The President Meets Queen B and the Catfish

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27 TNIV

Queen B and Precious, the cow explain zero-grazing to the President, Revd. Dr. Martyn AtkinsI wasn’t aware being President of Methodist Council came with the privilege of declaring someone queen. But when Revd Dr Martyn Atkins met Betty he didn’t let this minor point of protocol stand in his way. ‘You are an inspiration!’ he declared. ‘You are the Queen B.’

What had inspired and enthused Martyn was how Betty, a single mother with eight children, has capitalised on the support she’s received from MRDF and transformed the lives of her family. We met Betty earlier this year, in Uganda, where I had taken the President to see the Methodist Relief and Development Fund’s work in action.

Betty separated from her husband when his abusive behaviour became too much to bear. Local staff explained to us how this in itself marks Betty out as a courageous woman: in Uganda many women remain in abusive marriages because of social pressure and a lack of opportunities for a woman to support herself. But Betty, and her family, are thriving, thanks to a low-interest loan and training to start subsistence farming in her own back yard.

The President with the members of the fish pond group, including the Chair, Prossy Ssekalala (2nd from right)In pride of place is, Precious, a zero-grazing cow. Zero-grazing may sound like a fad diet straight from the Sunday supplements, but as the President and I saw, it’s actually an ingenious form of dairy farming. Betty explained that ‘zero-grazing’ cows are fed on fodder, which the owner grows in their yard, rather than grass. It is ideal for a busy mum like Betty who doesn’t have the time or land to graze a cow. It also means Precious lives right by the house, so Betty can look after her eight children and the cow. Best of all, zero-grazing cows produce more milk, so it’s win-win-win for Betty, Precious and the family.

Precious doesn’t just contribute milk though. Her manure fertilises Betty’s vegetable garden, where a variety of iron-rich leafy greens grow; most of these are for the family, but some feed their free-range chickens. Betty is also growing mushrooms: in a cool dark shelter she has contraptions that look like a cross between a hanging basket and a grow-bag which are sprouting a crop of mushrooms. It might look funny, but it works! And Betty can sell her delicious mushrooms for about 500 Ugandan schillings (15p) a handful.

The fishing ban could have devastated this community but MRDF and KWTD never give up!Able to produce her own food, and with mushrooms and milk to sell, Betty can feed the family, pay the children’s school fees and repay the loan to the local partner. The interest on the loan is about 12%: much less than the 30% a bank would charge a ‘high risk borrower’ like Betty, and much cheaper and safer than borrowing from and unofficial lender.

That the loans are not interest free is important on many levels. It means the local partner can bring in funds to help others, giving all members of the community a stake in ongoing development. It means the recipient has an incentive to repay the loan quickly and become self-sufficient. And a small interest charge also means the borrower is entering a business arrangement, not receiving a handout: Betty has improved her ‘credit rating’ by demonstrating she can service a loan with interest. As Carol, a local field worker, told the President ‘Betty puts everything she learns into practice!’ and her credentials are, indeed, impeccable.

The President might not have jurisdiction to crown a queen, particularly in Uganda, but no one could argue with his sentiment.

Reflecting on the visit later, Martyn told me, ‘MRDF is getting the important things right. You focus on sustainable development, not topical sponsorship or emergency relief, and it’s this that has the highest calorific value in the long-term.’

There was certainly no shortage of miracle metaphors when we visited the fish farm that MRDF support is developing. It really is a small miracle for this community, whose livelihoods were destroyed by the lake fishing ban, to have the hope of brining in a daily catch again. Prossy Sseekalala, chair of the fishpond group, donated her own land for the pond we visited to be built. ‘We are very thankful – we would never have dreamt of fish farming!’ she told us.

The 350square metre pond, dug by local labour, is now home to lapia and catfish. The catfish act as a natural predator to keep the pond from becoming overcrowded by the lapia, but there is also a lucrative market for catfish in Sudan. The lapia, will be packed into iceboxes for delivery, and sold to local restaurants for about £1/kg.

The fishpond, like the other forms of farming that have been established, are run in a professional, business like way. This is not perceived as a charity handout but as a chance to work towards a self-sufficient future. The profits are being used to develop the business and Brian, the group’s technician, samples fish regularly and checks for diseases: he is proud to tell us the pond is completely disease free.

What the President saw that day really was typical of MRDF’s work, typical of the small and wonderful achievements that are made possible every day by our supporters generosity. A fishpond, a cow called Precious, nutritious food and money for children’s school fees. ‘I set off on this visit impressed by MRDF’s work,’ Martyn told me, ‘And I have come back convinced that my impressions were right. You have ‘fed the widows’, and I think God would be pleased.’

You can find out more about MRDF’s work at www.mrdf.org.uk .

From devastation to dynamism

The group explains the building and stocking of the pondCommunities on the shores of Lake Victoria had depended on fishing for generations. So when commercial fishing arrived – causing a serious drop in stocks and eventually a total fishing ban – their livelihoods were devastated.

But a group of women came together, determined to a save their community’s future. They wanted to find new ways to produce food and earn money through dairy cows and growing vegetables with small-scale organic farming.

This group, the Katosi Women Development Trust, was tiny when it first approached MRDF for funding. But the women’s resolve was evident. That was five years ago, and MRDF has been working with KWDT ever since. During that time MRDF has helped KWDT build its capacity with assistance on financial management, staff development and long term strategic planning. Through the partnership KWDT has flourished, becoming a dynamic force for locally led, sustainable development. The group’s activities are continually evolving to meet the needs the community identifies.

Out of the generosity of UK Methodists, via MRDF, this grassroots organisation has enabled people to grow skills and confidence. Children are now well nourished and their families can afford to send them to school: the community has been able to establish a strong position for itself from which to respond to the challenges of the future, whatever they might be.

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