Ly Thi Ut, 58, was forced to leave school and married at 19 to her husband Duong Van Tuan, 60. As newlyweds, they built a thatch-roof house on a small piece of land that had no property of value. They worked hard as seasonal hired labors to raise their five children—four of whom are now married. Though they are able to live independently, they are still poor and cannot afford to support their mother. Ut’s youngest son is in grade 8 and lives at home with the family, including Ut’s 98-year-old father whom she also supports.
Reminiscing on her life, Ut said her family struggled the most when they did not own any farmland. They rented more than an acre from a neighbor to grow rice and worked as seasonal hired labors, earning an income insufficient to cover the cost of daily living, school fees and health care because of their low productivity, lack of skills and low market prices. They made two meals a day out of nothing more than rice and citronella seasoned with salt and chili for several months out of the year.
In 2005, Ut’s mother died of a serious disease and Ut started making nipa palm leaf frames for thatched roofs to generate daily income. One night while she was working, she accidentally flipped a sharp nipa string, the material that holds the nipa leaf with its frame, into her right eye. She was immediately in pain. She still stayed home the following day because her family had very little money for her eye treatment. Even though she could still see everything dimly, her eye was infected. Three days after that, her eye was inflamed and she was taken to the hospital. The doctor said her cornea was pierced and it was too late to recover her eye. She had an eye operation for an amnion transplant so that her right eye would not have to be taken out and her left eye would not be influenced. Her family borrowed money from their neighbors for her treatment. Two months after being discharged from hospital, she was able to restart her income generation activities such as working as a hired labor and making nipa leave frames despite her blind eye.
Tuan, her husband, who has been deaf since 2000 due to water pressure on his here from deep diving for river shrimp, sorrowed at his family’s misfortunes. Overwhelmed by their ever-increasing debt, he attempted to kill himself by drinking insecticide. Thanks to the timely support of doctors, he is alive; however, he is weaker than before.
After her husband’s unsuccessful suicide, Ut realized her family would never escape poverty on rice and laboring alone. She started looking for ways to diversify her income by collecting waste material and buying scrap for resale during the day while keeping the environment clean. During the evenings she kept making nipa-leaf frames. Four years later, her family paid all their debt and saved a little money, but it still was not enough for them to purchase the acre of rice land from their neighbor. They decided to buy the land on credit so that her husband could grow rice without paying a land lease.
When Heifer Vietnam’s “Improving Livelihoods in the Poorest District of Tra Vinh Province” project started in 2011, Ut happily joined a self-help group (SHG). Heifer Vietnam gave her family a heifer, grass for planting, $50 to build a heifer shed and non-technical and technical skills trainings, which resulted in the family’s self-reliance. These gifts helped Ut to realize her family’s dream. Ut was very interested in trainings and believed they would change her family’s life.
She has borrowed four $100 loans from the group savings. The first loan was invested in raising ducks, collecting waste material and buying scrap, which brought her a profit of $100. She reinvested the second and third loans into raising ducks and buying scrap, profiting $120 and $160 respectively. Ut has invested the fourth loan into raising chickens, ducks and buying scrap, and hopes to make a good profit of $200.
And Ut is still in the nipa-leaf frame business. She has hired five female members from her SHG to make nipa-leaf frames. She pays them $2 each per day for their labor and still profits $3 per day. Combining her profits with her family’s $600 yearly rice income, her family was able to build a small house in January 2015. Her family is able to eat three meals each day with more nutritious foods, such as duck, chicken, eggs and vegetables. Ut passed on the first-born calf to another poor family and is happy to have a pregnant cow and a calf to care for.
Witnessing her success, her group voted her as the group leader. Although she is blind in one eye and very busy with her daily work, she organized collective events for the group such as monthly meetings and International Women’s day.
“I love 12 Cornerstones, especially Sharing and Caring” Ut said. “I usually disseminate the monthly meeting contents to absent members to ensure everyone can keep track on group activities. I share animal husbandry knowledge and grass with many Passing on the Gift® families in need.”
Story and photos courtesy by Tran Huu Ly, PMEO of Heifer Vietnam