Charity as a Drop in the Bucket: Day 5

05/12/2010 02:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I spent 9 days in Malawi trying to turn deformed maize, witchcraft, and HIV into catalysts of change. Join me and my Face-to-Face AIDS Project and see how our ideas of charity evolve with on-the-ground experiences.


Bad News About Maize That Didn't Grow Kernels

Bad news. And just before our visit to Kang'oma today. Yesterday, Lameck informed us that the harvest from our Kang'oma maize garden for HIV-positive families is down 75% from last year's bumper yield. Lameck is the director of the community-based organization that spearheads this maize project, and he's worried that we'll cut funding if we thought the project was failing.2010-05-06-1.After

Apparently, the maize grew, tasseled, and produced baby ears. But by harvest time, the ears had become deformed, with some cobs producing no kernels at all. For this famine-prone community, this maize failure could have devastating results on the village's food security. I wondered if the joyous reception we usually get when we arrive at Kang'oma would be a more somber affair today. I certainly wasn't in any mood to celebrate.

As we made our way through sweeping countryside punctuated by abrupt mountains that 2010-05-06-2.Afterremind me of Hawaii, we spotted a group of villagers faraway up the road. They were bouncing up and down, arms waving, and soon we heard their rhythmic song as they came running in dance toward us.

It was obvious that the residents of Kang'oma were not going to let a disastrous harvest get in the way of a proper reception to their village.

The First Step -- Getting to Know the Village Chief

Kang'oma, a typical Malawi rural community dependent on subsistence farming, has about 6,000 people living in a collection of 15 hamlets. There is no school, no electricity, no clinic. (OK, there's a government clinic about 3 miles away, but it has no water, no doctors, no nurses, and, no surprise, very little medicine.) Before we entered the picture in 2005, Kang'oma had never received outside aid.
On our first visit to Kang'oma, we discovered what it did have -- a respected, thoughtful head village chief. Over the next couple of years, we got to know the chief and his village and their problems with drought, flooding, and disease. People suffered from famine every time the crops failed, and that was often. And people were dying from what looked like AIDS, but no one knew if anyone had gotten tested.

In 2006, we asked the chief if any villager would volunteer to get tested. A few days later, we took 4 men and 2 women to get tested, after receiving the chief's word that whatever the results were, he himself would see that everyone would be treated with care and respect. Much to their relief, none of them tested positive, but the important thing was that they got tested and all of Kang'oma knew about it.

2010-05-06-5.AfterBy 2008, so many villagers had gone for testing that there now was a great many people who unfortunately did test positive. Something needed to be done for them, so it was decided that they'd participate in an innovative garden project on land donated by the chief. Each family would be responsible for its own small plot, while a few tasks like irrigating and fertilizing would be done collectively. All families would attend weekly group sessions on new agricultural practices, HIV counseling, and basic home economics. Importantly, all families had to help care for someone else's plot if that person fell ill and couldn't work.

At the end of the project's first year, participants reported a huge increase in harvest. This bumper crop not only ensured each family's food security, it also helped them invest in the future -- one family replaced a roof, another family bought chickens, another family paid for their children's school fees. One woman even donated her profits so that the village could buy supplies for its meager health care kit. All these profits were on top of the portion that each family gave to support the continuation of the garden project as well as the village's orphan feeding program.

The chief was elated, in part because this success was bringing other leaders from the area to Kang'oma to see for themselves what his village was doing, and to seek his advice.

A Project That Fights AIDS by Not Fighting AIDS

At the end of the first year's harvest, we were elated that the HIV-positive families had done so well. But the big news came after the garden participants had finished reporting. To our surprise, men who were not part of the project began standing up and announcing that they had gone for testing and had tested positive for HIV -- and then they asked us if it would be possible to participate in the next season's maize project. This was stunning. Here were men -- men! -- announcing in front of their neighbors that they were HIV positive. There were even men saying that they went to get tested but their results were HIV negative -- but could they still participate in the program?

Here in this village, the stigmatized were becoming role models. Here major steps towards fighting HIV were being made by not fighting HIV. By leapfrogging over HIV to fight HIV -- or more precisely, using HIV as a means to achieve a greater goal, which for Kang'oma was food security.

The True Meaning of Success for Kang'oma

So back to the present. Here I am, entering Kang'oma at the end of this second year of the project. They had a lousy harvest, and it didn't seem right that their mood was exuberant. As we were escorted, running, into the village by the children, the women took over with energetic singing, dancing, and laughing until we arrived at the center of Kang'oma where all the leaders were waiting for us.
True, the mood was serious when they showed us the deformed maize. And it was disheartening to hear how some of the participants had dismal harvests. But I was amazed that in spite of such poor results, there wasn't a sense of negativity. Farmers stood up, reported that they had harvested 5 bags of maize (instead of the usual 20), and went on to say that they had still been able to achieve something -- be it to buy vegetable seed, or to pay for school fees.

We discovered that those who had better harvests shared their good fortunes with those who 2010-05-06-7.Afterhad bad harvests. And, like last year, new people stood up saying they tested positive and asking to be part of the project. No one complained to us, which, if you've sat through meetings in this part of the world, you'd know is a rare phenomenon. Why was Kang'oma so happy?

I'm not sure why the village's mood was so much better than mine, but I can say that over the next few days, there emerged a promise of hope that was far more profound than simply achieving a good harvest. While no one could say for sure what caused the bad harvest -- perhaps bad seed, uneven rainfall, lack of wind during pollination, or some combination -- Lameck and the other project leaders came up with ways to improve the chance for a good harvest.

Here are some of the ideas that they came up with: Using banana leaves to divert rain, especially when it falls in hard, short downpours that carry off topsoil. Planting trees in the fields to help retain soil moisture, and to provide food, firewood, and building materials. Shaking the tassels during pollination if the winds are absent. And checking the expiration date on seed bags, and being sure to purchase them from main government supply centers rather than district branch stores.

They also wanted to continue their training sessions for chiefs and community leaders in neighboring villages; word was getting out that something different was happening in Kang'oma and requests for more outreach education was rising. Finally, Lameck wanted to tie in a home-based care training program to the garden project, so that the community could learn more about nutrition, disease care and prevention, and basic medicines.

For about $13,000, this project can continue for another year. I have to get my board's approval for this (after all, we'll have to raise this amount) especially because we decided to support projects that become less reliant over the years on outside help. Our Kang'oma project does keep actively changing and improving, and I'm comforted in that it's far less than the $300,000 a year it takes to run a Millennium Village Project -- which serves about the same number of people. There's a better chance that our model is more replicable among the thousands of other poor communities in Africa.
The true success of the Kang'oma project lies in its ability to nurture an attitude of thinking positively and creatively to solve one's own problems. It enables village chiefs and leaders to believe that their communities can survive the inevitable droughts, floods, and diseases without big handouts from foreign sources. And it offers people in surrounding villages a chance to replicate for their own what they see as a better, happier life in Kang'oma.

We'll have to wait until next year to see if the changes they've made to the project are worthwhile or not. But I for one can't wait to see how banana leaves can be used to divert water in one of those hard and heavy African downpours...


Ken Wong is the director of the Face-to-Face AIDS Project, a documentary and charity-focused 501(c)3 nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York. Please consider supporting the residents of Kang'oma make their maize garden project a success. Your donation of $30 a month will be the equivalent of supporting one household's participation in the project. To donate to our Kang'oma Maize Garden fund, visit the Contact & Donate page at, and include a message indicating that you want your donation to go for Kang'oma maize garden.