Michael Gerson

KUDEMELA, Malawi -- Donata Kuchawo's cow pen is as clean as a well-tended garden. She has only one cow, but she owes it a great deal.

The animal divides her life into chapters. Before the cow, she scraped by on subsistence farming -- exhausting, back-bending work, rewarded only by survival. Her five children spent part of each year hungry. After getting the cow, she could sell its milk at the local dairy cooperative, providing year-round income. She paid the school fees for her children and bought fertilizer to increase the yield of her maize field. She now employs four people to work her property, grows soybeans, peaches and sugar cane, and raises ducks and five pigs.

"My livelihood is good now," Kuchawo tells me. But she has a complaint. Unluckily, the first three calves produced by her cow were males, which don't bring much at sale. The next was a female -- but the firstborn female goes back to the cooperative to be provided to another farmer. The cow is now pregnant again. "Pray for another female," Kuchawo asks, in order to increase the milk output of her farm.

Despite the varied frustrations of the farmer, her life is now easier than scratching dirt in field. She named her cow Zoali, which means "a resting place."

Malawi is a distant country, but it also feels distantly familiar. The thatched huts, hyenas and baobab trees are foreign. But the dirt roads, wandering chickens and cornfields -- the talk of seed quality and prayers for rain -- would have been commonplace in America a century ago. In a rural society, the invisible props of life are visible: the rhythms of fertility, the cycle of seasons, the sudden infestation that leaves the larder empty. Those closest to the land are particularly vulnerable to its treacheries.

About 80 percent of Malawians are farmers. Their nation is one of the world's most impoverished, mainly because agricultural productivity is poor. According to UNICEF, 53 percent of Malawian children under 5 are stunted because of poor nutrition. Crop diseases such as rosette and aflatoxin take a portion of the harvest; insects and wastage during storage take even more.

The solutions are not complex: higher yielding, disease- and pest-resistant varieties of plants, and fertilizer to improve played-out soil. These are the elements of any green revolution. Income from higher crop productivity can be invested in the purchase of a cow -- a local bank offers a three-year bovine loan. A farmer producing milk can go from $300 in annual income to $1,200.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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