Lisa's Blog: Empowering Women, the right way...

I have seen a lot of bad “gender equality” projects, especially in Afghanistan where the culture is not ready for certain projects and it can be more detrimental to empowerment to force it on a culture not ready for women’s rights than it can be to try to do “gender-based” projects by well-meaning but misguided amateurs.  

The underlying principle of development being Do no Harm, we at Nema try to do all of our projects in slow and understated but effective way.

A few weeks ago at the Bilibeza agricultural school graduation I was approached by a teacher, Bashir, from the school who wanted to collaborate on some projects with Nema. He is quite an inspiration.  He has been trained in various countries to do some fantastic environmental and agricultural projects and now lives in Bilibeza, teaching one day a week and running a local NGO, solely peopled by Mozambicans, with an agricultural speciality.  At his house I met his wife, an expert in organic pesticides, and saw her prepare a meal of lovely looking tomatoes and other vegetables from their garden.  Outside their house, shared with others is a cord pump well, installed by Bashir that is the easiest pump I’ve used since I’ve been here.

After signing an MoU last week we have started working together as partners in earnest, it’s great for me to be able to step back and hand over to a Mozambican, much more positive than a white face giving stuff out all of the time. One of our collaboration is a small cooperative for women to make soap.  

After numerous meetings with the village chefe in Ningaia to ask his permission to undertake a project for the ladies, we are now well underway with a soap making project that will give some of the ladies that little bit of income and identity that will make their lives better, but not disproportionately better than anyone else therefore not creating too much resentment.

We asked the Chefe de Ningaia to choose 10 ladies from his village who he thought would be interested in the micro-enterprise we wanted to set up and to choose from those who had the most suffering or largest families to support alone. 

There are no Geldof-style Band Aid pictures from this part of Mozambique but I was here in this village measuring kids a few weeks ago and all of them are stunted in their growth; the lack of good and varied nutrition means that not only physical but also mental growth is seriously compromised by the monotonous diet that is affordable for most families. A small income to buy tomatoes and bananas for the family will make a difference to lives that is tangible and important but still a baby step and not out of line with other people in the community.

10 ladies turned up at our training session; of varying ages they all warily entered the house of the adjutant of Ningaia and shyly sat down but after some training they possessed a certain degree of confidence once together in the group which was amazing to see and they were able to have fun whilst learning, what could be better?

Using jatropha oil and caustic soda we made soap to sell and soap for their families.  Our new uber‑partner Bashir is great with people and the ladies really responded to his teaching. They were laughing freely and conversing with Bashir and Nema workers Manuel and Assane which was awesome to watch.

The soap has a medical quality that helps with the skin complaints that the children get on their heads here.  

The Nema staff were also excited as they described an infection sounding a lot like athlete’s foot that is common here especially during the rainy season and that this soap can help cure. 

After the first demonstration the ladies set off on making a batch on their own, even calculating the new amounts to make a bigger batch, given the state of mental arithmetic here (drives me nuts that 40x10 needs to be done on a calculator) it was really good to hear them multiplying numbers. I disappeared for 10 minutes to meet someone and came back to the third batch as everyone wanted to try to make their own. 

The ladies were so engaged that the question and answer session at the end involved them all clamouring to answer the questions, they even started making budgets and plans for the future.

After electing Laura as their chef they sang a song for the health of my children (and by default I’m assuming the health of all of our donor’s children).  So cute, I watched the video again and again that night, made me so proud of them and hopeful for their future.   

Of course that’s not the end of our involvement with these ladies, but it is the beginning of the end: all good projects have an end.  Whilst we covered the small cost of the initial investment, the ladies are now their own company and they can make their own decisions. Manuel will visit them every week, he only lives a few houses away so that will be easy enough, and he wants to be their second customer (I am the first).  But the rate of production, continuation of the project and ongoing costs are for the group to consider as a group.  Whilst we will maintain good contact with these ladies, if for no other reason than I like them, our support will now be for training and help with resupply runs but not financial.

We’re hoping that this is the start of a series of small local projects for people to make their lives a bit better.  We’ve already got our orphans making stuff to sell and now our Ningaia soap, next stop an oven for the ladies of Naunde.