Head to Head with Father Godfrey’s Vision
My friend Alison has had an enviro club and she is wonderfully creative in her approach with their topics and community projects. We have been collaborating for a year now on our club meetings/activities and she was even a guest speaker in Tchatchou this last week to do a gardening activity. So it was only natural that we wanted our clubs to meet and collaborate as well. We planned this to take place this last month on March 31.
Alison and I are not the only ones impressed with Project Songhai, all of Peace Corps Benin, International Development Agencies and most tourists are as well. Our first exposure was during stage, where every Tuesday all the volunteers met at their facility in Porto Novo to attend group sessions. Project Songhai to put it simply is an agricultural center but would more accurately be described as a self sustaining micro-community. This was started by a man named Father Godfrey back in the 80’s and has expanded to include centers all over the African continent. He obtained his PHD in the US and came back to train Africans how to better cultivate the land and live more sustainably. His philosophy and approach has been termed Integrated Systems Management. All the plants, animals and fish work in a symbiotic relationship and it is up to us humans to follow the same approach with our mass production of these resources for human consumption.
There are at least 5 centers operating in Benin and we happen to be located near the Parakou/Atagara center which is second largest to Porto Novo. Each center operates its own training sessions which are open to the public for a nominal fee or free of charge to anyone who enrolls as a student and lives/works in the center for the full 18 months. The students then return to their respective village to implement their own agricultural project, which is sort of like their thesis. As students they spend their entire stay there in rotation learning every activity that the center has established from beekeeping and fisheries to food preserving.
When I say that Songhai is like a micro-community, I mean that literally. There are roads with actual street names, their own waste management system, an underground bio-gas chamber to supply fuel for the mess hall, a water filtration pond that uses plants instead of chemicals to recycle water, and obviously uses their own plants and animal resources as a food supply. These students, men and women alike, live in some of the best made structures in Benin that include indoor plumbing while learning how to make their country more sustainable. It’s the African version of an eco-village! So naturally Alison and I wanted to expose our students to this, because after all this is what they should be striving towards.
It took us over a year to get the plan organized and receive funding from our newly formed Food Security Program, but last Saturday it all came together and due to the rarity in Benin I must flaunt, rather flawlessly.
I start this story on Friday night where I came face to face with our impending doom. I had been anxious and worried all week that some uncontrollable Beninese force would destroy our efforts and Friday when I was sitting in our Food Security Task Force meeting I received the phone call which I thought was only the first domino to come crashing down in our series of misfortunes. The t-shirt man Abib said our club shirts would not be finished that night as promised though he had all week to make said shirts and logically waited until the last day to get started. A light broke and he couldn’t find another. I was seeing red so I sent super positive Alison and trusted friend Bailey to interpret our situation. It was as follows: he would search for the part, try to get them done by 7 am and if unable we would not be charged. We relaxed and waited for more dominos to fall.
We bought our snacks, got the photocopies of the students worksheet made and then settled in to spend the night at the workstation since I couldn’t head back to Tchatch without the shirts. 11:30pm Abib calls, he had finished and was sending his employee over to pick me up to retrieve them. I was back by midnight, showered and settled into bed when volunteer drama returned from the bar (in the form of Sara) to the workstation. I didn’t get to bed until 3am.
6:00am: In the morning darkness I situate myself onto a moto with all my supplies and make the chilly journey back to Tchatch in time to get home, brush my teeth and change clothes. 7:00am: I am at my neighbor’s house Zachary who is one of the taxi drivers taking us to Songhai. I wait for him to dust off the entire interior and exterior of the cab, trunk and engine, wait for him to change clothes and fill the radiator with water. We were supposed to be leaving at 7:30 and we are just leaving his house to go pick up the water sachets, there are only 2 taxis and he still needs to locate the third. Why he didn’t ask anyone within the last 3 weeks, or fill up his gas tank last night, I have no idea but I see the next domino teetering in my brain. We finally reach the school at 8am where all the teachers and students are waiting for us. There is a mild dissatisfaction amongst the drivers as to the length of the trip and price being paid. I had arranged this with Zachary weeks prior, there should be no problem but of course when Zachary said he knew where Songhai was, that meant he only had a vague idea, nothing accurate. I was able to smile seductively, shake some hands and urge some forward progress. We divided ourselves up and set off, the domino never fell but I still sat in the car laconic and stoic as we passed through each of the 5 checkpoints hoping to get off without paying too much in bribes.
We arrive late but luckily Marcus’s club from Ouari Maro is even later. Alison is there after arriving by moto and is conversing with her club. Lauren wingman’s me while I pay the drivers and discuss the return trip, 4/4:30 at the latest. Ouari Maro arrives shortly after so we distribute the shirts and settle in the open air conference hall and start off the day’s event. This has been paid for by our Food Security Funds to give technical training on sustainable gardening practices, so each participant was given a worksheet I created to ensure comprehension.
We had each club introduce themselves and discuss their community projects. My club is comprised mostly of older high school students the equivalent of sophomores, juniors and seniors where Alison’s club is mostly middle school and freshman students. Marcus’s club is actually from the primary school so we had an even mix of students that created a wonderful dynamic for learning and exchanging.
After Roger, the center’s operator gave the background of Songhai and their philosophy, we took breakfast before embarking on the tour. There was so much to see and the sun was so intense as we walked around that Lauren ended up with heat rash. The students were extremely engaged in the verbal exchanges with Roger and also with their physical interactions with the animals, machinery and plants. Unlike in village, animals here are enclosed and taken care of. The center uses their own crops to create a feed for all their animals and the students were able to visit each facility and watch the process in order to grasp the concept of integrated systems.
Since we were late our schedule was pushed forward and we were forced to head straight to the garden after the tour which was about 2kms from the ‘village’ center. The original plan was for the students to get some hands on experience with composting, planting and creating natural pesticides however we were running out of time, so we settled for a semi-brief session and tour of the vegetable plots and composting area. For all of them, teachers included, it was the first time they had ever heard of strawberries let alone seeing and tasting them. I found myself having to explain what a sunflower is and why humans planted them, if a red pepper was spicy like the peppers they eat and what the taste of an eggplant closely resembled and how people cook them.
Such seemingly trivial discoveries were the most important, for the students have to return to their communities and understand the importance of incorporating these vegetables into their own gardens to improve nutrition. This was not just an action packed field trip for pleasure, they are expected to learn something, and not only that but implement these techniques as well. As a club we will be planting our own garden within the community garden plots and also are responsible for donating 3 family gardens and training the household to maintain them. Hopefully over time the exposure to new vegetables will spur a demand for a vegetable market, creating a new income generating activity and ultimately improving the accessibility, quality and availability of foods to the masses. And there we have it folks, 3 of the 4 pillars to Food Security!
After a grueling walk back to the conference hall, the discussion was opened to questions at which point the students used the opportunity to fill in the blanks on their worksheets. Lunch was served and we all sat back wondering where the day went. As I ate the lunch Alison had prepared for us vegetarians I looked the group over and was proud of what we had accomplished. It was at this point that I realized America had won, the dominos never fell. We handed out the Songhai cookies for a snack during the ride home and said our goodbyes. We took one final group photo and the taxis peeled away. Well, everyone besides us, it was reaching 5 before Zachary and the boys showed up. Still I can’t be mad, since there was no cell phone service I couldn’t call to remind them and they came on their own. Luckily Tchatch is only 40mins away!
I literally resigned myself over to fate during that morning taxi ride and was astonished that I literally was able to sit back, let other people control our whole day and everything went as planned. So maybe it wasn’t America that won, we’ll call it a tie.