International Ministries

Life recovered, life with a future

October 14, 2009 Journal
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Nellie Piti Boko is a fine Christian woman, the salt of the earth, the kind of person who’s a faithful member of the church women’s group, the women’s choir, a participant in the Bible league, always ready to help those who need it, and a good sister to her siblings.

But Nellie’s led a hard life. Her husband disappeared into the diamond fields of Angola, leaving her pregnant with her 4th child. When the baby was born, her sister helped her for a week, then left her on her own. Village subsistence life is a never-ending round of work that starts with getting water and sweeping the yard and pounding manioc into flour at dawn. Exhausted, she slipped into depression and spent days huddled over a fire staring at nothing. The family had little to eat – mostly what the older two children could manage. Friends helped with some food from time to time, but it wasn’t enough. She and the baby went to skin and bones. Her hair turned yellow and sparse with protein deficiency. She had no more milk for the baby.

Fortunately, the feeding center at the Vanga hospital took them in and gave nutritional counseling.  Slowly their health returned. The next youngest child was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Fortunately, tuberculosis treatment is heavily subsidized at the Vanga hospital. She got more nutritional counseling. The boy recovered.

During this time, two other important things happened in their life. The chief of their area opened a subsidized school for the poor: for orphans and for children with only one parent, like Nellie’s. He also organized a literacy class for adults. Now Nellie had gone to school as a child, but, like many village girls, didn’t think it was relevant to the real business of life: of being a wife, raising children and farming for their living. So she left as soon as she could and gradually forgot what she had learned, including how to read and write. But by this time in her life she had learned how much that handicapped her and her family. She enrolled in that literacy class and re-learned.

At that point I hired Nellie as a fulltime housekeeper and she started receiving a salary. It was enough to make all the difference for her family. They became healthy and were able to attend school uninterruptedly. Nellie paid for her older brother to go to college, to move him and his family out of poverty.

Just as important as the salary were the things Nellie learned about farming and nutrition in our house. She learned about the disease stunting her manioc crop and got excited about the great new disease-resistant, high-yielding varieties of manioc the Lusekele Agricultural center was offering farmers. The first time she picked manioc leaves from these varieties to cook for us she picked a huge armful. She admitted she got carried away …it was hard to leave such wonderful stuff. As soon as she could, she planted these varieties in her own fields and became an early promoter in her village. The new varieties tripled and quadrupled the yield in her fields, giving her a good surplus to sell.

She learned to avoid a bad habit the women in her village had adopted in planting, and is now teaching them what to do. She bought the new high-yielding variety of peanuts Lusekele offered, to plant, and has plans to plant Lusekele’s high-yielding cowpeas next year. She learned about moringa trees and how to use their leaves to augment the protein in her meals, about growing and using unfamiliar vegetables, about the high-yielding oil palms Lusekele is promoting, how the oil should be processed, about reforestation, land restoration, and much more in our house. Now she is advising her extended family on wise use of the farm her uncle left them.

However, in the village it doesn’t pay to look too prosperous. Just the fact of having a job is enough to incite the sabotaging jealousy of those around her in the village. She cannot grow a vegetable garden next to her house to feed her children without her neighbors picking everything she grows. "She’s better off than we are. Let her buy what she needs," is the attitude. When trouble befalls her, no one helps her. To the contrary. Her siblings appropriate the things she buys for her work and for her children. Because she’s now the better-off one in the family.

This year that we are on U.S. assignment Nellie is out of work again. She again has the time to attend church women’s meetings and Bible League meetings, to go to market, and to freely work her fields herself. She again becomes a normal citizen of her family and the village, entitled to the mutual aid that is traditional in village life. That’s the upside of it. But she’s apprehensive. The salary gave her and her family a good safety net. However, I encouraged her that this time she is equipped with new strategies for her family: a lot of new knowledge to help her life in many spheres, new high-yielding varieties of her crops, and even some candy recipes to make and sell for additional cash. Used well, it should make all the difference.