The dukkaan carries everything from carrots and Coca-Cola to the local news. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
A villager leads his herd to pasture. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
The completed feed mill in Majdel el Meoush. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Workers inside the new feed mill compare notes. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
Contented cows are a priority in the Lebanese village of Majdel el Meoush. They stroll the dirt roads on their way to naps in green pastures; they walk in twos and threes along daisy-scattered terraces and nibble greenery that is lush and leafy. And although they occasionally wander into forbidden quarters, namely vegetable patches, they are only mildly admonished. It could be that bovine heaven is located in Lebanon and not, as some thought, in Wisconsin.
Land for pasture and planting is at a premium in Majdel el Meoush. The mountain slopes are terraced; the wider ones are used for grazing and narrower ones for planting. Majdels cows learn to be as sure-footed as its goats and as dependent upon herders as its sheep.
Mornings, small herds of only a dozen cows skirt the village residences as the animals are led to the fields. Many of these houses bear the ravages of war, but they also show signs of repair. The happiest houses are those that carry proof of habitation. Playing children and laundry on the line are cheerful indicators that families have returned to this village.
Flourishing gardens are another good omen that commitment and confidence have returned. The cows themselves represent true faith in return. They cost a bundle ($1,500 each) and require daily attention.
Before their flight from the outbreak of violence in 1982, 90 percent of the villagers were employed in agriculture. There were numerous herds of cattle, chicken farms and an egg-packing plant in the area. Back then only 10 percent of the population made the 40-minute trek to Beirut for employment. Looking around the village today you can see that the numbers are reversed, with many families still living in Beirut where they made a new life for themselves. But new never replaced old.
While in exile from Majdel el Meoush, many families had to turn to charity. Meals at Beirut soup kitchens grew into huge luncheons where villagers met their former neighbors and even other family members who had found places to live in other Beirut neighborhoods. Charity was hard to accept for these once-independent, proud villagers, but with it came new bonds, renewed hopes and ultimately the chance to return to their village.
Commercial life in the village is also slowly picking up. In the saaha, or village square, bright red-and-white Coca-Cola signs catch the eye and a green umbrella shades crates of vegetables and fruits brought from Beirut or nearby market towns. This is Majdels mom-and-pop store, or dukkaan in Arabic. It has everything one could ever need.
The dukkaans most important function, however, is to serve as a distribution center for the news, grapevine style. In the mid-90s word got around that the Pontifical Mission, CNEWAs operating agency in the Middle East, was considering a project in the village with funding from the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. The Pontifical Missions Beirut office already initiated its home-repair program there.
Although the Lebanese civil conflict ended in 1991, it took several years to rebuild residences and infrastructure and for the villagers to feel secure enough to return.
The Pontifical Missions Beirut office staff considered many possibilities for the projects. They wanted to do something that would benefit not only Majdel el Meoush but also the surrounding area. If the neighboring villages could be economically connected, much of the suspicion and fear wrought by years of war would diminish. What would be good for Majdel el Meoush would be good for the whole area.
In April 1998 the dukkaan had great news: A feed mill would be built in the village. No longer would bags of feed have to be transported at great effort and expense from Beirut down the coast to the village. No longer would farmers be at the mercy of international prices and local dealers. Dairy and grain farmers, contractors and builders would work together to determine needs and marketing strategies. The plan was to form a co-op, which would run the feed mill and launch other projects. Today the co-op is made up of 26 farmers, lawyers and engineers, including nine women.
Additional villagers have made it known they want to join the co-op. Madjel el Meoush once had a population of 3,500. Today, most families arrive on weekends to work on their homes and gardens.
Winters, however, are a challenge, as village heating is rudimentary and village life is even more basic. Many families want to continue their childrens all-important schooling in Beirut. Only 150 families have signed on for the whole year. The feed mill will hopefully influence that number by generating income and should therefore entice more families to return.
By March l999 the feed mill was complete. Three silver silos reflect the suns rays and play music when it rains. The structures hold wheat, corn and barley. A mini-silo holds soya. Alfalfa pellets are also part of the square meal prepared here for the village cows.
If two shifts of workers were employed the co-op would expect to mix 2,400 tons of feed per month, which would then be available to local and area farmers.
The co-ops head is a man named Najib Adwan. Najib owns a trout restaurant: You choose em, he fries em. Hes a man of few words but has a head full of knowledge and a heart full of hope. He sees the village five years in the future full of people and livelihoods based right there.
Sitting with Najib was Fouad, a young agricultural engineer whose academic back-ground in agronomy is a good match for Fouads hands-on knowledge. Hes a consultant with knowledge of the new; his cell phone was at the ready and his fluency in Arabic, English and French was evident as the calls came in. Before I left we exchanged e-mail addresses.
Getting a village back on its feet is no easy or cheap task. Its a sad irony, however, that if practice makes perfect, Majdel el Meoushs recovery should be close to perfection. Many of Lebanons villages were destroyed during the war; partnerships with Pontifical Missions Beirut staff and their tireless help with many of these villages are well known and greatly appreciated.
Well-kept lists tell the story: Some 5,500 fruit and olive seedlings were purchased; 990 feet of irrigation canals to irrigate 27 acres were financed; roughly two-thirds of a mile of agricultural road was built; work on school and playground rehabilitation was begun. Corn and wheat seed was purchased for 15 families with the intent to buy the harvest and stoke the feed mill.
Majdel el Meoush has not gone from soup kitchen to feed mill in one easy step. But today things are looking up where civil war once ravaged fields, destroyed homes and terrorized families. It has taken the determination of the village, the helping hands of the Pontifical Mission and everyones belief that contented cows make for a contented village.
Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.