"A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. "

Nelson Mandela

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Thanks to the World Wide Web, I recently spent a month in Liberia. One evening, while watching the news, I idly searched ACDI/VOCA volunteer opportunity list, not really expecting to find anything that fit my qualifications. I was surprised to see a request for a small ruminant specialist to provide training workshops, in the managment of sheep and goats, to farmers in Liberia. Well, that was right up my alley, but where is Liberia? To my credit, I knew it was in West Africa and a trip to Google Maps showed me that it is on the west coast, bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast. Wikipedia informed me that it's a country of about four million people and was founded as the Republic of Liberia in 1847. A recent civil war left the country without a functional infrastructure and, due to destruction of its agriculture sector, Liberians are dependent on expensive imported food. The government, along with the United States and other foreign aid organizations, is working to develop and improve crop and livestock production to provide food security for the country. To support this effort, the ACDI/VOCA Farmer to Farmer Program, funded by the US Agency for International Development, is providing volunteer trainers to bring modern agricultural production information to Liberian Farmers.

The small ruminant project request was for February, 2011, and it was already the end of February when I discovered the listing. Thinking that it was probably too late, I filled out the online application and attached my resume anyway. Thanks to a very efficient ACDI/VOCA staff, a month later I was packing my bags for the flight to Monrovia, Liberia's capital.

After a few days' orientation by the friendly staff in Monrovia, we headed up country to Nimba County, one of Liberia's agricultural regions. The 120 mile trip from Monrovia to Ganta, the largest town in Nimba County, took about six hours due to the rough road conditions. Few roads in Liberia are paved and, especially during the rainy season, the rutted tracks are often impassible. This, combined with the high price of fuel, makes it difficult for farmers to get their products to the larger cities where prices are better, and sometimes the ripe produce rots before it can be transported. With the lack of refrigeration and transport, there is no commercial meat industry to speak of. The livestock are slaughtered and consumed locally in the villages or not at all. Except for the meals I ate on the farm, I think I had chicken every day I was in Liberia. It's the only fresh meat in town.

Speaking of food, I was amazed by the variety of crops grown in the fertile Nimba county farms. My first workshop was held on a farm that produces pineapple, cassava, plantain, bananas, sweet potatoes, eddoes (similar to taro) and rice, and raises chicken, pigs, sheep, goats and cattle. I ate fresh fruit from the local market every day. What a treat to have mango, avocado, bananas, and papaya and pineapple ripe for the picking. There is no comparison to the tired well-travelled fruit that I buy in my local upstate NY grocery store. The lush vegetation and bountiful harvest brought to mind the biblical description of the Garden of Eden.

Another vision that often came to mind during my travels in rural Liberia was of Edward Hicks' painting, The Peaceable Kingdom. For the most part, the livestock on the farms and in the villages are allowed to roam freely. During the day they wander unattended along the roadsides and through the brush, gathering their own food, visiting the streams for water, and napping under the trees. Along with the pigs, sheep and goats, roam dogs, cats and children, and I was surprised that I didn't see any conflicts arise. When I mentioned that our dogs would probably chase the sheep and goats and kill the chickens, the farmer was surprised and explained that their dogs are used to them and don't cause problems. Like Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom, however, there was an undercurrent of tension, and another farmer admitted that sometimes dogs do kill livestock, and thieves on motorbikes plague the villages, stealing the livestock and other items they can sell. While this area of Liberia doesn't have large jungle predators, there are poisonous snakes that sometimes kill livestock.

My trainees ranged from higly educated Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) inspectors to illiterate villagers who had no sheep and goats but hope to someday. The mix worked well, as the more experienced attendees helped explain key points to the others. While English is the official language in Liberia, most people in the rural areas speak their own tribal language. Those who haven't been able to attend school are not fluent in English, so some translation was needed. In fact, when I first arrived, translation from their English to my English and back again was necessary. In time I got used to the African dialect and they got used to my American accent and we got along quite well. There were a few women in my classes, but they explained to me that they had to take care of their families and it was difficult for them to attend on a regular basis. Gender equity is a high priority for the ACDI/VOCA programs, and our target was to reach an equal number of women and men. During my trip, the workshops and the village visits included about 25% women. My impression was that, as in many places, the problem wasn't so much that women weren't allowed or encouraged to take part in agriculture and business, but theat they had to do so in addition to their other responsibilities, taking care of the children, cooking meals and cleaning. And believe me, when you have no running water or electricity, these chores are very consuming.

The project focused on transferring improved methods and techniques in small ruminant animal husbandry, covering topics such as animal nutrition, reproduction, and disease prevention. To illustrate important points I used photographs, diagrams, drawings, charts and demonstrations. There was no charge to the participants, but they were expected to pass on what they learned to other farmers, and to implement the recommendations made as appropriate. I couldn't have asked for better trainees as they had great enthusiasm, asked lots of questions, and discussed how they could apply the information presented to their own situations. We had fun with the demonstrations, especially milking the goat and taste testing the milk. Also popular were the field trips to observe which plants the sheep and goats were eating, then identifying them and determining their nutrtional value. Thanks to the MOA participants, who knew the common names of most of the plans, and to internet access, which allowed me to find the Latin names and nutritional values, we came up with quite a long list of local plants and feed bi-products that they can use to provide a balanced diet to the livestock. As a Midwesterner who is used to balancing rations using corn, soybean meal and alfalfa hay, it was a challenge for me to do it using palm oil residue, rice bran, and banana leaves.

As with other trips I have taken, I came away with a real appreciation for the ability of the farmers to deal with adversity with hard work, persistence and humor. The Liberian farmers' goals are the same as those here in the US; to feed their families, provide a high quality product for consumers, and make enough income to send their children to school and set some money aside for emergencies. Also, like farmers everywhere, they want their government to do more to support agriculture. There is an upcoming national election in Liberia this year, and I hope that through the electoral process, and with a little help from their friends, they can achieve their goals.

- Mary Gessert


jessiawesome06 said...

I'm doing a project at school about Liberia and what it would be like to be a child growing up there, did you see how they lived?

jessiawesome06 said...

I've read about your trip to Liberia and I am doing a project at school on Liberia, where I have to say how the children in that country live. Any thoughts on what you saw while visiting?

A Day in the Life of USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteers said...

To learn more about youth in Liberia and our programs, please visit our website: http://www.acdivoca.org/site/ID/liberiaACE