By Zack Taylor
Vohibola – In this arid village deep in the South of Madagascar, where cactus grows everywhere but little else seems to, the ladies are in charge.
After five years of sustained drought, hamlets like Vohibola are exceptionally vulnerable. Women are often obliged to travel many miles on exceptionally bad roads for emergency assistance to stem malnutrition in their young children, while the men often leave their families in search of day labor.
In this island nation bigger than California, recurring climatic shocks have had a devastating impact, wiping out harvests and hampering people's access to food. An estimated 1.6 million people in the south have been food insecure since 2016.
The lean seasons – the time between harvests when family food stocks are low, have lasted longer in recent years. With no harvest during these times, people rely on the consumption of substitute foods such as fruit from the ubiquitous cactus.
But given a chance to make a difference in their own villages, some women have stepped up.
Take Edwina Vonandro, who took charge when a USAID-supported team engaged local volunteers to run a new community management committee that would establish consensus among villagers on priorities for development of diversified agriculture and alternate income generating enterprises.
With some male leaders in the village absent or reluctant to volunteer without a salary, Edwina saw both obligation and opportunity.
She ran for president of the development committee, presenting a sensible outline for helping the community, calling for an agricultural cooperative to ensure good seeds and equipment are available for sale to farmers, introducing market gardening, animal husbandry, and a village savings and loan.
Through the Maharo Project, partner Catholic Relief Services put these ideas into action. In addition to her election as chair of the management committee, Edwina is also in charge of selling seeds through the agricultural cooperative, training village women in market gardening and sits on the Savings and Loan committee.
“I have a lot of responsibility to the community now, and still have to look after my family at home,” Edwina said. “It’s worth it though. With these new elements to the life of this village, my children can grow up healthier and have more opportunities in life.”
Nirina Soa, another village wife and mother, said none of these new plans would have any real effect without a reliable water source. Vohibola needed a deep, reliable well to make a real difference.
Nirina ran for chairman of the water management committee, responsible for maintaining the solar pump and collecting and saving the small fees it charges for filling a 20-liter jerry can.
She won handily, and went on to manage a program advising youth interested in raising goats and serves as a member of the village Savings and Loan Steering Committee with Edwina.
Nirina said the men in the village are supportive of her taking control of the collection of fees for electric pump use and ensuring proper maintenance of the 30 foot water tower’s solar panels and pump.
“I received training in business management, and when I explained how I intended to keep the water system in working order and financially viable, they were happy to let me lead.”
On a recent trip across the South that included an afternoon in Vohibola, USAID Mission Director Anne Williams said “The women we’ve met here have done a tremendous job stepping up as leaders. Villages we saw that received just a small amount of assistance have really turned themselves around.”
In Bevala, Tsihombe District, the local development committee known as the Komity Fampandrosoana ny Fokontany, decided to take on and market honey, continuing a project initially supported by the German agency GIZ.
Young entrepreneurs, more than half of whom are women, are working in the beekeeping sector making honey flavored with tamarins and red cactus. Membership in a Maharo-supported peasant organization helps them package and market the product throughout the region.
Through Maharo, USAID again takes a multi-sectoral approach to helping the Bevala community grow with dignity and pride by building knowledge, skills, motivation, professional linkages, and accountability.
“There is a tremendous level of opportunity for the South to really get out of the situation they are in,” Williams said after the visit.
There is a similar story in the town of Ankilimihamy, sixty long, bumpy miles down Madagascar’s National Route 10. Here, USAID’s Aina project (“life” in Malagasy), supports the community of some 200 households with monthly supplies of rice, beans, vegetable oil, and a reliable supply of water from an improved community well with a solar pump.
In addition to these staples, the project provides training on climate smart agriculture and good nutrition while distributing vegetable seeds for household and market gardens.
“That big tank saved us,” said village elder Madame Celine, pointing at the bright blue 1000-liter reservoir two meters high above a small enclosure and then to the green vegetable garden surrounding it.
“On behalf of the women in this community I can tell you we were all suffering before we could grow these crops. “I mean, we were starving,” she said, dramatically tightening the waist of her sarong to indicate how thin she once was.
Celine is among the women here who similarly lead in liaising with USAID partner Adventist Development Relief Agency’s locally-hired community agents to decide which crops provide the best yields to give them enough to feed their families and and more to sell on market day.
They also take an active role in collecting and saving the small fees for water access to ensure the pump and solar panels are maintained in good working order.
“Committing to agricultural recovery in the South while maintaining humanitarian assistance will not only protect vulnerable communities from climatic shocks, but turn around the quality of life for many long-suffering people who call these areas home,” Williams said.