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Hope for rural Afghans

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Among the vegetables Afghans in the village of Jignan now grow are pumpkins, lettuce, cabbages, cauliflower, carrots, and tomatoes. Oxfam helped train villagers in the cultivation of the new seeds.

Severe winters and a short growing season make it challenging for many people of Daikundi Province in Afghanistan to produce enough food for a healthy diet. And when unexpected spells of heat coupled with poor rainfall hit the region—as they did last spring—villagers faced an ominous future. With the soil crusted over, many farmers found the ground too hard to plow.

Even one event like this—and there are others including flash floods, shortages of fodder, drought—can have devastating consequences on the availability of food, especially for people who depend heavily on their animals and agriculture. Decades of conflict have prevented many of them from being able to strengthen or diversify their means of making a living.

It is harsh realities like these that a $250,000 Oxfam program has helped to remedy for 2,000 families in 40 villages scattered through the Daikundi and Bamiyan provinces. With high-quality seeds, some technical training, and a boost from a supply of fertilizer, families were able to grow a whole range of produce.

"This is the first time in my life that I have eaten these vegetables," said one 65-year-old resident of Jingan village, showing off a pumpkin plucked from a garden that also produced lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, and tomatoes. "We now save money and have a better diet."

But the program has done more than just help people produce new harvests. It has planted the seeds for their future development, too. Literacy classes for women, construction of a pair of greenhouses, and training in animal breeding to improve local herds were also among the projects initiated in this remote region.

Though a great deal remains to be done before villages can wrench themselves free of crippling poverty, projects that help people improve their standard of living have fed the aspirations of many.

"I hope that one day I will be able to read and write and will know what is happening the world around us," said a young mother named Razia, who brings her one-year-old daughter to the literacy classes sponsored by Oxfam in the village of Gochan.

The literacy classes, held in 20 communities, have been so popular that villagers have asked Oxfam to offer them for men as well. For girls who have never had the opportunity to go to school, the classes give them the basics in reading and writing—with the hope that some students will be able to continue with their educations in nearby schools.

Education, in fact, is the basis for much of this rural development initiative—from villagers learning about new seeds to improved husbandry practices. The ultimate goal is to help make sure that food is more readily available for many of the people in these rugged communities. Families chosen to participate include those caring for handicapped children, ones headed by women, and households without land and little opportunity to earn an income. All told, about 14,000 people have indirectly benefitted from the program.

How does your garden grow?

With basic diets of bread, tea, and only occasionally a bit of mutton, villagers showed particular interest in learning about vegetable gardening. In separate classes for men and women, participants learned how to cultivate an array of new seeds, how to fertilize the soil, and when to harvest the vegetables and process them, too.

But challenges remain. Adverse weather and limited water often add up to small harvests. And farmers need more training on sustainable approaches to agriculture, such as through the creation of seed banks.

The establishment of orchards—a new activity for many people—also sparked interest. Thirty farmers each received 100 saplings including walnuts, pears, apples, almonds, apricots, and peaches. And 10 farmers also got the tools needed to graft fruit trees to aid in the creation of new orchards. Courses offered farmers training on the establishment and management of nurseries and garden design.

Oxfam also provided training on animal breeding and livestock management. A total of 26 new calves were born under the program and 20,000 animals received vaccinations against a host of ills including parasites and liver worms.

"Given the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and the past decades of conflict and insecurity, the local communities still have a long way to go in establishing sustainable community structures, livelihoods and environmental protection," said a final report on the project.

What's the answer? Oxfam sees the need for a long-term commitment to these villages so that local people can become empowered to undertake development initiatives that would ensure greater food security for everyone.

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