Ce n’è per tutti?

The Swiss Pavilion at the World EXPO in Milano, Italy - is there enough for all?

The Swiss Pavilion at the World EXPO in Milano, Italy – is there enough for all?

I hardly know a word of Italian, but I’ll remember these words. They hang there, provocatively in red, on the towers of the Swiss Pavilion at the World EXPO in Milano, Italy. Is there enough for all? The theme of this year’s EXPO is ‘Feed the Planet, Energy for Life’. The Swiss found a unique way to portray the theme. They’ve set up four towers with four floors each. Each tower is filled with something Swiss – instant coffee packages from Nestlé, as Switzerland is the world’s largest exporter of coffee. Don’t believe me? They buy the raw beans and export the finished coffee. Export dollars are higher than from chocolate and cheese combined. One tower has 5 gram packages of salt – Switzerland’s salt mines supply the whole country. Another tower’s shelves are full of souvenir glasses that can be filled with water from one of the taps. The last tower has single servings of dried apple rings, symbolic of the diversity of Swiss agriculture and its traditions.

The taps are full of water, but there's no glasses to drink from.

The taps are full of water, but there’s no glasses to drink from.

Those touring the towers are told they may take as much as they wish of what is there, but to remember there are others coming after them. The floors of the towers are lowered every six weeks – together. The apple rings of the first floor lasted 16 days; the water glasses a few more. When I toured the towers with the Swiss farm writers association a month after the opening on May 1, there was about a third of the salt left and half the instant coffee packages. The other two towers sported ‘sold out’ signs.

For those of us standing before empty shelves, it was a very graphic reminder that our planet has limited resources. “When something is free and readily available, few people think of those coming after them,” Urs Schneider, President of Agro-Marketing Suisse told us journalists. Those hoping for a free package of apple rings are frustrated at the greed of people. People in countries with not enough food  get sick or die.

“You can take as much as you like,” our tour guide told us. “But think, ‘do I need this’?” I had a package of instant coffee in my hand. I put it back. I don’t even like instant coffee. It’s just – it’s free!

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Wow, I can do this!!!

One of the Munot castle walls, overlooking the Rhein to the east of Schaffhausen. It's quite a ways down to the river... !

One of the Munot castle walls, overlooking the Rhein to the east of Schaffhausen. It’s quite a ways down to the river… !

I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. I’m surprised that I’m still going at all. Three young women jog in front of me, as if they were on a light walk. I’m trying to keep up, worrying if I don’t I won’t find the way back to my car. Whatever am I doing here!

What I’m doing is summer training for our Short Track Speed Skating Club. If I don’t train, I’ll be terribly embarrassed when we start the skating season in the late fall. When I first joined the club last January, I had an excuse for not being so fit: I was just a beginner. I have no excuse not to be running with the girls today.

We started off at the track by the Munot, Schaffhausen’s Castle. There are numerous sets of stairs going down to the old city core or the Rhein River, and they aren’t just short flights either. Angela takes us down the one, and up again, twice. Jog along for a bit, to the next flight. Down again, and up again twice, this time two stairs at a time with one leg. Jog along for a ways – now I’m just running so I don’t get lost. This next flight of stairs is really long. I opt out of the first go at it, but do the second, of course.

We’re almost done. Just for the exercises now. The situps, the kind that really hits your gut. Forty, Angela says, we’ll do it together. And I surprise myself – I do it. Forty more, Angela says, and I do it again.

Actually, I have to be honest – I always feel good afterwards. I do things I was sure I couldn’t do. If I can surpass myself that way in sports, couldn’t I do that with the rest of life too? Like in marketing my book??

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So beautiful, and so hard

“Wonne Monat Mai – the Month of Joy”

DSC_7396„Wonne Monat Mai“, they call it here in Switzerland, that month when lilacs bloom pastel, peonies bright red, and the meadows are a swath of white, blue and bright yellow flowers. The forest is still a fresh green, the air clean after a spring rain. It feels so very good to be alive. It’s in this month that a friend of ours is diagnosed with a brain tumor. His father died of a brain tumor at almost the same age. We’re all afraid. And aware of our own vulnerability. We only have today, and today is so beautiful. And hurts so much.

Every day I go to the garden first thing and last thing with a pair of scissors to cut all the slugs I find in half. This evening, after a short rain, I cut a lot of them in half. If I don’t, they eat all my lettuce and the hearts out of my zucchini plants. Sounds cruel? My neighbour and others I know pick them off the plants into a pail and pour boiling water over them. Does that sound better? Or should I scatter those little blue pellets that eat their insides and kill them slowly? Life is a matter of survival of the fittest. Sometimes it’s the slug, sometimes it’s my food. Life just is not fair if you’re born a slug. Or if you have cancer. The lilacs and peonies are still beautiful though.

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The Power Within

Education is key to helping women discover the 'Power Within'

Education is key to helping women discover the ‘Power Within’

One reason I travelled to Zambia last month was to help an association seeking to provide a group of sex workers, who wish to exit their profession, with an alternate income option. We are linked with a local NGO that has successfully initiated about 20 women’s self-help groups in the Kitwe area. PLAEP works with the GROW concept (Grassroots building our wealth), which is supported by USAID. Prisca Kambole, director of PLAEP Kitwe, did a fantastic job of the three day workshop we sponsored to give the women some training both in personal and economic growth.

Maybe the one most important concept she taught was The Power Within. “This is the strength that arises from inside ourselves when we recognize the equal ability within to positively influence our own lives and our community,” she explained.  Most of these women became sex workers because they saw no other way to provide for themselves and their children. A good number of them were married or in relationships and the men died or left, leaving the women with children and no means to support them. Lack of education, lack of opportunities or the perception of such, lack of support and knowledge where to get it, all contributed to where they are today. None of the women liked what they were doing but they felt powerless to change. Prisca sought to bring out an awareness of the power each of them can find in themselves to make a difference in their circumstances.

Prisca asked me later what I thought might be a major cause of poverty among women. I was just reading “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who wrote what I hear so often – education is the key to lowering poverty among women. It is through education that women become aware of the power that they can have. Education makes them aware of their rights, gives them job opportunities, and exposes them to other ways of thinking and being.

Education is important for all, but especially so for women and girls!

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Money Counters and Keepers of the Keys

the youngest keeper of the keys (well, her mother)

the youngest keeper of the keys (well, her mother)

The group of women gathered in Irene’s porch listen attentively as Ali explains how a GROW group functions. All of them struggle to feed their families and pay the rent. They’re hopeful that GROW will help them improve their economic status. GROW is one of a number of community banking concepts that are changing the way especially women in Zambia and other parts of Africa are managing money. It’s a simple concept, really. 10-20 women meet every week, bringing a compulsory amount of money to bank in the cash box, to which they can add a voluntary amount.

the money counters

the money counters

The ‘bank’ is both a place to save and to borrow from. Women can borrow up to twice the amount they have deposited, with 10 percent interest, the full amount to be paid back within a designated period. The cash box has three locks, which three separate women hold, and is kept by a fourth to protect its contents. Two women are designated as money counters, two others as bookkeepers. Accountability is everything.
a community banking group

a community banking group

A week ago I helped facilitate a three day workshop for these women. A main focus of the workshop was the power each woman has within her and how to harness that power. Health – mental, emotional , physical and spiritual – was discussed. Prisca Kambole and Rose Mwale of the PLAEP organisation encouraged the women to think as entrepreneurs, and taught them basic business concepts. All this was to prepare the women for the formation of a GROW group.

It was exciting to be both at the workshop and the first meeting of the Kabalika (the light has come) group!

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Zambia: conservation farming prevents hunger

Ruth Miyanza's corn crop is proof that conservation farming works

Ruth Miyanza’s corn crop is proof that conservation farming works.

A little yellow bird flits in the fig tree, the gardener is pulling weeds around the profusely blooming poinsettia bush – Eva’s garden is a welcome retreat from the last busy days in Kitwe, Zambia. I arrived Tuesday night to a veritable tropical downpour, after more than a month of drought during the rainy season. This rain probably saved many a late corn crop, whilst putting those almost mature at the risk of fungus.

And that’s the story of my week too. I’ve seen wonderful things and hard things. Thursday I went out to the farm of friends, which we had a small hand in helping. Ruth and Adrian Miyanza moved out to a farm in the bush after retirement, in their early sixties. They are professionals – she a teacher, he an engineer. They own a nice house in town, which they rented out to help develop the farm. Friends and family declared them out of their minds. Who wouldn’t! They lived in a board shack for more than a year, with hardly more than room for their double bed and some shelves for clothing; a tin roof keeping the downpours of two rainy seasons off their heads. Adrian said to me, “You could fear that a snake would crawl into the bed with you.” I saw the shack, when I visited a year ago, after they had just moved into their not-quite-yet-finished new brick house. I would be tempted to agree with their friends, if I hadn’t seen how happy they were.
My friend Mate drove me out. As we passed corn fields he commented on how poorly they were this year, due to the erratic rains. Ruth and Adrian crop using the conservation farming method, one that builds up the soil and improves yields. Robert and I had continually recommended this practice when consulting with small farmers in previous years. Precisely in drought periods it is supposed to be far superior to conventional methods. I was not disappointed. Ruth took me around their fields (they are small scale farmers, four fields that together make one hectare). The corn cobs were beautiful, as in a bumper year. I will recommend this method with more confidence than ever. The Miyanzas had accomplished much in the last year, adding a goat and sheep herd, increasing their chicken flock, and adding other crops, especially vegetables in the dry season as they now had the capability to water.
It was so good to see the progress this couple made. (I should add that Ruth and Adrian have farming blood and have been farming on the side for years). I just wish more farmers would embrace the technology, which is so simple. More are, but not enough. There’s still too much hunger out in the villages.
The hard: next time. I’ve gotten myself involved with a project involving prostitutes. Now, that’s a whole other ‘ball game’ altogether!

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When hunger has a face…

Village children in Zambia with a full cob of Maize

Village children in Zambia with a full cob of Maize

“Are we to starve???” Vivienne writes me in a Facebook message. She’s relating to the worries of Zambian small-scale farmers who are facing a massive reduction of their maize (corn) harvest due to a rainy season that has ended far too early. While Vivienne grows the food for her family on a small farm outside the city, her family isn’t likely to be one of those really hungry. She has a regular job in the city, so will make it through. But I know families who aren’t so lucky. We’ve visited those families on our field tours; they’re part of the farm project we’ve worked with. When Jessy tells me that half of his maize crop hasn’t filled out the cobs, I know that there are families whose whole field won’t have filled out. Families who will be going hungry. We’re used to reading about hunger in Africa, but when the news has a face I know, it really affects me. Another friend told me of planting 10,000 tree seedlings, which have all died because of lack of rain. My friends are suffering.

I’m leaving for Zambia myself on Easter Monday for a four-week visit. There is a women’s project in Kitwe I am working with that I want to follow up on. I want to bring the women who gave me their stories for my book, “Laughter in the Shadows”, their personal copies. Now I worry what else I will find. I will keep you posted.

Maize is the staple crop in Zambia, from which most people derive their food. It’s planted at the beginning of the rainy season and harvested somewhere in May/June. The rainy season is supposed to start beginning of November and go to end of March, into April. The rains were late this year, in some areas not arriving until mid December, and ended far too early. Many maize cobs have not filled out, meaning there is not going to be an adequate harvest for its owners. Zambia has 1.4 million small farmers. Most of these depend on their maize crop for food security. There will be a good amount of rural families that will be going hungry this year. Hungry doesn’t mean missing a meal once in a while. A friend told me that many families regularly only eat every two days during the normal hunger period between crops, generally between January and March. What is going to happen when there is no or very little new crop?

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Right to vote 25 years old today

Landsgemeinde Appenzell Innerrhoden, picture from website of CVP Party, Appenzell

Landsgemeinde Appenzell Innerrhoden, picture from website of CVP Party, Appenzell

25 years ago today the last Swiss women received the right to vote. Yes, you read right. Most Swiss women were given voting rights in 1971, which is only 44 years ago too. But the women in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden (there are 26 cantons in Switzerland) were made an exception. They would have to wait another 19 years. What sounds like serious discrimination against women has its roots in a deeply entrenched tradition, the Landsgemeinde. The men of Appenzell Innerrhoden (a mountain region) met once a year to vote on all cantonal issues – choosing their government, making decisions on larger financial and business issues. The day began with a special church service, then the parade (dress in traditional clothing) to the village square, where a tribunal was set up. The men lined up in the square, each with his bayonet by his side. Voting was done by raising the bayonet, which was passed down in the family through many generations. It was a lovely show. And not one that the men were going to give up without a big fight.
The women won, eventually. Even a country as steeped in tradition as Switzerland cannot deny its citizens its basic rights forever. The day still begins with the church service and parade, the men still vote by bayonet if they have one. But the women are there too now, with a ballot card.
There are voices that say that having to be physically present at the election square is discriminating against those who are sick or away. Or that the show of ballot cards or bayonets may sway some people to vote other than they would if the vote was private. But here, at least, tradition stands firm. The next Landsgemeinde will be held April 26, 2015. If you’re in the area, it would be worth checking out!

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It’s spring! For Emmi too.

Emmi's spring garden last year. The primula are just starting to bloom again now.

Emmi’s spring garden last year. The primula are just starting to bloom again now.

Gone are the dark, grey days, gone (almost) is the snow. For at least a week already the skies are clear blue. The sun’s rays wake up primula, snow drops and crocuses. I love it! It’s spring, or at least, pre-spring. People meet on the street and their faces reflect the radiance of the day. Not just nature re-awakes but human beings too. Folks are friendlier, stop to talk. My neighbours are out in the garden, snipping this twig, cleaning up that corner. It’s bound to turn cold yet, even snow again, but the promise is real. There is a spring after the winter.

My mother-in-law, Emmi Stamm, went to heaven for spring. At the end of a long winter (literally and figuratively for her), she passed away very suddenly and peacefully at 92 years of age. The village church was full for her funeral. Emmi was a passionate woman in all she did. She loved to farm; to be outside in the field or garden. Her children tell of days out in the mature grain fields, bringing her the sheaves so she could build the stooks; of how she spread the loose hay on the wagon before there were balers, her sturdy legs scratched red from the stalks. She raised seven children in the days before automatic washers, forget about dishwashers. She knew what it was to have little and to have plenty and was generous and gracious in both.

I inherited Emmi’s garden. When I sit beside the snow drops and baby hyacinths with a cup of coffee, I think of her planting them with anticipation. When I pick her raspberries I can taste her jam – and remember that she always shared the berries and the jam with whoever was passing by. She never let someone out of the yard without giving them something; even if it meant she had to cut my tulips to do so – I didn’t always appreciate it then! But I never missed the tulips and learned to be more generous myself.

The folks in the care home miss her, both the personnel and the clients. Everyone that came up to her got a kiss if they didn’t escape first, and were told “I love you!” She was a gracious thankful person to her last day, even if she didn’t remember anyone’s names or faces anymore.

We also miss her, but we’re glad she is released from the prison of her body. It’s spring for Emmi too.

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“Go, Grandma, Go!” – Fan Power

Speedskating on the world famous outdoor rink in Davos, Switzerland

Speedskating on the world famous outdoor rink in Davos, Switzerland

Coming out of a difficult curve I heard his three-year-old voice urging me on: “Go, Grandma, go!” It gave me that extra umph of energy heading into the last lap of the race. Fan power. There weren’t many fans in the stands Sunday afternoon for the Schaffhausen Short-Track Club competition. We’re a small club with not quite 20 members, almost half of us kids or beginners, I one of the newest. The stands are cold; it takes a dedicated family member to sit there when it’s nicer outside.
Our coach encouraged us to return to the locker-room between heats so we’d keep warm. But none of us wanted to miss the races of our fellow club members. We cheered each one on, especially the slower ones. It was great fun. We’ve got some first class club members and to watch them fight for first place was exhilarating. We agonized with the girl that skated a great race to fall just before the win. I fell once too, and skated the last lap alone – the important thing was to finish the race. Each time I skated by the team stand, I heard our coach’s voice, “You’re doing well, Marianne – keep going!” It was a vocal energy drink. I crossed the finish line raising my arms in triumph. I’d done it!
The best part of the day for me was after the competition, when I went to greet my family in the stands. Each one of them had a big smile, from the three-year-old grandsons, to their parents, my husband and his sister. “We’re so proud of you!” they said. I don’t think I could have been happier if I’d won a gold medal. I’d come in almost last, being so new to the sport, but they acted as if I’d been first.
Six weeks ago I heard about the short-track club in Schaffhausen. Growing up in northwestern Canada, I’d been on skates since a child. I love to skate, love the speed and the rush. I’m proof that 56 is not too old to join a sports club for the first time in your life. And not too old to learn firsthand how important even the youngest fan is to morale!

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