By Molly Sowash, Sustainable Agriculture director
For many years, Rural Action has participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Community Solutions Program, which supports young professionals from NGOs around the world via fellowships at a similar U.S.-based organization.
Last fall, Rural Action had the privilege of hosting two fellows, Felician Ezekiel, of Tanzania, and Darlington Mafa, of Zimbabwe. As part of the program, we applied for funding for a reverse-exchange, in which someone from our organization travels to a fellow’s country to help implement a community project for two weeks.
I had the opportunity to make this trip to Morogoro, Tanzania to support Ezekiel and his organization, ECOWICE, in important environmental and economic development. As both a farmer and Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture director, it was fascinating to work on similar environmental and economic challenges in a different context.
During my two packed weeks, I was able to join Felician and his staff in the village of Mkata where we:
- Trained the Village Natural Resource Committee, a group of 12 individuals who protect and preserve their community forest. This group makes decisions about resource management and also has the privilege of harvesting from the forest, a model called Community-Based Forest Management. We met with them to discuss opportunities in the carbon market and non-timber forest products as an alternative livelihood to charcoal and fuel wood production that are large causes of deforestation in the region.
- Participated in the village’s forest inventory to analyze the amount of carbon stored in standing trees. The village’s hope is to partner with a carbon credit buyer to create another source of income that incentivizes community members to leave trees standing.
- Convened a group of women to form an artisan group, called Upendo, which makes beautiful handmade crafts from palm leaves and bamboo – another source of income made from non-timber forest products. This group will work together to improve and add value to their products and collectively market and promote their crafts. I was also able to support ECOWICE in writing a grant for this artisan group to receive training on social media, a smart phone for taking photos of products, and other promotional materials.
- Met with Maasai people, who are livestock keepers, in order to share about livestock management practices in the U.S., as well as alternative practices in Tanzania that promote forage production and rangeland management.
- Visited the primary school to deliver pen pal letters from Trimble Local Schools students and a box of crayons from our Environmental Education program for every kid. The students loved reading through the letters and looking at pictures of kids in southeast Ohio, while I explained differences like, “What is NFL? American football? A walrus? Why do so many students say their favorite animals are animals that don’t live in Ohio? Why do they all talk about their dogs and cats? What is four-square?”
- Met with district wildlife and agriculture officers to share about the work of ECOWICE and to strategize on ways to collaborate.
- Inspected the “living fence” surrounding farms in Mkata. This living fence is a line of elevated beehives connected by a wire. When elephants venture into farmland and attempt to pass through the wire, it agitates all of the hives and the bees come swarming out to sting them. This is a harmless way to keep elephants away from crops while maintaining important wildlife corridors.
- Took a safari to Mikumi National Park, where we saw so many animals! I couldn’t believe how much wildlife was roaming the land. We saw bonobos, giraffes, wildebeests, zebras, elephants, warthogs, crocodiles, hippos, impalas, storks, and vultures.
I found many similarities between the work that ECOWICE and Rural Action does to support people and the planet. We are both developing markets for non-timber forest products as a way to conserve important plants and animals.
In Ohio, this looks like supporting people in growing important — but threatened — forest medicinals and edibles, such as ginseng, ramps, mushrooms, and goldenseal. We call this “conservation through cultivation.”
In Morogoro, this looks like supporting people in growing mushrooms, creating arts and crafts from palm leaves, and acquiring carbon credits — as a way to disincentive the cutting of trees for charcoal and preserving important wildlife habitat. Through this work, both of our organizations must hone in on market and infrastructure development in order to allow producers to process, aggregate, and distribute these alternative products.
Finally, as a beef producer, I found our conversation with the Maasai livestock keepers fascinating. In Tanzania, there is a wet season and a dry season. From what I gather, finding enough forage in the dry season is a challenge — similar to what we experience in the winter.
Maasai people have a practice called “ngitili,” in which they reserve a portion of land and do not graze it through the wet season, so that they can return to good forage during the dry season. In the U.S., we call this stockpiling, and most grass-based operations reserve pasture to graze into the beginning of winter for as long as possible.
The Maasai people herd their cattle entirely (no fenced-in pastures), as is common in the western U.S., which experiences more similar dry conditions. We discussed the benefits of short-duration, high-intensity grazing, and how some Tanzanian communities are merging multiple herds and grazing them collectively to achieve this.
Seeing Felician and his team in action was inspiring. It was a privilege to witness this young organization conduct staff meetings, work together in the field, and lead trainings with community members. They are working hard to find alternative livelihoods for communities in order to protect forests and wildlife habitat, while supporting economic development.
We look forward to welcoming Felician back to Athens, Ohio, as he attends grad school at Ohio University this fall!
Finally — to end with a poem:
Tanzanian days are covered with rust-colored soils
powdering feet, faces, the car we drive through this valley.
Every color of dress and kanga
paint this dry season landscape on women who
farm and teach, dance and decide,
ride and preside.
Their crafts wave to us alongside the highway,
baskets, hats, and mats hang from tall branches in
We pass Maasai boys in red, keeping watch over hundreds of cattle and
meet their sisters in purple, who dance for us in the bush.
The forest is dusty this time of year but the green persists
in palm fronds and wild cucumbers,
a medicinal plant pointed out by an elder,
a plethora of invasives that cover the ground where
the promise of charcoal profits has
taken the trees.
Industry brings black plumes of unregulated exhaust from
trucks driving this corridor from the port city, Dar Es Salaam.
Charcoal dots the roadside in bags of burnt trees.
This is how young people provide, yet it may
cause the elephants demise.
Here there is beauty.
Dozens of ways to greet a friend, elder, stranger one calls Mama,
hundreds of tribes who coexist in peace,
a culture that does not rush,
incredible life filling the mountains and savannahs.
Here there is challenge.
Water that must be bottled,
a demand for extraction,
the long dry season when livestock keepers roam through
neighboring farms and parks in search of water,
when fields go fallow and incomes too.
On the outskirts of Morogoro,
there is a vision,
held in the minds of young leaders,
They gather in a purple office
to dream and to strategize.
They see opportunity in the trees,
salvation in bees,
livelihood in mushrooms, honey, crafts made from leaves,
they dream of peace between humans, elephants, and all wildlife.
They organize for change – creating collectives
of villagers who gain power to preserve their community forest,
of artisans who seek new markets,
of farmers who ally with honeybees,
of livestock keepers who want to graze to conserve water,
protect their children.
Felician, Jessca, Musa, Edwin, Jessy, Abel, Mwanamisi, Gladness, Anna and Fatuma –
you are motivators and mediators, laborers and leaders.
Asante sana for being my guide.