A Glimpse at a Typical First Week in the Life of a Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer: A Personal Diary

By Jill Motschenbacher

Editor’s Note: This article is a contribution to a week-long blog carnival on USAID’s John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) Program. From July 14-18, F2F program partners and American volunteers are sharing their knowledge and experience of providing technical assistance to farmers, farm groups, agribusinesses, service providers, and other agriculture sector institutions in developing and transitional countries. This blog carnival aims to capture and share this program experience. You can find all contributions on Agrilinks.

Location: Iganga, Uganda
Date: May 4–25, 2014
Assignment: Training and Field Demonstrations, Preventing Post-Harvest Grain Loss, Improving Grain Handling and Storage, Soil Management and Sampling

Day 1: Monday

Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer Jill Motschenbacher, 35, instructs farmers on how test soil.  Ric Francis for CRS

Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer Jill Motschenbacher, 35, instructs farmers on how test soil. Ric Francis for CRS

I arrived in Uganda at around 11 pm last night. I got delivered by a great driver (Michael) from the hotel; we drove an hour from Entebbe to the Kampala hotel and then I got settled in my room. I also got a welcoming folder that gaves me all information I might need about Uganda, including safety measures, geographic information, and a schedule. I found this very informative and it is comforting knowing all of this information. I ordered some dinner, took a shower, and fell asleep. I was exhausted after the 30 hours of travel, yet, the travel was good because I scored an extra empty seat beside me on the 8-hour plane ride from Brussels to Entebbe! That is like winning the lottery.

I woke up this morning to rain on the window. Hello, monsoon season! I worked at the CRS offices for a couple of hours, and then headed off to Iganga. The staff at CRS was very welcoming and they have everything organized. I am lucky, because my bags arrived with me!

I’m at my hotel in Iganga (Mum Resort) now. It was a long drive to Iganga, but the scenery was very beautiful once we got out to the agricultural areas. The city had a lot of traffic “jams”, which means a lot of exhaust fumes. In the country area, there are lots of sugarcane crops, tea crops, and green forests. Everything is green here! The warm air feels good after spending a long winter in Fargo, North Dakota this year. Having 85 degrees F is a lot warmer than -40 degrees F. Tonight, I went to dinner with the CRS people that drove me here, so I got to check out the town. It feels like being in a movie. There is so much to look at.

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Day 2: Tuesday

The African culture is 180 degrees different from the American culture. Yet, it also feels like coming home, because there are some definite similarities to the Southern culture I was raised in during my childhood. Uganda is absolutely beautiful. The smaller town here appears to be more organized and a healthier place to live than the big cities. There is little dust and almost everyone walks, uses bicycles, or uses motorbikes (boda-boda). Well, the monsoon season has a lot to do with lessening the dust in the air, but still. It is very muddy, but the soils drain really fast. I am relatively sure the mosquitos are out to get me! Little buggers… Yet, I will win this battle! If they are in my room, they will be conquered!

CRS's Farmer-to-Farmer program promotes sustainable economic growth, food security, and agricultural development worldwide. Ric Francis for CRS

CRS’s Farmer-to-Farmer program promotes sustainable economic growth, food security, and agricultural development worldwide. Ric Francis for CRS

Day 3: Wednesday

I had my first formal training session with the farmers today and it went very well. I was a little nervous because the accents are really hard to decipher. My accent is hard for them as well. The whole thing was translated, so that was new. I did the training under a tree and taped the posters to the car to teach from. That is the first time I used a car as a poster stand. I gave participants bubble gum to break the ice, which was a huge success. Pens + handouts + ‘Double Bubble’ bubble gum = win!

Getting anything done here is hard because I am on “African Time.”  No one shows up on time or is where they are supposed to be (in the office, etc.). I had to wait two hours for the farmers to gather. I guess the rain set everything back. By the way, the monsoon rains are absolutely crazy! It is like the whole sky opens up. It rains everyday on and off. Mainly in the morning and at night though.

Day 4: Thursday

We did not have power last night and all day today at the hotel because the generator broke. The internet at the hotel has also been out for the last couple of days, so I have to use the wireless. I am pre-writing my letters home so I do not use as much airtime.

We also had massive rains all day, which means my workshop was delayed until 2 pm because it is unsafe to drive while it is raining. It is very, very muddy and I am not sure if the windshield wipers work. The workshop turned out to be very good. I had a lot of farmers in the “house” and they were very interactive. Of course everything has to be translated back and forth, but they really seem to be interested in what I am saying. My students are very good at taking notes and have amazing handwriting. I got some “street credit” with the locals because I battled the rain to get there. The place took 45 minutes to drive to in the very potholed muddy road. The man that runs the RPO (rural producer organization) said he would have given up. We went to his house afterward so I could sign his guestbook. Guestbooks are very popular here. I have signed about 20 so far. I am not sure what they accomplish, but it is a very important task for them.

Day 5: Friday

I have been really busy today. I have taught about 130 farmers so far—in English and then it is translated to Ugandan. I have received a lot of complements on my cultural sensitivity and because I am always smiling and happy. My driver said it is also because I never complain and I just go with the flow. I guess a lot of the Americans they interact with get upset because of the time issue (“African time” means things start way later than planned…) I just figure, whatever, it [the class] will happen when everyone gets there.

Funny story… I gave some grape Nerds candy out in my class the other day. This elder farmer gentleman was eating the candy bits one by one, and was asking “Jill, how do you eat this?” I showed him that you can eat several at a time and he started giggling, and then he asked for more, and more after that. Obviously, the Nerds were a success. I will remember this for next time.

I am sitting here eating my traditional Ugandan meal. I think that my Mom raising me up in Tennessee eating beans, cabbage, and potatoes has prepared me for this moment because that is what I am eating now (and rice). They do leave the hot chili out of mine per my preference (thank you heartburn), but it is still tasty.

The food here is very good. They have a lot of fruits! I have been trying to eat the local type of food, which is vegetable and cowpea stews or sauces (gravy) with rice, cornmeal mush, or “Irish potatoes.” The coffee here is mixed with milky water like in Kenya, and they have different fruits and juices (pineapple, passion fruit, watermelon, and some sour fruit that is tasty).

The staff here is made up of very nice young people. I chit-chat with the staff girls often. Tonight I ate in my room because there can be a lot of mosquitoes out and in the hallway after dark. I have also gotten in the habit of having one Fanta a day. I get the big one (i.e., 1/2 liter). It so good! Crazy Friday night in Uganda! They keep it refrigerated under lock and key. It’s the small things that you start to enjoy after one has been here for a while. Cold Fanta, toilet paper, paper towels, etc. … The good life…

Day 6: Saturday

CRS’s Farmer-to-Farmer program provides technical assistance from U.S. farmers and professionals and links them with farmers in developing countries.

CRS’s Farmer-to-Farmer program provides technical assistance from U.S. farmers and professionals and links them with farmers in developing countries.

Today I got to teach soil management in addition to the lesson on preventing post-harvest losses. I went over some basics in soil, properties, management, nutrition, “health”, and it went great. They loved it! They had so many questions! I was talking about organic matter and why it was good for your soil. They asked me about why no crops would grow in this wetland area since the soil was dark like organic matter, and then I got to talk about saturated and gleyed soils! They were very interested. I did not think we would get in as much detail as we did. It was long class. After the lesson, I showed them how to soil sample. I sampled a hoe and a machete. That was something new to me, but you have to use what you’ve got.

The structure of the farmer’s organization here is that there is the co-op, which is divided into 7 RPOs (rural producer organizations). The guy I work with is trying to get the farmers more organized, so I am also teaching farmers the concepts of how joining forces together to help one another (buying shared equipment, etc.) can help the whole area by being able to produce better-quality grain and to negotiate a better price. The problem is that they store the grain bags on the ground. They have huge problems with mold, insects, chickens, rodents, etc. During my training sessions, I try to emphasize the main points of not letting the cob/grain touch the ground, keeping the grain dry, and not breaking the grain when shelling the cobs. They lose about 25-30% of their harvest from poor drying, shelling, and storage practices. I am trying to emphasize how much that is in shillings (ugx), and how they can improve their income if they prevent these losses.

The main guy that I work with here, Badru, is very ambitious and on top of things. He is the one that calls and organizes all of the farmers. He knows everyone. Another thing one might not know is that almost everyone here has a cell phone. They make them very affordable for people, but it has definitely changed their culture and communication. It’s funny how much I’ve forgotten about how to work basic flip-phone cell phones, as opposed to my iPhone. The phones are not that different here than in the US, but it feels so foreign to work a push-button phone.

Every now and then, there are trucks going down the road loaded with sugarcane. They definitely know how to utilize every available space on the trucks. They have the sugarcane stacked up about 10 feet high on the truck bed. If no truck is available, they either strap it on to the back of their bike or walk with it balanced on their head. The head-thing looks difficult! They carry so much on their head here, especially the women. I could not do it if I tried. I guess they see it as saving the pain on their shoulders, at least that is what my driver says.

Day 7: Sunday

I am off today, since it is Sunday. Hopefully, the power will stay on. Yet, it is amazing how much you can read when you have no power to run the electronics. I mainly stay to myself and work in the room, because no one is really around on Sundays. It is very quiet.

I’m a little bit tired, but for no reason in particular. I am writing up a plan/proposal to try to get some money to build maize drying houses for the local farming community. The whole operation can be improved (for not that much money—taxes and shipping is the most expensive part), but there are just no real resources in place. It’s frustrating: These people work so hard just to survive. They walk miles from home and carry water back in a plastic container on their head and they do all of the fieldwork with hoes and machetes. (They do not even have draft animals). They also carry all of their grain to be sold in town for miles on their head (or on their bicycles which seems impossible, but they do it). Then, they have to cook with coal or wood. They just do not have enough to eat a balanced diet and the food they do eat is what we would consider rotten a lot of times.

I am determined to try and help them by trying to find funding. I know I can’t save the world, and if it was easy, it would have been done by now. We just have such an amazing agricultural system and they have nothing, nor do they even see a way out of their poverty. In reality, there really is not a quick way out. We have all of this technology, but only if you can pay for it. I’ll work around it though. I always do.

The people I have met are good people and it is really hard to see them suffer, but I am trying to remain positive and help as much as I can. The people in this town have it so hard, but they are so resilient and innovative. I do not show all of what I see on Facebook when I give an update on my trip because I do not take pictures of people that are struggling or are in pain in some way. Yet, they are happy people, even with nothing. The pictures I take are of genuine people and real life, and that in itself is truly amazing and beautiful. I met some of the richest people in town too, but that is not saying much. I also met the poorest people. In reality, there is not much of a divide in this particular town.

Despite the emotional heartache that I can’t help but feel… this trip and my opportunity to come here are amazing. That’s why I will keep coming back. I finally get to use the passion I have for agriculture and my love of people for something that can really make a difference. I love that I am able to use my agricultural skills for people in the developing world to more grow food, and I would not change it for the anything. Just being able to help even one farmer feed his or her family makes my time here worth it. I know what I am supposed to do in life, and I am doing it. There is a certain peace that comes from that realization.

As aligned with Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, F2F works to support inclusive agriculture sector growth, facilitate private sector engagement in the agriculture sector, enhance development of local capacity and promote climate-smart development. Volunteer assignments address host-led priorities to expand economic growth that increases incomes and improves access to nutritious food. Read more articles on this topic on Agrilinks. Also, make sure to subscribe to receive a daily digest in your inbox, for one week only!

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