Diary of a UN Official #3: When Women Make the Difference
Guinea-Bissau, October 1990, I don’t remember which day. But I remember how it was that morning when I woke up. Hot, very hot, the way it is in the tropics, damp and cloying, with a low sky of dark clouds, like a lid. I got out of my room, with just a bathrobe on, and ran to the nearest mango tree – the hotel I was staying at was very simple, just a handful of bungalows of two rooms each, set in a large, unkempt garden, no flowers, a lot of mud. But so many mangoes, greenish yellow, with a juicy, golden flesh, the perfect breakfast. I went into the bathroom to carve out my mango with a multi-bladed Swiss knife I always carried with me (back then you could taken them aboard planes). The sweet juice dripped all over the sink. I reflected how in Bissau, there are mango trees everywhere, heavy with fruit; all one has to do is look up and grab one, they’re free – a little like living in paradise.
But Guinea-Bissau back then (and even today) is no paradise. It is one of the poorest countries on earth, more than two thirds of the population lives below the poverty line on less than two dollars a day. If Guinea-Bissau threatens these days to become a narco-state, this is no surprise. Guess what, even when I was there, most people, some 80 percent, earned whatever living they could scrape from agriculture, mostly rice (to feed their families) and cashew and ground nuts (for export).
I knew all about this, before coming, I had done my “due diligence” to prepare myself for my evaluation mission. Little did I know that in a few hours I would live through the most extraordinary and unforgettable experience in my life as FAO Evaluation Officer. The project was ending, the question I had to answer was, should it continue, a standard question at the end of a project cycle. I had read about the country’s problems after it became independent from Portugal, how the Portuguese Colonial War had led to a rapid exodus of the Portuguese civilian and military authorities, and like any war, had wrought considerable damage to the country’s economic and social infrastructure. With continuing political instability, the standard of living had collapsed and while Guinea Bissau had been a net exporter of rice in colonial times, now it was a net importer. And for years there had been no vegetables or fruit (except for mangoes) in the capital – a small town of some 150,000 people (more than double that number today). That had changed with the project I was meant to evaluate. A horticulture project, started a couple of years before, it was meant to provide the town with vegetables. It was a very small project, less than one hundred thousand dollars of expenses in two years. Peanuts. Compared to the big problems the country faced, what was the point of it? How could it help? Was another extension really needed? But I was beginning to revise my opinion.
For the rest, link to Impakter. Expect a very surprising end to that story!