One of those most concrete benefits provided by IRD’s orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) program is the distribution of food to children’s families. Each month the World Food Program provides enough food for the families of the children in the program to eat for about one to two weeks, reducing each family’s burden of providing food. It’s a great help to the families, and seems simple enough, considering the food is already being provided. If one group of people has food and wants to give it to another group of people, it should be an easy task to ship it from one place to another. Unfortunately however, it is much more difficult and complex than that.
For food to make it into a child’s bowl at dinnertime, it must first be shipped into Mozambique through one of two major ports. This is, of course, assuming that the food that has actually been harvested and has not been diverted to another emergency situation. Once in the port, the food then must be shipped to central warehouses. Again, this seems simple enough except that paved roads are a limited commodity in Mozambique. I live right next to the EN1, the nation’s major national highway, which in Maxixe is a well paved road, but two hours south becomes a bumpy dirt path that is perpetually under construction. Blown tires and tipping are common for passenger vehicles, not to mention large trucks carrying tons of food.
Once the food actually makes it to the province, it must then be distributed to six partner community-based organizations, and finally must be delivered to or picked up by families, many of whom live many hours’ walking distance from the food distribution points. As the food passes through all of these hands it must also be continually documented to ensure that the proper people receive it. Thus, in addition to the challenging logistics of actually getting food to the people who need it, there is the necessary additional complication of an ever-expanding paper trail. The end result is that several people are required to work the entire month just to conduct and monitor a monthly one-day food distribution. Even then, the distribution tends to occur late as often as it occurs on time. No one is to blame for this; it is simply the way of things. In fact, there should be praise that the distribution happens with any regularity at all.
It’s not just mass distributions that require taxing logistical efforts. Even as simple a task as evaluating and offering suggestions for the OVC program—the work of my co-intern and me—is a logistical mess. One of our most fundamental tasks is to follow volunteers into the field as they perform home visits. This seems easy enough, and in the U.S., it would be. We would drive to meet them at a convenient location, everyone would pile in the car, and off we would go. Here however, we have to arrive at a chapa (a passenger van that ends up a bit overfilled with riders) stop around 7:30 a.m. and wait 20-30 minutes for the chapa to fill. Once we finally embark on the 15-20 km ride, it ends up taking almost an hour as we slowly progress down the dirt road, constantly stopping and going to let passengers on and off. After arriving, we have a chat with supervisors to again clarify what exactly we are doing, and then follow a volunteer into the bush on foot for an unknown number of kilometers as we wind our way to the first home. By about 10:30 we might have arrived at our first home of the day, and after a few minutes it is off to the next home, which may or may not be nearby. The day continues in this way until it’s time to head back to Maxixe, at which point the chapa adventure begins again. Though the walks are enjoyable and the chapa rides are always entertaining, most of the day is spent getting from one point to another, while only an hour or two is actually spent observing what we hoped to see. This doesn’t even take into account the plight of the volunteers whose entire job consists of walking from house to house.
All of this is to say, that while it’s quite easy to become frustrated over the lack of progress in a project or the pace at which work gets done, there are often very legitimate reasons. It is frustrating to spend a day traveling for a couple hours of observation. It is frustrating that food doesn’t always get from point a to point b on time, especially when you know families are counting on that food for their basic nutrition.
At the same time however, the food does eventually come, and is just as helpful when it does arrive. You do eventually get to the home you’re planning to visit, and the people are just as kind as they would have been were you there two hours earlier. What’s more, the time walking down a dirt path with a volunteer provides more insight into her own life and work than ever would have been gained otherwise, and the chapa ride home is a chance to relax (assuming you actually get a seat) and debrief about the day’s work. You might even get a great story out of the whole adventure. Did I tell you about the time that we stood clinging for our lives in the bed of a pick-up truck that was speeding down a dirt road…?