Cover Story

From hopelessness to hope

The bad news is that so many anti-poverty projects in Africa fail. The good news is that those who learn from the past are not doomed to repeat it, as a visit to a thoughtfully designed AIDS orphanage and development project shows

Issue: "Saving Isaac," Nov. 10, 2007

CHISAMBA, Zambia- It's 7:15 Monday morning in a cement-block house near this country's major highway, the paved, two-lane Great North Road. Supervisor Peter Phiri, who worked at building that road for five years during the 1990s, is speaking to 40 employees starting their workweek in a country where AIDS, unemployment, and corruption are all rampant. They sit on planks held up by cement blocks in the building their own hands constructed, a house that will soon be home to 8-10 AIDS orphans and a widow.

Intense and energetic, Phiri tells them, "It's up to you, up to me, to choose. Pray to God to give you a right choice. Remember that without Jesus you can't accomplish anything." HIV statistics in Africa show that many have chosen wrongly. The well-documented failure of many government and big philanthropic projects shows that many would-be helpers have chosen wrongly.

But the 230-acre Village of Hope farm here, located 45 miles north of the capital city, Lusaka, is a small-scale project designed and managed by those who have gained ground-level experience in the peculiar challenges that Africa offers. The project has Africans in key positions. The pieces of employment, orphan care, agriculture, and entrepreneurship fit together so the project can be self-sustaining. The project is designed to fight the welfare mentality that has grown in Africa as the West has poured in money. If it succeeds here, it can and will be replicated.

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The typical day here begins with a half-hour of call-and-response harmonic singing and Christian education provided by Zambian evangelicals such as Phiri and a local preacher, Pastor Zulu. Then some of the workers pick peanuts off plants harvested several weeks ago and left in the sun to dry. (They store the peanuts in large sacks, with dried stems used for animal feed.) Others harvest sunflower seeds, which will be turned into oil. Some paint a new orphans' house or apply mortar by a doorframe.

On some days employees clear the brush and remove the stumps from acres on which corn, soybeans, sunflowers, cassava, and peanuts will grow. Others manufacture the thousands of construction blocks (five parts sand, one part cement) that go into building 900-square-foot, three-bedroom cottages for the orphans. Some dig out 75-by-60-foot fishponds in which tilapia will grow. In plowing season some guide the oxen, and others year-round pick up oxen dung to use it for compost.

Eleven of the employees, selected by a local committee, are part-time students in Village of Hope's conservation farming program. One day they had classroom training in the spacing of various plants, information they will soon put into practice in the fields. They learn business and marketing skills for managing the sale of their produce, and after they prove themselves will be able to do a lease-purchase for title deeds to their own land through a partnering program: The goal is "Land for landless orphans."

The emphasis overall is on village-level technology with no wasted resources. The wood stockpiled during the stumping of the farm goes for fires for lunchtime cooking. The goal in the fields is pinpoint use of fertilizer and drip irrigation, rather than capital-intensive and wasteful spraying and watering. A VitaGoat cycle grinder, based on a design created in the United States 30 years ago, grinds corn and soybeans through a pedal-powered system like that of a bicycle which uses adjustable-speed pulleys. Adjustable speeds can be matched to the operator's strength and the type of food, with seating adjustable to the individual's height.

Some of the operations have a Rube Goldberg quality to them. For example, to turn two kilograms of soybeans into 12 liters of soy milk: (a) Put soybeans in a funnel; (b) peddle that bicycle-like contraption hooked up to a belt and the funnel; (c) when the belt moves a grinder turns soybeans into a mash; (d) collect the mash and mix it with water; (e) through two other steps within a boiler create "superheated steam"; (f) put the mash into a pressure cooker; (g) open a valve in the boiler so the steam enters the pressure cooker; (h) put salt and sugar in a tub below the pressure cooker's spigot; (i) when the hot mash comes down and fills a bucket, solid remnants are stopped by a filter, but the liquid enters the tub; (j) stir the tub; (k) use a press to get more liquid out of the remnants; (l) use the remnants for tofu and breakfast porridge; (m) taste the delicious, sweet soy milk.

The larger goal of the Village of Hope is not soy milk but behavior: Workers as they follow the steps and watch the pressure gauges learn diligence and responsibility. And a larger goal yet is souls. Some of the employees told their stories:

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