Where The Grass Is Becoming Greener

Can we just stop and talk about the weather for a moment?

No, not because I’ve spent my entire adult life in Britain and miss my adoptive land. I want us to discuss the freak weather we’ve been having – a phenomenon whose unpredictability seems to be the only reliable constant – because it’s relevant to today’s project.

I want to talk to you about the Green Belt Initiative project in Salima, Malawi. The initiative is run by COOPI, an Italian NGO, and funded by the European Union (EU). And our impending weather conversation is the first stepping stone toward understanding its incredible importance.

So the weather, huh? It’s been quite crazy lately, and by “lately” I mean for quite a number of years. Say what you will about climate change – nobody can deny that the shifting weather patterns of the past decade are worrying. Not because of the slight of inconvenience of having to wear a winter jacket in April or the unexpected sweltering heat of a September afternoon in Oslo.

Back home in the West we’ll sometimes hear about the farmers on the news. Phrases like “subpar harvest” or “sudden frost” get thrown around with relative frequency, but for most of us they are notes from another universe. Our economies have changed and agriculture now tiptoes on the periphery. That’s not the case in Malawi though.

Take the simple cycle of rain and drought for example. Back in 2015 the country was hit by flooding, a short rainy season and a subsequent period of severe drought. All of this combined resulted in a 27% decrease in agricultural producing, not only depriving the farmers of their livelihood but also adding to the suffocating climate of food insecurity.

The COOPI initiative, made possible with EU’s support, is all about strengthening food security in the region and teaching the community how to effectively respond to natural crises. They aim to support the local community in Salima – as well as Mangochi and nearby districts – by teaching them about disaster risk reduction, good agricultural practice and irrigation among others.

My visit mainly revolved around irrigation which worried me a little. Irrigation is not a particularly engaging topic – it’s a simple exercise in redirecting water flows and making sure previously dry areas get a reliable supply of moisture.

“How will I be able to turn this into an interesting story?” I fretted in the run up to my visit. Explaining its benefits seemed passé. Nobody needs me to explain to them why improved irrigation leads to better harvests and a reduction in hunger, as well as poverty. I needed a different angle, one that was unique to the this particular project.

I found it completely by chance with the local women and children. It seemed a funny coincidence, as they are the first to lose out when the going gets tough. Low food stocks? Dipping household income? Women and children are more vulnerable than anyone.

Perhaps it is because of this fact that they also seem to be the answer to changing local attitudes. My first bolt of inspiration came in the form of a women’s group focused on teaching climate smart agriculture practice. Instead of taking a fact heavy approach that wouldn’t work well in the local environment they raise awareness through the medium of music and dance.

Their particular spheres of interest are reforestation and soil protection. Aside from addressing their communities they also reach out to village leaders and encourage them to take an active stance in the matter. I wasn’t able to get any statistics as the initiative is relatively new but it certainly seems their lectures aren’t going unnoticed.

Initially the women’s group had 24 members but in the space of several months it grew to 35 – and it continues to attract more. They’ve managed to replant scores of trees and have gotten many people interested in the climate debate.

My second encouraging experience came from a group of children at a local school. The headmaster, Gift German, seemed very eager to introduce me to a board game they like to play at lunch time but it took me a while to understand his excitement.

I’d enjoyed the small tree nursery they’d planted on school property and which they used to educate the pupils. But I failed to see how a simple board game was going to have the same effect. That was until I saw it!

The playing board stretched across the floor like a gigantic map. It turns out that’s exactly what it was – a map of the local area complete with signs showing where one might find important buildings like the local hospital, churches and mosques, as well as the very school we were standing in.

But there was more. Each player would move across the board much like you do in a game of Monopoly, picking up cards with different tasks along the way. The words “Nature Reserves Management Game Board” don’t quite give away how much fun the game seemed to be.

The students were so engaged that they barely seemed to realise how much they were learning along the way. Words of good environmental practice, from natural disaster relief to nutrition, rolled of their tongues with no effort – and they were laughing as they answered each question!

I was amazed by the simplicity of the exercise. It was the epitome of making learning fun and completely seamless. This is precisely the type of education method that will deposit the facts deep within your brain, to be carried with you for the rest of your life.

When it comes to environmental protection we cannot afford to waste any more time. Certainly not in vulnerable communities like the one I visited in Salima. Seeing how much is being done to help the future generation start off on the right foot filled me with a lot of optimism. I’m so glad I got to visit this project and see a field where the grass truly is becoming greener, both literally and metaphorically speaking.

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