threads of our fabric

Reflections on navigating between two cultures and understanding the self-awareness process

Costly good intentions – the Cassava project February 16, 2011

I have been slowly wading my way through “HALF THE SKY” by Kristof and WuDunn. It isn’t a read for the faint of heart. Very descriptive, lively, and at times gruesome portrayals of some truthful atrocities that affect women worldwide and some compelling innovative interventions. I just finished the “Investing in Education” chapter during my train commute this morning and I just have to share this bit with you on how good intentions can become very costly – the cassava project… Enjoy!!!

While empowering women is critical to overcoming poverty, it represents a field of aid work that is particularly challenging in that it involves tinkering with the culture, religion, and family relations of a society that we often don’t fully understand. A friend of ours was involved in a UN project in Nigeria that was meant to empower women, and his experience is a useful cautionary tale. The women in this area of Nigeria raise cassava ( a widely eaten root, vaguely like a potato) and use it mostly for household food, while selling the surplus in the markets. When the women sold the extra cassava, they controlled the money, so the aid workers had a bright idea: If we give them better varieties of cassava, they’ll harvest more and sell more. Then they’ll make more money, and spend it on their families. Our friend described what came next:

The local women’s variety of cassava produced 800 kilos per hectare, and so we introduced a variety that got three tons per hectare. The result was a terrific harvest. But then we ran into a problem. Cassava was women’s work, so the men wouldn’t help them harvest it. The women didn’t have time to harvest such huge yields, and there wasn’t a capacity to process that much cassava.

Cassava Market

So we introduced processing equipment.

Unfortunately, this variety of cassava that we had introduced had great yields, but it also was more bitter and toxic. Cassava always produces a little bit of a cyanide-related compound, but this variety produced larger amounts than normal. So the runoff after processing had more cyanide, and we had to introduce systems to avoid contaminating ground water with cyanide – that would have been a catastrophe.

So we dealth with that, and finally the project looked very successful.

Woman carrying cassava for sale

The women were making a lot of money on their cassava. We were delighted. But because the women were making so much, the men came in and kicked the women out of the cassava fields. The tradition was that women raise staple crops, and men raise cash crops. And the men reasoned that if cassava was so profitable, it must now be a man’s crop. And so the men took over cassava, and they used the profits for beer. The women had even less income than when we started.

Cassava Harvest

Please note that the above humorous posting, pictures, and excerpt does not place fault on my fellow African brothers for seeing and acting on a good opportunity, or the aid workers’ genuine desire to empower our women. Perhaps its simply just a case of misunderstood culture…However, I think one of the moral lessons here has broad application to our personal lives: because you see a specific need or problem, don’t just jump to rectify it…rather, seek to understand the context and the wisdom acquired later will enable you create a practical and sustainable solution…Be good to yourself today!

 

 

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