By Simon Nyabwengi, Country Director, World Vision Somalia
It is a picturesque village, this Bantal village in Southern Somalia. Set on the banks of the Jubba River, with verdant green banks, the waters of the Jubba flowing quietly by. To get to the village, one has to use the state of the art ferry, made of sticks, old fuel drums and captained by a seasoned Somali captain, guiding the ferry across a steel cable, tied bank to bank.
We sat on the ferry floor, and given the gap between the wooden sticks that make the floor of the ferry, when overloaded, there is a distinct possibility of one getting the seat of his trousers wet, and getting embarrassing, and embarrassed glances from the hosts across the river. My colleague, Tobias Oloo, Operations Director, World Vision Somalia evaded this possibility by sitting on his notebook while the rest of us took the risk.
Across the river, we were met by the village chief, in his mid-fifties with ochre-coloured hair, a sartorial style loved by Somali men. He was a gracious host. The village came out to meet with us under the neem trees, men squatting for the entire duration of the meeting. How do they do this? For 30-40 minutes. They must have very strong leg muscles, these men. The normal societal arrangements automatically came into play. Men in front, women with their children at the back.
Roaming white goats in the background, with a 5-year-old dressed in all green chasing them around. They were bigger than him, and if they knew better, could shoo him away, and not the other way round. The goats were in good shape and one could see why. There was a lot of green and fodder was obviously not a problem in this village. They excited the meat eater in me and for a moment, between translations, I zoned out, imagining myself roasting one of these over a slow fire, and sinking my teeth into their succulent flesh, seated by the picturesque banks of the Juba River. I had to snap myself back to reality and remind myself that I had come here to see how we can better serve this community, and not eat their goats.
The chief made his opening remarks on the partnership with World Vision. A lot had been achieved and all the achievements and requests had been carefully documented by the secretary, in an exercise book, clearly branded UNICEF on both covers.
The community was grateful for support in bush clearing for new farmland, the planned rehabilitation of the irrigation canal from 350 meters to 950 meters, the skills training in new agricultural practices, restocking of goats for vulnerable families, the Village Savings and Loans Association and the training of Community Health Workers and Community Animal Health Workers.
Of course, more needed to be done and especially in education. The community did not have a school and children were only getting religious education and not formal education. And to make sure that we got the point, three other men spoke, emphasizing the importance of having a school. And we got it. It is clearly a priority that World Vision needs to address.
I went to the Village Savings and Loans Association meeting. And that is where I met her. She was seated quietly in front, observing the proceedings of the meeting. Money is given to the treasurer of the group and being recorded in the group’s ledger book. Every savings being recorded on the member’s saving book by means of a rubber stamp in the form of an arrow, each arrow signifying a saving of 50 birrs (1.74 USD), not Somali shillings because birrs and dollars are the only acceptable currencies here. Quite innovative this recording system.
And as if that was not impressive enough, if one was not able to make it to the village saving group meeting and had come across some money that they wanted to save, they could walk over to the treasurer’s house and drop a metal coin into the box, and in the next meeting come with the real money. And to enhance trust, money deposited in the box could only be opened by three officials, in the presence of the members.
Her name is Farhiya Abdi and she has big dreams for herself and her children. She has 7 children- 9,6,4,3,2,1 years old. Born in quick succession. And she is taking good care of them. In other cultures, mine included, 2-3 are considered a handful. Not for Farhiya. I noticed that one was missing but did not inquire further.
Farhiya works hard. She grows sorghum for her children and Sudan grass for her animals. She is a member of the village savings and loan association and has over the last 7 months saved 200 USD, no mean achievement in a community where cash is hard to come by, let alone savings. She runs the best tea restaurant in Bantal, in my opinion serving the best tea in Eastern and Central Africa. If you don’t believe me, make the trip. From Mogadishu to the dusty airstrip of Dollo, 6 kilometres across an acacia forest and across the Juba River using the state of the art ferry that can stain the seats of your trousers and up the steep embankment to her hotel. Prove me wrong.
She wants her children to get an education, to speak English and not to struggle with the basics of life like putting food on the table. She wants them to have clean water and medicine when they fall sick. And a little money in their pockets would not be bad.
And she wants her fellow women not to suffer so much when they go into labour - not to have to cross the river at night, because much as the ferry is state of the art, it still a scary crossing at night, and especially when you are in pain and afraid. And not to have to spend 3 dollars which they don’t have for the transport to Dollow.
She communicated quietly, and in that quietness, there was steely resolve. When we asked if we could have tea in her restaurant, she sprang into action, lighting a fire, getting water from the river and making enough tea for all of us, a total of 18 in our party, together with those in the village that wanted to partake of the tea.
As I partook of the best tea in Eastern and Central Africa, I was glad that we have some resources to bring her dream for a better future to reality. Funding from the American people through the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and private funding from World Vision to support her increase the size of land that she is cultivating, build a health post and equip it with drugs, put up a water system to provide clean water and we simply must find that funding to enable her daughter to get an education and become a doctor.
And there is the river, which flows throughout the year, a massive resource that if we exploited well, has the potential to produce enough food for the village and beyond.
As we crossed the river back to Dollo, I was glad that we had some initial resources that we could put into use to realize the dreams of a better future that Farhiya has for herself, her children and her community, but that more was needed.