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I am in a small village, Wado Makhil, in Somaliland. This village is on the border with Ethiopia. When I say border I mean  this small piece of string slug between two trees that separates the territories of the two countries.  Children from the village routinely cross the string and go to the school on the other side. The main water source is any way on the other side of the string. There is no well defined road, unless you call a rapidly changing mud track a road, to the village. After driving for about 20 minutes on a tarmac road from Hargeisa, we turned off into the open shrubland. Everything looked the same. How people get from anywhere to anywhere is a wonder. I am told by the locals that ‘losing your way’ is quite common especially when it rains and the ‘roads’ fill up forcing one to take detours.

In the village, I meet Nimco (photo alongside).  Just a couple of years ago, Nimco was just like the other women I met in the village. Married, 4 kids and rarely travelled beyond the immediate neighbourhood.  She would take care of the kids, the home, the livestock the family had and in her spare time tend to the family fields.

Then one day something changed. Some development workers from Oxfam and HAVOYOCO came into the village. They were part of a project which aimed to support communities, such as the one Nimco stayed in, to build their resilience to the frequent droughts. The project aimed to enhance livelihood systems, work on disaster risk reduction and also try and improve governance. Nimco got selected into a women’s group that was to be supported with livestock; goats really. The group would be supplied with goat kids which were expected to be fattened and then sold at a profit in the market. With the proceeds the women were expected to buy more goat kids and the cycle was to continue.  Oxfam and partner were to provide training, access to veterinary support and help build linkages to the markets.

Nimco had one look at the programme and decided that her heart was not in it. She wanted to do something else. What does she do? She sells her first batch of goats and does not buy more. So did the project fail with Nimco? Well. Not exactly. Here is what happened.

Nimco decides to run a small restaurant in the village. Why a restaurant in the middle of nowhere? Well you see, taxis run regularly between this village on the border and the country capital Hargeisa,  2 odd hours away. People from neighbouring settlements come here to catch the taxis and they are dropped off here too. There is quite some ‘traffic’ passing through thevillage. Nimco decided to capitalise on it.

She was already a good cook. All she needed was to increase the quantities and add variety to her cooking. She needed small capital infusion to start. With the money from the sale of the first batch of goats, Nimco gets some rough tables and chairs for seating customers. She buys pots and pans and plates. The restaurant is up. In an extended shed in front of her home. Nimco gets a cell phone for herself.

She wades into the business. She has a simple system going.

She cooks up a meal in the morning; for customers and the family. Over time she has got the maths right – depending on the season and weather conditions she knows how much to prepare. Rarely there is any wastage she says. The food has to be finished on the same day because naturally there is no refrigeration possible.

Every 2-3 days she calls her supplier (a small retail shop) in Hargeisa and tells him what she needs. A regular taxi driver picks up the stuff and delivers to her shop. On the return he takes money and pays off the retailer. No doubt the taxi driver gets a small commission, sometimes money, sometimes a meal.

Nimco has been doing this for a few months now and can already feel the difference in her life. She no longer goes to work in the family fields; her husband manages. She can take care of the small kids since she is always ‘at home’. Her eldest daughter now goes to school since she does not have to stay behind to take care of the siblings. Nimco has an income that is clearly identified as her own. She controls it and that, she claims, has actually made family life much better. She has more say in what goes on in her home.

This interaction, though conducted through an interpreter, made my day. I came back inspired. There is no doubt that Nimco is an exceptional woman and who would probably have succeeded whether or not Oxfam and partner had landed up there. She knew what her strengths were, what was needed in the market, how to manage her supply chains. Not the words and the theory perhaps but she knew it or learnt it and leveraged her knowledge.

The interaction with Oxfam changed her life. Will it change Oxfam though?  I feel that there are lot of lessons for development workers in this story.

The most important one that I have taken away is to listen; to what the community has to say, to what the surroundings have to say.  Just because it is a agro-pastoral community; livestock and agriculture inputs are not the only livelihood enhancement possibilities. I admit that not everyone can open restaurants and run them profitably but there could be other options in people’s minds when we speak of livelihoods.

Another lesson is one of humility. Humility to know that we don’t have all the answers.  Many a time, the answers may lie outside us, in unexpected places. We need to learn to spot them.

Reminded of George Bernard Shaw who once said “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

We are supposed to be change agents. Can we change our minds?

Makarand

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