Friday, July 24, 2009

Seed Distributions, the Nile, and Renk

Here's another album, most of which is from a visit to a seed distribution going on in the tiny village of Banashewa, near the Ethiopian border. I also have photos in the album from Upper Nile State, including a visit to the Nile, and a few from Renk, one of the larger cities in the region. As before, the story (one of my favorites) is below the album...

Sowing seeds, improving lives

Banashewa, Upper Nile state (Sudan) – Simon Jino, 22, pours two large handfuls of sorghum seeds into a waiting orange-and-white bucket. Hundreds of seeds spill from his hands in a cascading blur of reddish-white dots, hitting the bottom of the bucket with a pinging sound like raindrops falling on a roof. Three handfuls later and his work is complete, leaving a white dusty residue from his fingertips to his wrists.

“I plan to farm with these,” he says in clear English. “I can grow a big crop.” He’s come to a distribution in Banashewa, a small community located more than 45 kilometers off the large marram (a red clay/gravel mixture) road that connects villages and towns throughout this region of Upper Nile state.

In Banashewa and several other villages throughout this region of southern Sudan, Mercy Corps is working to distribute seeds and tools to rural communities, providing the means for people to begin to cultivate again, before the rains come, and Banashewa, on the opposite side of the river
from the nearest road, is cut off. In March and April of 2008 massive floods swept through the area, inundating recently planted crops, and destroying most of the seeds that were to become food for communities such as this.

“When there’s no rain, or when there’s too much rain, it’s a problem,” explains John Wenesa, the Mercy Corps Base Manager at the nearby office in the village of Bunj.

With the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the organization has purchased some of the remaining seeds from nearby communities and is distributing them, along with tools. Mercy Corps hopes that people receiving the seeds will use
them not only to grow crops for their current needs, but also build a reserve they can use in later years, and possibly sell to other villages in the region. Each beneficiary receives a nearly identical amount of sorghum and maize seed, as well as a set of tools.

“We don’t expect to come back next year and distribute [seeds] again. We expect to come back and for them to give us seeds of the same quality to share with other communities,” says Anthony Mayodi, Mercy Corps’ Business Development Advisor for Upper Nile state, who is managing the distribution project. “We are helping them to increase food security in their community, as well as to have extra so they can sell them and be self-reliant.”

As is the case with most Mercy Corps projects, the organization relied on the guidance of local authorities in selecting the sites for the seed distributions. Representatives from the payam (an administrative division) directed the organization to Banashewa and Bunj, two of the communities worst affected by the floods, where the seeds will benefit between 3,500 and 5,000 families. When finished, the project will cost approximately US $90,000– some of the money will be used for labor and transport, but the vast majority of the funding will be used to pay for the seeds themselves, most of which have been bought in the area.

We bought the seeds locally to inject cash into the community,” Mayodi notes.

As the distribution in Banashewa begins, the omda (chief) is summoned to receive the first buckets of maize and sorghum seeds, as a symbolic gesture. The chief, called Yousef, would likely have been present already but was only able to make a brief appearance, as he was presiding over the village court– at issue was the question of two men who had allegedly claimed the same woman as their wife.

Before taking the buckets of seeds, Yousef, a small older man wearing matching white pants and a shirt addresses the gathered crowd, speaking in the local Mabaan language.

“We will plant these seeds, and if there is rain, I know we will be able to succeed,” he says authoritatively, his voice quieting more than 150 people waiting. “God is the one who will make it possible.”

Finished speaking to the crowd, Yousef moves to the front of the line, collecting a bright green plastic bucket. Dried yellow and red maize kernels are spread out on a plastic sheet; he plunges the bucket into the pile, filling it. Setting the bucket back down on the pile, he brushes his hand
across the top, leveling the kernels at the top of the rim with a smile.

The sacks of maize empty quickly- fortunately, dozens of bags of sorghum seed remain. As people collect the seeds in their buckets, hollowed-out gara (calabash) bowls, and tied-together headscarves and mosquito nets, the piles quickly disappear. Two young men struggle to haul
additional sacks out of the grass-and-mud storehouse, staggering under the 100-kilogram (220 lb.) load before dropping it onto the plastic sheet.

Elizabeth Yelo, 24, is the first woman to come to the head of the line. She has waited for almost an hour. Her orange and pink sash is tied across a red t-shirt- a patterned headband keeps the sweat out of her eyes. She is collecting seeds to plant for herself and her two-year-old son, named Sankwat; as a single mother, she has few means by which to support herself, making the sorghum she receives today all the more vital.

“I’m alone and want to farm so I can help my child,” she says, speaking in Mabaan through a translator. “If I don’t have these seeds, I can’t plant anything.” Placing a plastic bucket on the ground, Mayodi pours in sorghum seeds; as she moves out of line, Simon, a volunteer community mobilizer with Mercy Corps, hands her the metal heads for a pick and a hoe, tools she can use to break up the hard earth and plant. Placing the tools into the bucket along with the seeds, she balances it atop her head and walks off.

Farther down the line, Deng Chuba waits. A blue-and-black knit cap is pulled down across his forehead, and he carries a large bucket. He has only recently arrived in Banashewa, and the seeds will be a critical first step for him, his wife, and their four children.

“It’s very helpful to us, since we just arrived here,” he says in a gravelly voice, speaking Arabic. “I can grow a crop that will multiply and get bigger.”

As the supply of seeds begins to dwindle, Gaga Goofoe comes to the head of the line. A wizened-looking old woman, she has a few wisps of thin white hair, a pair of metal hoop earrings, and sunken brown eyes clouded by time and cataracts. A middle-aged man, possibly her son, waits with her; Goofoe holds his shoulder to keep herself steady in the blazing sun.

“My son will cultivate for me,” she says in a voice barely above a whisper, when asked what she plans to do with the seeds. “I can grow a big crop with this.”

When the seeds are exhausted, the distribution comes to an end. As Mayodi, Wenesa, and the others fold the tarps and sort registration forms, a small boy who looks to be about three- years-old walks up, carrying an empty plastic water bottle. He grabs one of the few remaining handfuls of sorghum seeds in his small fist, and drops them into the mouth of the bottle. Filling it just under halfway, he gives a small smile and trudges off determinedly away from the rest of the crowd, heading away from the houses, and towards the waiting fields.

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