A few Heifer Vietnam staff members and I pulled up to Dong Thang Commune’s community building at 8:00 a.m. last Friday. Fleeing the oppressive heat, we walked quickly from our air-conditioned car to the shady auditorium, which was already crowded with representatives of 40 project families for Heifer’s Passing on the Gift ceremony.
I’ve been volunteering once a week with Heifer Vietnam to help the staff practice their English, something I thoroughly enjoy. They’ve been kind enough to invite me on a few field trips where I’ve conducted interviews with farmers and written articles about the project families and their impressions and experiences with Heifer. I get to try on the “Communications Officer” cap, and I think I like it :)
Back to the ceremony. To my surprise, I was ushered to the front of the room, along with Heifer Vietnam’s country director Dang Thi Doan Trang and community leaders. That’s the Vietnamese way though: to show appreciation for visitors, especially foreigners. I even got my own nametag!
The ceremony commenced with a series of speeches, which Ms. Trang graciously translated for me, whispering facts and stories as I frantically scribbled away, taking notes.
Over 150 families have participated in this commune’s project in the last two years. One group of families, called “original families,” receives heifers; then, a few years later, they will hand over those calves to “new families,” creating a cycle of empowerment.
In addition to the heifers, which serve to insure the families against future hardship and provide extra income, three group savings funds have accumulated millions of dong (Vietnamese currency), which are loaned to project members to invest and diversify their incomes. Additionally, hundreds of households have participated in technical workshops, as well as workshops about gender equity, reproductive health and family planning and domestic violence. The list goes on.
I was amazed to hear firsthand the holistic view of development that Heifer propagates. The projects are not limited to raising and passing on a cow; rather, they encompass every aspect of life, from diversifying incomes to empowering women and families to work together to escape poverty, just as a development project should.
After speeches from project members, local leaders and Ms. Trang, a representative from each new project family was called to the front of the room to select randomly the number of a cow from a box covered in white paper. Some looked timid and nervous to be in front of so many people; others could not stop grinning from excitement.
Spot the foreigner!
Once everyone had selected a number the crowd surged out of the meeting room and down the street to an open field lined with palm trees, where the cows stood waiting in the scorching sun, numbers dangling from their necks. Everyone chuckled as some of the cows mooed and shied away from their new owners, pacing around and around the stakes to which they were tied.
One by one, the original families presented the cows to the new families, sweat dripping down overheated faces that nevertheless expressed joy and gratitude for their gift. The families then led their cows down the small paved road back to their homes, about to embark on a journey down a road paved with the experiences of the original families as well as the support of the local and international community. Such is the nature of Heifer’s work, both in Vietnam and around the world.
It’s pretty great stuff.
(PS: that last photo is credited to Quyen, the Heifer VN Communications Officer!)