A First-Person Account of Rayuwa

Greg Swanson shares his experiences while traveling as part of John Deere's Rayuwa project in Nigeria.

In October 2019 a group of John Deere volunteers traveled to villages in Nigeria to participate in harvest season as part of Deere’s Rayuwa project. Rayuwa, which means “life” or “livelihood” in the local Hausa language, helps educate smallholder farmers on good agricultural practices. The goal of the program is to produce more food and, in turn, help reduce poverty and hunger, while increasing the quality of childhood education.

This story looks at John Deere communications manager, Greg Swanson’s view of life in the developing nation.

All introductions begin with a first impression and meeting Nigeria is no different.

The caution, however, is this: Your eyes begin telling the story of Africa’s most populous country well before your mind can sort the facts.

Even though the perception is life looks hard at best you’d never know it by the smiles on children’s faces. Curious and friendly, they followed everywhere.

Initial insights are formed, oddly enough, from above.

The flight over Nigeria showcases small, odd-shaped parcels of land below. This is not the typical patchwork of large, symmetrical squares of fields seen in developed countries. Some look like forgotten gardens on an abandoned frontier.

Getting from the airport in Kano to the hotel in Zaria is less than 100 miles but takes more than three hours. In developed nations that travel time is about half.

On the ground it doesn’t take long to realize life is hard. Evidence presents itself with each passing mile.

Below an overpass a large truck sits backed onto a river’s flat shoreline. The early morning sun silhouettes workers, both young and old, shoveling mud from the receded water, one scoop at a time. They heave what they dig 12 feet into the air and onto the truck bed. Over and over. For hours.

There isn’t a backhoe or excavator, only necessity. The mud will help make bricks for housing.

A minute later a boy no older than 10 wrangles a wheelbarrow full of dirt along the road’s shoulder. He is headed to the next village, more than 2 miles away. You find yourself asking “Is that his job for the day?”

Infrastructure and mechanization are incomplete thoughts that struggle to gain traction in this part of the country. Nothing, it seems, is easy.

All the questions

While a trip like this is built on purpose, our nature as humans is to be curious about the unfamiliar. Questions from others center on logistics. How was the food? Were the people friendly? What did it look like? How did you get around? Let’s tackle that last one first.

Driving in Nigeria is truly a daily adventure, both in practice and persistence.

Roadways rarely have markings or signage. There are no speed limits posted, no lanes defined – all causing traffic to be choked with vehicles that have their own agenda and no sense of or regard for structure. The constant cadence of horns loses its effectiveness due to overuse. Potholes, abandoned cars, and a swarm of motorbikes put travel on a rubber band of sorts – stretching to a near breaking point and then snapping back into shape.

Hatchbacks meant to transport four people carry eight. Large bags of grain sit strapped to rooftops. Seats are taken out of vans so adult men can be stacked inside like cargo. Goats and dogs mingle with traffic. Children as young as 3 stand at the highway’s edge, alone, spreading out chili peppers on tattered tarps so they can dry.

If there is one thing you’ll remember about seeing Nigeria, it’ll be the effort needed to get from Point A to Point B. It is the greatest killer of efficiency this nation faces. Even as a passenger, it is exhausting.

Bright colors and a bit of attitude are on display during a harvesting event at one of the villages. Until recently, women in Muslim villages did not come out to the fields. Rayuwa is slowly changing that.

It’s about the people

Deeper inland toward the villages, the focus of order and norms gets fuzzy. Straight lines are not common in this part of the country. From roads to rows, it feels like a meandering of good intentions.

A last, sharp turn brings us to an opening and the beginning of houses made of earth. It is here where we meet the villagers, their bright clothing enhanced because the walls where they live and the ground where they stand blend together in a mixture of browns. Despite the sun’s full bloom, the feeling is almost muted.

But there is most certainly light.

Yes, we are visitors, but we are not greeted with skepticism. It is with warmth and acceptance that we are welcomed into the villages and schools. This is what is making Rayuwa an incredulous success in such a short time. Willingness. The villagers know the importance of agriculture and how it not only feeds a family, but educates a child and, eventually, hopefully, builds a better life.

What makes Rayuwa special – what will make Rayuwa successful – is engagement. There are 11 villages and nearly 1,700 households wanting help.

Learning together

Smallholder farmers (those working the small plots of land seen from the sky) produce 90 percent of the food in Nigeria. And on this October trip it was time to see if what was implemented during spring planting would serve as a step forward.

Just a few months prior, farmers who had spent more than three decades hunched over, working these fields by hand, agreed to see if there was more to learn. The results hang on dying stalks, waiting to be weighed.

Villagers gather around, not quite bold enough to approach but curious enough to witness. My digital camera catches their eye. They hesitate when they see it pointed their way. I motion them over, looking to show them the images I’ve captured.

It takes a moment, or longer, to realize the reason why the children are so drawn to the camera. Their homes have no mirrors. They rarely, if ever, see themselves. And now as they look, their fingers press against the camera’s viewing screen excited to show me, them. Those are perhaps the most touching moments of the trip. Joy. Wonder. Pride. All at once.

In the slices of calm, when the time allows you to soak it all in, I’m amazed at the children. There are so many. On Monday some are in school, but most are not. A challenge facing Rayuwa for sure. Poverty and need keep them home.

I can’t help but wonder what each day brings for them. Part of those thoughts sadden me. One thing is for certain though, their smiles endure whatever perceptions I have about their lives. No matter how difficult I imagine it all to be.

Always moving

Over the course of three days, sitting inside our vehicle becomes a second home. While the villages are only separated by a few short miles, traveling to them is time-consuming. Our lunches are planned to take place on the way from one to the next.

Traveling by motorcycle is the most common mode of transportation, whether you’re heading to a neighboring village, a larger city, or the farm field. Gas cans are often strapped to the sides due to so many gas stations being out of business.

The days are long and hot. While it’s relatively easy to keep your energy up, these moments of rest remind you of how draining the heat can be.

We stop and eat, using a rock or the shade of a neem tree as a place to gather. Food tastes different knowing there are families that go hungry and that what’s on your fork was planted, nurtured, and harvested by hand. In the villages there are no refrigerators, meaning food is often purchased to be consumed that day, perhaps in the very spot where it was bought.

Rice is abundant as is suya, a seasoned and grilled meat of either beef, chicken, or goat. Our mobile meals consist of plastic containers with plenty inside. When people have so little, it feels weird eating so much.

Those are the easy observations.

There is one question that proves harder to answer than the others, maybe because it’s asked more as a statement and an assumption: “That had to be amazing.”

This always brings silence and reflection.

Rayuwa is structured in such a way that volunteering is beyond inspirational. In the native dialect, the program’s name means livelihood or life.

It is a perfect name for a perfect project that doesn’t just engage the senses, it forces you to understand what it means to be human.

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A First-Person Account of Rayuwa

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