John Winzeler: Travels through China (Heifer International)

Written by David Green.


Receive an animal; pass on an offspring.

That simple act is a guiding principle behind Heifer International, a relief organization dedicated to ending hunger around the world.

johnwinzeler ident John Winzeler took the opportunity to witness “passing on the gift” through a Heifer International study tour to China. He returned Oct. 9 from a 17-day trip across the country by plane, bus, van and on foot.

“We went to some very remote areas,” Winzeler said. “Our arrival would be the biggest day in the lives of some villagers. They don’t see many white people.”

He recalls students at a school sneaking up behind him and touching the hair on his arm—a feature uncommon among Chinese people—then running off.

“Soon another one would be brave enough to come up for a touch.”

Although Winzeler never saw a heifer that came through the program, he saw plenty of other animals, from goats and sheep to ducks and geese to llamas, yaks and rabbits.

“Animals are targeted to the climate,” he explained, and no matter what the breed, the practice is the same. “They sign a contract to pass along an offspring to another family in need. It’s been extremely successful.”

Winzeler first made plans for the trip two years ago, but the scheduled tour was cancelled due to the SARS respiratory disease outbreak. This year it got off the ground and the group arrived in Beijing Sept. 23.

Winzeler feels fortunate to have been part of the tour. The group included both the son and daughter of Heifer founder Dan West, plus the organization’s Asian expert, its board of directors president and several training leaders.

It was a much different group than those he toured with several years ago on a tourist trip. Very well educated, very adventuresome, very interesting.

“Everyone was a chopsticks user,” he said.

During his previous trip, most everyone in the group depended on Winzeler and his wife to sample the food and offer an opinion. Not so this time around.

Getting close

After a few “jet lag days” of touring in Beijing, the travelers headed out to the first of seven sites, a sheep project in nearby Miyun County.

Winzeler knew immediately that he made the right decision.

“I was in China eight years ago on an Ohio State University tourist tour,” he said. “There was very little opportunity to mingle with the natives. I wanted to go back to since there wasn’t enough people contact.”

At Miyun, the travelers were met by a colorful cymbal and drum parade of greeters. It was the flashiest reception of all, but each community heartily welcomed the guests.

Everyone was extremely friendly, Winzeler said, and very excited to show off their projects.

“They believe they are so much better off now through the Heifer program and they’re proud of their advances. I think I saw a lot of happy people.”

In the past, for example, pigs were allowed to forage. Now, farmers have been trained to provide a better diet for their animals. All of the program’s animal husbandry efforts are now based in China rather than being imported from the United States.

At one location, the travelers were forced to walk through a river after the bridged had washed out. But the hosts made it as easy as possible. Notches were cut in the muddy path leading down the river bank and villagers were stationed on each side of the guests as they waded across.

Yak country

The highway system was impressive, Winzeler said, and sometimes they spent considerable time traveling to a community. Two families of nomadic yak herders provided the most interesting encounter.

A staff member knew approximately where to locate the camp when it was near a highway. At certain times of the year, it takes a bus trip then two days by horse to make contact.

“It was very comfortable inside their yurt,” Winzeler recalls. “They had placed boughs on the ground inside and covered them with skins. They’re very generous people.”

Winzeler had the seat closest to where the meal was being prepared. You take a pot of yak butter and add cooked barley. Then add yak cheese and yak milk and stir it up until it’s like a porridge. To Winzeler’s palate, the lamb served was much tastier than the yak-based dish.

Overall, he said, there wasn’t much that he didn’t eat, although fortunately, he was never offered the meal that he saw prepared from a bus window in Dayi County: three cauldrons of boiling dog, with more waiting to go in the pot.

 For Winzeler, the trip provided one fascinating experience after another, all coming together to form an extremely satisfying trip.

“You’d go to bed and think, man, that was the best day I ever had. Then the next day was even better.”

Heifer International aims to alleviate hunger 

When Indiana farmer Dan West served as relief worker in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, he had a realization that launched a major effort to alleviate hunger.

West has ladling milk rations to hungry children when he realized that his work, though helpful, was far from a solution. It’s not a cup of milk the children needed; it was a cow.

When West returned home, he formed a program that he called Heifers for Relief. Livestock and training would be provided so families “could be spared the indignity of depending on others to feed their children.”

West chose heifers—young cows that haven’t given birth—since they would provide a source of milk, plus a continued means of support. That second achievement comes from an agreement to “pass on the gift.” Each family receiving an animals agrees to donate the female offspring to another family in need. In that way, the gift is never-ending.

The organization does more than merely send animals out to remote regions. Several factors are considered for each project, such as the following:

ACCOUNTABILITY—Groups receiving animals must define their needs, set goals and plan strategies to achieve them. Heifer International provides guidelines for getting the job done. Recipients are screened, progress is monitored and semiannual reports are prepared.

SHARING AND CARING—Heifer believes that global problems can be solved if all people are committed to sharing what they have and caring about others. This also reflects the organization’s commitment to the humane treatment of animals and to a vision of justice for all people.

GENDER AND FAMILY FOCUS—Heifer’s gender program encourages women and men to share equally in decision-making. The organization is committed to gender equity to increase mutual respect and strengthen families.

IMPROVING THE ENVIRONMENT—The introduction of Heifer International livestock should improve the environment by having a positive impact in a number of ways, from soil erosion to biodiversity to wildlife and watershed conditions.

SPIRITUALITY—Spirituality is common to all people regardless of religion or beliefs. Spirituality is expressed in values, in beliefs about the value and meaning of life, in a sense of connectedness to the earth and in a shared vision of the future.

To learn more about the Heifer International, contact John Winzeler at 419/237-2003 or by visiting the organization’s website:

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