on the blink so I took it in for a tune up. The local computer repair shop said they would have it “going good” within two hours. Four days later I was still waiting for the good going. Then, Francisco, my Portuguese and Shona interpreter contracted malaria. So there have been a few glitches in the initiation of my assignment. But they have a saying here: TIA. “This is Africa”. We roll with the punches. And I love the work here. However, it is difficult to make progress without access to the company owner, a laptop, and an interpreter.

Francisco has been my (talented) interpreter twice previously on assignments in Mozambique. And he has contracted malaria several times before. The strain of malaria here is illness inducing, a temporary misery, and an inconvenience, but is not lethal. So, while I am concerned about Francisco, I am not worried that he is facing a serious health threat. Without him however, I am facing a serious translation threat.

In poor countries the informal economy is a way for people with no other source of income to survive. The informal economy is widespread here in poor Chimoio. Vendors lay products out on the sidewalk – – directly on the dusty sidewalk. On offer: previously worn trousers, shirts, shoes, oranges, peanuts. For clarification, the oranges and peanuts have not been previously worn. Sometimes so dense are the displays that pedestrians must walk single file along an entire city block just to pass through the informal vendors.

Then there are the hordes of young girls with babies. It is difficult to determine if I am looking at a big-sis babysitter or a too-young-mother. In either case continuing with education is a challenge. And without education one’s career arc ends on the sidewalk in the informal economy. My hotel chambermaid told me she had her first baby at 18…at least after her schooling was completed. Hence she secured a regular, albeit low paying, job.

But enough about the informal economy, now I must get back to the task at hand: rounding up my client, collecting my computer, and wishing Francisco a speedy recovery. And by the way, let me know if I can bring you a glass of freshly pressed sweet potato juice.

Twelve Wives

Well, the headline has given away the surprise, but you will have to wait for the details. Worth waiting for I might add. I flew into Beira, Mozambique’s number two city and a major port on the Indian Ocean. The rice paddies around the low lying city were a patchwork of emerald green shades. The small concrete box homes were roofed with corrugated metal. This contrasted with the circular mud and stick homes. roofed with grass in the highland villages around Catandica, my new African home – – at least for two weeks. Catandica is inland, five hours northwest of Beira. It is an agriculture trading center with a population of around 30,000. I am working with another American volunteer, Ron Overmyer, a retired agricultural extension officer from Ohio.

On this, my second assignment in Mozambique, I am working with the Batane Phanza Farmers’ Association. Batane Phanze, in the Shona language, means very roughly, field work. An accurate name for what the association’s farmers do for a living. The organization’s 1500 farmers grow corn, soy, sunflower, and beans as cash crops. They have asked me to help them improve their sales (find new customers) and grow their membership (find new farmers to join their association.)

The 1500 farmers are formed into 43 Clubs of around 40 members each. Communicating with so many members presents a significant management challenge. When an important message must be shared with the association members, the association president will phone each club leader. The club leaders will in turn, call the few club members who have cell phones. The remainder, almost always the majority, must be contacted physically: they have no cell phone…and the club leaders have no cars. And illiteracy prevents sending a written message. So they walk or bike. These in-person visits, due to the great distances farmers live from one another, require a club leader to spend two or three days to contact all members under his aegis. Management control is clearly a test for the rural association.

Last Monday was a holiday: Mozambican Women’s Day. Each school, local organization, and employment sector (e.g. education, health care) was represented by groups of women in matching tee shirts and color coordinated African wrap-around skirts – – some with matching head wraps, a sort of Aunt Jemima-like look. The brightly multi-colored groups were dancing, singing, and ululating. This appeared to be a spectacular photo op. That is until the plain clothed policeman took us aside and commanded us to cease photographing. Our translator, Francisco, suspected this had something to do with sensitivity about upcoming elections. Maybe we were spies from the opposition party. We weren’t; but sadly the only images from this supremely colorful spectacle are etched just in my mind. Come see me sometime and I’ll describe the scene to you.

The food in the small handful of restaurants is chicken or fish paired with white rice or plain spaghetti. Perfectly acceptable but incredibly uninspired. Seldom do fruits and vegetables appear. We have put the four best restaurants on a rotation plan. And we have taken to shopping in the local open air market and then preparing somewhat more appetizing food at our guest house lodging. Usually chicken or fish paired with white rice or plain spaghetti. In one of the traditional markets we came across a vendor selling goat offal. Few people can afford to buy proper goat meat, let alone beef in this poor rural area.

Today I visited several farms to learn what the farmers want from their association. These meetings will inform the training that I will conduct over the remainder of my time here. At one settlement of about 12 thatched-roof mud homes surrounding a large dirt courtyard we asked, “How many families live here?” Thinking 12 homes = 12 families. One of the farmers responded, “Just one family, I have 12 wives and all the homes are mine.” His wife rotation plan is clearly more robust than my restaurant rotation plan. Probably in his mid-thirties, he already has 32 children. Likely he will surpass 60 before his fertility is spent. One of his sons already has three wives. The apple never falls far from the tree.

He is one of the most productive farmers in the association. In rural Mozambique women and children do much of the farming and he has quite a stable of farmers on his team. I wasn’t in his settlement long enough to observe any outbreaks of jealousy among the countless wives. I just know that I was jealous. On the other hand, I suspect he may now be thinking, “Twelve wives. It sure sounded like a good idea initially.”

Elephants in the Mist

Mozambique update – April 26, 2011

In my last post I reported that I was spending several days near the small rural town of Dombe, meeting with groups of farmers to learn their needs and hopes for their association.  After the final meeting we were invited to stay for lunch at the home of Paolo, the association president.  We ate inside his wattle-walled (stick and mud) dining room.

The menu was local: Boiled pumpkin leaves with chopped onion, stewed chicken drumstick, and thick corn porridge, “nxima. “ This is the same dish I reported on from Malawi a couple of months back. There it is called “nsima.”  Clearly there are similar cuisines and related languages on both sides of the M&M border – – Malawi and Mozambique.  Nxima was a decent grain dish, made by Paolo’s wife from their own farm corn, hand shucked in front of their mud and thatch home in their dirt courtyard.  Because much of the preparation was done around dirt and mud, the porridge had a few more tiny stones in it than the porridge one buys at Whole Foods.  But if you can get beyond the extra grit in the diet, the lunch was perfectly enjoyable.

Following four days of meeting the farmers’ groups, I returned to Chimoio, the provincial capital to meet with crop buyers and to draft my preliminary report.  I also managed to fit in a shoe shine on the street at 16 cents.

And then I returned to Dombe to share preliminary recommendations with the association board and other association members.  Thirty people crowded into a small room to hear our report.  A few lucky men got to sit on wooden benches.  The rest, including all the women had to sit on mats on the floor.  Not even the two women nursing their babies during the meeting rated a bench.  As guest of honor, I was provided a straight backed chair as was Fran-shees-ko my interpreter.

Periodically, I would pause during my presentation to ask if the audience agreed or disagreed with a just-made point.  They never disagreed.  Perhaps I had absolutely nailed their needs.  But more likely, they were just being polite to the foreigner who flew across the Atlantic to work with them.  But when they agreed with me, instead of nodding or saying yes, instead they would clap and ululate.  For those of you who have never heard ululation, it is sort of a high pitched, sing-song trilling sound common in Africa and the Middle East…and very pleasing to the ear.  Especially when it means they agree with you.

So after several days of hard work and a good meeting with the association we decided to take a break at our advantageous location: Ndzou (elephant) Camp.  We arranged a guided hike to view the namesake animals in the adjacent national part.  We departed shortly after sunrise for a 10 mile 4×4 ride to the starting point of our trek into the rainforest.  There were four of us: Azarias, the driver; Rocha, a colleague at my NGO; Fran-shees-ko, the interpreter, and I. In addition we had two local tracking guides with us.

Farmers in the area had reported elephants in their fields the evening before so we parked our vehicle and began to walk.  It had rained heavily before sunrise, consequently a heavy mist still hung over the trees as we started our pachyderm search, but the sun looked like it was begging to break through.

The recent downpours had left the narrow paths that wound up and down the rainforest mountainside quite slick.  Every now and then I would lose my footing and begin to slide.  I quickly learned that when this happened, the best thing to do was to place my feet shoulder width apart and “ski” down the muddy trail…hoping for the best at the bottom.  Sort of a modified snowplow, with no stopping ability. The last time I had been this out of control was when my son made me follow him down a double black diamond through the trees at Taos.  Sliding down the muddy rainforest piste I didn’t dare grab hold of adjacent trees and vines.  Many were covered in thorns.

While we continued to hike, the sun eventually quit begging. The mist thickened and it began raining cats and dogs.  This was not particularly helpful since we were actually looking for elephants.  We hiked through several small banana fields (based on the theory that elephants like bananas) and past a couple of family farm compounds.  At one, the family had opened a baseball-sized tree pod that was filled with caterpillars.  They would dry the insects in the sun, then cook and eat them.  We didn’t wait for dinner.

One guide – – with a machete – – led our single file squad, the other guide brought up the rear while carrying a clucking chicken that Rocha had insisted on buying from one of the farms we had passed.  We hiked along the narrowest of jungle paths.  Some paths were so overgrown that our lead guide hacked his way through with a machete.  Now, I am just a muzungu (white guy) from the city, but I figured if a human cannot walk down a trail without enlarging it, it is highly unlikely that a herd of the largest land animal on earth had recently passed through.  But nobody asked me.  However we crossed intersecting trails that showed signs of elephants: large muddy footprints and elephant droppings.  So we knew we were hot on the track.

During part of the search I walked immediately behind the machete wielding guide and quickly learned not to walk too close.  To open a covered trail the guide’s overhead wind-up nearly gave me a cerebral contusion, then his below the knees follow through almost resulted in a vasectomy.  Neither of these outcomes was desired.  I backed off.

After 3.5 hours of up and down hiking, occasionally snagged by wait-a-minute vines, through an increasingly inundated forest, I had all but given up hope of finding an elephant.  We had seen a couple of monkeys in the trees above us, a few caterpillars, the chicken that Rocha had purchased, but no elephants.  We were worn out and ready to call it quits.  In fact by this point I felt like a new recruit on a forced march with Delta Force instead of a common tourist in search of pachyderms.  But then we broke through into a clearing and right there in front of us, unexpectedly, was our 4X4 vehicle exactly where we had parked it.  We got in and drove back to our eco-lodge.  Mission not complete.  And of course the guide fee was the same with or without the desired sighting.  Payment was fixed and was not results based.

When I get around to it I plan to re-title this posting, “No Elephants in the Mist.”

The First Rung of the Economic Ladder

Mozambique update – April  19, 2011

When I accepted this volunteer assignment, the spec sheet listed several job requirements.  One of them was patience.  Well, last Tuesday we planned to leave Chimoio around 2 in the afternoon.  We were headed several hours south to a rural town where we would work with our assigned farmers’ association.  Often things seem to move more slowly here in Africa than back home.  Consequently, that Tuesday, instead of pulling out at 2 PM as scheduled, we didn’t depart until 4:30 PM.  On Thursday.

Now I am used to late departures.  Some of my relatives (and I love them dearly) specialize in late departures.  But nothing could prepare me for leaving 50.5 hours late.  And it wasn’t as if a catastrophe prevented our on-time departure.  Just a series of minor screw ups and senseless delays piled one on top of another until Thursday afternoon.  So patience is indeed a critical skill required for this job.  And a sense of humor about these things helps too.

Since we left so late in the afternoon, the final two hours of our drive was after dark…on a dirt road, and I really don’t like driving at night in developing countries, especially on dirt roads.  Even after dark, this dirt road was swarming with pedestrians.  And when an oncoming car would stir up a blizzard of dust, we would be faced with a whiteout situation – – or to be a shade more accurate, a tan-out situation. Our headlights reflecting back at us off the swirling dust cloud reduced us to near blindness. We couldn’t see the road, we couldn’t see the pedestrians.  Somehow swerving through numerous tan-outs we stayed on the road without hitting anyone.

But we were rewarded at the end of our journey.  The town of Dombe, where our association is based, has no hotels or restaurants.  At least not ones that a westerner would recognize as a hotel or a restaurant.  So we pushed on twenty miles into a mountainous rainforest to stay in a beautiful eco-lodge.  The Nzdou Camp is a collection of spacious round brick huts with thatched conical roofs. Each hut has a hot water shower, toilet, and electricity (sometimes all day).  My hut had a large wooden deck that hung out over a steep valley and offered a panoramic view of the surrounding elephant reserve.  In fact Ndzou means elephant in the local Shona language.  No elephants in the camp, but one morning shortly after sunrise I spotted a most spectacular spider’s web, 10 feet across, with a golf ball sized black and yellow arachnid still spinning its trap.  Someone once told me, “If you don’t like insects, don’t come to Africa.”  I shudder to think what an inadvertent walk into this giant web would have done to my psyche.  But fortunately it never happened.

The morning after our arrival, the same morning of my spider spotting, we drove down the mountain into Dombe to begin our meetings with the members of the farmers’ association.  We met with the association board of directors and several other ranking association personnel.  Since they didn’t speak English I had to rely on my multi-lingual interpreter, Francisco – – pronounced Fran-shees-ko – – to translate for me.  Some of the farmers’ association personnel didn’t even speak great Portuguese, so talented Fran-shees-ko translated into Shona as well.  Consequently my 20 words of Portuguese weren’t really needed.  And my two-word Shona vocabulary was even less helpful.  For the record my two words are “datenda” (thank you) and “ndzou” (but you already know what that means…elephant, if you haven’t been paying attention.)

There is no computer or typewriter at the association.  So all minutes, notes, and records are written by hand.  The association does not copy these documents for dissemination because there is no copy machine in town.  When an important announcement must be made to the 1400 members, the association leadership calls or texts 35 senior members who have cell phones.  They in turn take the greater part of a day to visit about 40 farmers each, on foot or by bicycle – – since nearly all 1400 have no cell phone.  They also have no car, no electricity, and no ox.  Plowing is done by hand hoe.

My goal is to work with the association to devise a business plan that will encourage growth and development.  In and around Dombe I visited several groups of farmers to learn their needs.  For the first of these meetings we drove one hour south from Dombe (on a dirt road, naturally) then several hundred yards along a narrow farm path to a small picturesque settlement of round mud homes with thatched roofs.  The homes surrounded a packed dirt central plaza.  About 25 people lived there.

Attending our meeting were six farmers from this and surrounding settlements. The local headman came with two of his three wives.  Wife number one farms the fields to the north and south of the plaza, while wife number two handles fields east and west.  I don’t know wife number three’s farming responsibilities.  Because we were meeting with people far outside even rural Dombe, the official language, Portuguese, was not understood by all.  Most have had little formal schooling and some are illiterate. Shona was the language of choice.

We sat in a circle on hand hewn log benches just off the dirt plaza under a large shade tree.  Chickens, dogs, ducks, and guinea fowl wandered around our group.  Timid young kids watching from a distance eventually lost their shyness and minute by minute crept closer to our alfresco meeting.  I was stunned at how captivating business planning can be to seven year olds.  Or perhaps it was just the lighter shade of skin that drew them.

After the meeting the polygamist headman (totally accepted in rural Mozambique) offered to show me around the settlement and into the corn and sesame fields nearby.  I quickly accepted since I was mesmerized by the place.  At a far corner of the settlement a local women was tending the moonshine still.  She was distilling fermented bananas into whisky.  I was offered some of the just made hooch.  It was so strong I couldn’t taste the banana, just the fire.  Not my drink of choice.

At the next meeting we asked the farmers how their lives had changed since joining the association.  One woman replied, “I used to be poor.  I had no bed, no blanket, no radio, and my roof was made of straw.  I felt sorry for myself.  But because the association finds higher priced markets for our crops, I am happy.  Now I have all of those things and a metal roof as well.”  Another farmer, a middle aged man, said, “Because of our farmers’ association I now own two cows, four sheep, and I am building a small store.”  I find it absolutely heartwarming that an abjectly poor farmer can now grasp the first rung of the economic ladder.

Another M Country

Mozambique update – April 13, 2011

I have just started a new volunteer business assignment in Africa.  As with my recent work in Malawi I will be working on a USAID-funded assignment, managed by CNFA, the same Washington DC based NGO that sent me to Malawi.  In an effort to cover all the M countries in southeastern Africa before moving on, I will be working this time in Mozambique.  To find Mozambique, go to South Africa, then move one country north along the Indian Ocean.

I started in Beira, a major port, serving central Mozambique and landlocked Zimbabwe to the west.  Flying in on Monday I saw a patchwork of small fields around the city.  Rice was growing in many fields – – this part of the country is tropical, hot, and humid.  However, mercifully I have arrived at the beginning of the dry season and now it is quite pleasant…sunny and warm but not so hot.

Portugal colonized Mozambique and didn’t give up their colony until relatively recently: 1975.  Mozambique then fell into the Soviet orbit and suffered 17 years of the failed communist experiment.  But today it is a relatively successful developing country with a rapidly growing economy and a reasonably functioning democracy.  But poor: ranks 217 out of 229 countries tracked.

Walking around Beira I observed three eras of architecture:  1) Portuguese colonial style – – quite stately but somewhat faded, sometimes even dilapidated… not unusual in a poor developing country.  2) Some of the finest concrete-block buildings inspired by the Soviet Union.  Several buildings look as if the architect for the proverbial Moscow Hilton (ca 1960) was invited here to offer his bland rectangular grey concrete design.  3) And finally structures from the current era – -some quite chic and modern.  But scattered throughout all three eras of architecture (and far greater in number) are poor, ramshackle African homes and buildings.

After my work introduction in coastal Beira I have moved 120 miles inland to Chimoio, Mozambique’s fifth largest city (237,000) and capital of Manica province.  This highland region hugs Mozambique’s western border with Zimbabwe.  Before moving on, a quick aside about Zimbabwe:

Zimbabwe has been run into the ground by hero freedom fighter turned brutal dictator, Robert Mugabe.  His boneheaded policies have led to world record inflation, an inflation so rampant that Zimbabwe printed a 100 trillion dollar bill…written Z$100,000,000,000,000.  That’s a one followed by 14 zeros.  Now imagine trying to negotiate in a local handicrafts market for a carved wooden hippo.  Try to divide quickly in your head by 100 trillion to figure out the dollar price.  The Z$100 trillion bill was worth 30 cents (US) shortly before Zimbabwe eliminated its worthless currency and now uses only US dollars, Euros, and South African Rand.

But I own one of these Z$100 trillion bills (from an earlier trip) and recently tried to pass it off in my hometown bank by holding my thumb over “Zimbabwe” and  showing just the $100 trillion part.  The teller didn’t fall for it.  I think the image of Robert Mugabe instead of Abraham Lincoln spoiled my scam.  But I’m hanging on to it.  If ever the Zimbabwe dollar becomes legal tender again, I’ll be set for life.  But back to Mozambique…

I will spend the next couple of weeks in the highlands around Chimoio helping a farmers association develop a business plan designed to grow the size of their business.  If any of you need a good source of corn, soy, or sesame, please let me know.

To get a feel for this country, you should know that Mozambique is about 10% larger than Texas in land mass, but has a population slightly smaller – – around 23 million here.  This translates into a sparsely populated country with lots of open space, quite similar to Texas in this regard.  However, one major difference is that people here don’t often wear expensive cowboy hats.  There are other differences too.  Some of these will unfold over the course of my ensuing reports.