HJ/EDEnterprise Dispatch, Jan. 30, 2006

Dassel woman sees Heifer Project in action

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Irene Bender of Dassel saw firsthand how an old proverb is true. “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

Bender went to Peru Nov. 15 with Heifer Project International, a nonprofit organization that works to end world hunger by giving income-producing livestock to impoverished families around the world.

“I have seen with my own eyes the difference the animal can make to a family,” Bender said.

The animal creates a ripple effect to improve the entire community, she said.

Bender first heard about Heifer International about 10 years ago when the children from the Sunday School at Gethsemane Lutheran Church of Dassel had the organization as its project. Bender donated to the project and got on its mailing list. The organization sent her a magazine that advertised tours for donors to see for themselves how the program works, she said.

An Indiana farmer named Dan West, while serving as a relief worker in Puerto Rico, noticed there weren’t enough dairy cows to provide milk for the villagers. His idea of giving a heifer and training to a family “exploded into this big, big organization,” now in 50 countries, Bender said.

It expanded from dairy cows to include alpacas, chickens, horses, llamas, pigs, rabbits, sheep, water buffaloes and guinea pigs.

Guinea pigs, though, were the only Peruvian food that Bender could not stomach, she said. One of the first places Bender went to after she arrived in Lima, on the western coast of Peru, was a women’s shelter called Sisters of Mercy. The nuns there taught women how to raise guinea pigs for food, she said.

They served the guinea pig meat with the paws still on them for Thanksgiving dinner, Bender said. Bender associates guinea pigs with being children’s pets and couldn’t bring herself to eat them.

The nuns at Sisters of Mercy taught the tour members how Heifer International works. The “gift” animal or breeding pair usually is presented to a woman because the men in the family work in the cities, where the jobs are, Bender said.

The woman is taught every facet of animal care. The animal’s first offspring goes to another family in the community, creating a ripple effect, Bender said.

Bender was the only one in the 18-person study group who couldn’t speak Spanish, but they were guided from place to place by translators. This led to a humorous incident at the Sisters of Mercy when one of the translators called the nuns the Sisters of Misery, Bender laughed.

Later the group went up into the Andes Mountains to the Cuchuma Lodge, an eco-lodge, Bender said. Most of the places they visited after Lima were at elevations of 8,000 to 11,000 feet, she said.

“Every day was just so great,” Bender said.

Bender experienced her most memorable moment, a Hilea ceremony with the villagers, at this lodge, which actually looked more like a Bible camp, she said.

“All their ceremonies revolve around reverence for earth,” Bender said.

The Peruvians threw flower petals into the air and made a wish. Usually the wish is “what would make us better people,” Bender said.

“We have so much. So many have so little, and yet they are content,” Bender said.

Although Peru is next to the Pacific Ocean, it is extremely dry, trees are scarce, and growing food is difficult, she said.

Another inspiring ritual was how the people shared with each other. The group enjoyed a picnic outdoors with 200 villagers. After the group’s fish dinner, they moved to where the villagers had gathered to exchange food with them.

“I was just holding my breath,” Bender said about when she watched a woman unwrap the cloth covering from her food. Bender was afraid she was expected to eat guinea pig. It turned out to be grain, though, she said.

“I never know what to expect,” Bender said. “I go with the attitude that I’m just going to take it all in.”

Bender was surprised, though, at how advanced the Incan civilization was when she visited Machu Picchu, the remains of The Lost City. The stone structures, built with no mortar, were discovered in 1911. The hundreds-of-years-old ruins showed how sophisticated the Incan system of government was. They had storage sheds to keep enough grain for eight years, she said.

The Incas built huge pyramids and systems of terraces for growing crops on steep hillsides. They had an intricate knowledge of astronomy and engineering, and built temples with arches that lined up with the sun and moon on the summer and winter solstices, Bender said.

When Bender returned to the United States Nov. 26, she had a water color painting she bought for $10 in Peru custom-framed to hang in her living room. The frame cost $150, a typical price for that kind of work in the United States, Bender said.

She marveled, though, at the attitude the people of Peru have about material goods, compared to US attitudes.

“Here (in Peru) are people living on a dollar a day,” Bender said.

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