I learned the importance of having a Plan B the easy way; by not having one. I was assigned to a new USAID project in Togo. Its stated goal, training oxen to pull plows, is formally known as ‘animal traction’.
Peace Corps sent twenty of us off to Texas to spend a month learning how to get bulls to take the yoke. That, unfortunately, often required us to ‘convince’ them they wanted to learn to plow. We learned to corner the lumbering beasts using whatever means we had available. Then we’d get a rope on their heads below their horns and another rope on one of their hind legs. This allowed a third person to drop the yoke on the first ox’s neck and to lock the securing mechanism. Then we’d start in on the second one.
Once we yoked the pair together, what followed was a down right raucous affair. Our ‘beef’, as we called them, would invariably break free of us after a snorting rant. They would then race off and smash headlong into trees. Or they’d get themselves completely turned around so that one ox’s body was on each side of the yoke. It looked cartoonish to see animals dragging volunteers down dirt roads. Others were gored and tossed in the air like rag dolls. It was all very frightening and great fun, and more difficult than I ever would have thought.
On a work front, I was having problems introducing beef to yokes in Kpagouda. What surprised me more was how reluctant the famers were to use them. In Kpagouda, like most of Togo, farming consisted of whacking at hard-packed soil with little short-handled hoes. The farmers bent in half, knees locked, to strike the ground. They bobbed like those toy birds that continuously peek for water after you start them with a push. It was back-breaking work.
These farmers were the very definition of ‘substance farmers’. They worked every daylight minute of the planting season. But even so they were barely able to harvest enough millet to tide them over for the year. Sometimes they weren’t even able to do that. ‘So sorry, Anasara’ (local language word for ‘outsider’), they informed me, ‘but we don’t have time to see if this crazy idea of getting oxen to pull plows will work’. They were too busy making sure their families didn’t starve. And they were happy enough to keep doing things the way they had been doing them for several thousand years.
The more I got to know these men, the more I came to appreciate their perspective. First, the soil of northern Togo is densely packed red volcanic laterite. It actually looks more like pebbles in concrete than dirt. Second, the rains come in such brief intervals that the planting season is a matter of precise timing. And third, they plant yams, their primary food source, in three foot high earthen mounds. No matter how well trained your oxen are, they’ll never be able to plow the soil into three foot mounds.
And then there was the fact that what I was proposing they farm was a completely foreign product – upland rice. I explained that there was a good market for rice in the capital. We’d sell it there and then they’d have enough cash to buy the yams they hadn’t produced themselves.
Further, I would help them form cooperatives and then give them two bulls on lay-away, to be paid off as their income increased. By the time I finished explaining, I myself was questioning the distant agricultural expert who had come up with the cockamamie plan.
When I told my USAID project officer about the farmers’ resistance to our plan, he said, “No problem. That’s what PL480 is for.” I had never heard the term before, but said I’d check it out.
PL480 stands for ‘Public Law 480’. It is a law better known as ‘Food for Peace’. Food for Peace is one of the few proven, long-standing development activities run by USAID. It is effective because it provides both the U.S. farmers and the aid recipients with a win. Here’s how it works: The US government buys up surplus US grain, and other over-produced commodities. These purchases bolster the domestic market price by constraining the supply. The surplus is then given away at foreign disaster sites. We package it in those big bags emblazoned with the symbol of two hands clasped in front of an American flag.
Turns out there was a PL480 program in Togo. The guy running the program for USAID agreed to meet. After I explained my farmers’ dilemma, he agreed to keep enough PL 480 on hand to guarantee their food security. In fact, he said, he had a truck coming up my way so he’d have it swing by and make a preliminary delivery. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. “One thing, though,” he said, extending his hand. “You have to promise not to use the food for anything other than as a backup food supply for the ox-plowing farmers.” I shook and said we had a deal.
A couple weeks later I was out working with my newly invigorated farmers. A villager pulled up on a bicycle and breathlessly said that a bunch of people were looking for me. He added that a truck was waiting at the Ag extension office. “Big truck,” he said, widening his eyes in a comical look of surprise, like he’s never seen a truck before. I kicked my recently arrived motorcycle to life and skidded my way back into town.
I found the people who were looking for me. They were among a large group of villagers who had come out to gawk at an enormous 18 wheeler. The vehicle was so big that it blocked the entire road. The truck driver spoke rapidly, miming the movement of the contents of his rig into a nearby building. The building was the Ag extension office storage shed.
My friend Sebou, the extension agent, came up and told me that the driver had a rig full of PL480 food. His instructions were to deliver it to no one but me. It took me awhile to understand that he was talking about the entire shipment – about 500 cubic feet of food. And then the driver informed me he needed to see it under lock and key…and watched over by a guard. “One hundred bags are the food you requested,” the driver informed me. “You have to store the rest for us to distribute in case of an emergency. But the cost of your getting part of the food is that you have to keep the rest of it safe.”
Holy shit, I’m thinking, 500 cubic feet of food, plus now I need to find a guard? Anyway, what ended up happening was that I had this huge pile of guarded food. So with the certainty of food for the coming year, the farmers agreed to use the oxen. They had a backup plan. But while they now had a backup plan, as it played out, I was the one who needed one. This is what happened:
The previous year had been a bad one for rain. By the middle of the dry season a lot of people in my village were running out of food. Of course everyone in the area knew about my warehouse full of food. It wasn’t long before some of those who were hungry showed up at my door. I explained to each of them the promise I had made. “Sorry, it isn’t my food to give away.”
I remember one time a young woman came and held a baby in outstretched arm. “I know you are not giving us any food, and I don’t want the food for myself. But do you think you could spare something for my starving baby?” Her husband, who was with her, looked embarrassed by his inability to provide for his family. He stood a little ways off, turning on occasion to look at me while wringing his hands. I shook my head and repeated my oath to the PL-480 Man. She met my explanations with a look of incomprehension, then incredulity, then disdain.
The scene, often repeated, always ended in quiet despair. I remained uncompromising, determined not to give away any food regardless of the need. The begging continued for a while, but people eventually came to realized that I wasn’t going to budge.
About the same time, I noticed a certain wariness in my interactions with the villagers. It seemed my friends had seen a new aspect of this American…and what they saw was deeply troubling.
At the end of the season all but one of my cooperatives proved able to cover their food needs through the sale of their rice. The amount of food needed by the single unsuccessful cooperative was small. It didn’t put a dent in the enormous pile of meal-filled sacks. One day around this time, Sebou came knocking at my door. “I have bad news about the remaining food,” he said. “It’s all gone bad…it’s rotten. Filled with maggots. We have to figure out how to dispose of it. Come and have a look.”
I marched up to the warehouse for an inspection. Sure enough, every bag had succumbed to the local humidity and burst. Maggots teemed from the open grain sacks. I shook my head in dismay and arranged with a cattle feed lot to come and haul the wasted food away.
When the truck arrived, a fire brigade line of local farmers passed the rotted meal bags hand to hand. One man slipped and the bag fell, spraying corn meal all around. An old woman raced forward and began sweeping the meal into her wash basin. “I know you won’t let us touch it, but this is for my chickens,” she barked, unable to hide her fury. “Or is that also something else you won’t allow?”
To bring a little closure here, let me cut to how the story ends. Two years later I left Togo and returned to the States. I got a temporary job working as what’s called a ‘Staging Coordinator’ for the Peace Corps. Staging refers to the brief time new trainees are in the U.S. before heading off to their posts. It allows them time to complete administrative details, like getting all the required shots. But we also ran new recruits through a few activities designed to give them a taste of the years ahead.
I made my PL480 saga into a three part tale. I stopped at key points to ask what the recruits thought about the problems that I posed. For example, I stopped at the point at which the farmers said they couldn’t take up oxen plowing. Then I explained that they were afraid to risk their food supply. At the end, I asked them if I had done the right thing in steadfastly denying the villagers my food. I asked what I could have done to achieve a better outcome. By then, I’d had a long time to think about it myself and I had staked out my position. In retrospect I realized I had made two errors, the second more significant than the first. First, I had accepted many times more food than I had requested and I had no real idea what to do with it. I should have at least checked with someone at USAID. Second, I had failed to engage community leaders in any part of the process. I now know I should have engaged them at every step along the way.
A more perceptive, less head strong volunteer would have understood. The only way to make things work in an African village, or in development anywhere, is to have community support. In that sense, I had sown the seeds of my own failure from the start. It was a difficult lesson to learn. It helped that I had the outlet of Staging to tell my Ancient Mariner tale. I can only hope it spared somebody the woes I had bought upon myself.