The village of Ahsygyi is situated in the Ayeyarwady region of southwest Myanmar. More people live in poverty in Ayeyarwady than in any other part of the country. One troubling indicator of this is that children in the region suffer from alarmingly high levels of stunting as a result of inadequate nutrition.
Wai Mar Myint’s family, like so many in Ayewarwady, depend on farming for their livelihoods. They had planned to generate more income by filling in a pond and cultivating that land, but the local soil proved too sandy for growing most crops.
When Wai Mar Myint heard about an opportunity through Helen Keller International to gain more knowledge about homestead food production, she was among the first to sign up. From the training sessions she attended, she learned many farming techniques, including how to make her own compost and apply it to the topsoil so that seeds germinate properly and thrive.
Now the family’s once-barren plot is fertile, and they are growing ten varieties of nutritious vegetables. Wai Mar Myint hopes soon to begin selling her surplus produce.
“Previously, we relied completely on income from rice and black gram [a bean],” she explains. “The market for black gram is very unreliable, so we will be more secure when we are able to develop our farm as a new income source.”
Now serving as one of Helen Keller’s Village Model Farmers, Wai Mar Myint proudly showcases her land when she leads meetings of a group of 25 mothers from her village and teaches them about better ways to produce nutritious food.
Win Nwe Oo is a member of Wai Mar Myint’s homestead farming group. Although she had cultivated a few vegetables for her three young children in the past, her worries about using dangerous pesticides and fertilizers held her back from both growing and eating more of them.
“Now, I can grow vegetables without chemicals, or with very little, so the food is safer and more delicious,” she says.
In Ayeyarwaddy’s low-lying areas, the increasing unpredictability of the annual monsoon rains has made it very challenging to cultivate vegetables and other crops during much of the year. Daw Mar Ye, another Village Model Farmer, notes that the skills she and other mothers in her community are learning help them to cope.
“The rain continued very late this year,” she explains. “Before, we wouldn’t even have tried planting until we were sure the rain had stopped. But mulching with rice straw, building raised beds and other techniques make it possible to plant and have this food during many more months of the year.”
Her husband, Paw Sa Ko, is also engaged in homestead food production. He has started making the vinegar they need to produce organic fertilizer and pesticide and shares it with members of their farming group.
“I may start to sell it to the wider community in the future, once I have mastered production,” he says.
Daw Mar Ye also received worms and a concrete drum for vermiculture. This will enable her to produce improved compost for herself and her group’s members, and it may provide a source of income in the future.
Daw Pyone Ma was one of the first members to join Daw Mar Ye’s group. She describes how the meetings have also helped her take better care for her eight-month-old son.
Long-standing food taboos had negatively impacted the health of mothers and young children in Ayewarwady . “From our in-laws and parents, we learned that pregnant women and new mothers should not eat fish, duck, pumpkin, eggs and beans, and that young children should not eat eggs. Now, we understand that these are healthy foods for women and children, and that many of these we can even produce for ourselves.”
The peer-to-peer sharing is invaluable. “Previously, we received a bit of nutrition education when the midwife would come to the village. But it is much more effective to discuss these things in a small group with other mothers,” she says.