Food for Life Graduation!

[There’s more to Mercy Ships than the Africa Mercy, as the following story shows–Nils]

On July 9, 2011, Mercy Ships held the Food for Life graduation ceremony beside the St Clements Junior Catholic School in Waterloo, a suburb of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Sixteen trainees graduated from the Agriculture and Nutrition Project. The event was attended by a representative for the Minister of Agriculture and the Mercy Ships Food for Life in-country partners – City of Rest, Heifer International Sierra Leone, Hope of Glory, and Sierra Canadian Humanitarian and Development Organization.

Seeds are no longer scattered across the ground. Instead, the student farmers made wooden shelves covered with palm leaves to grow seedlings in the shade in an orderly way.

The Food for Life program focuses on long-term sustainability of organic food production using conservation-oriented methods supported by dietary health benefits. Its train-the-trainer approach will have far-reaching effects across the nation for many years to come. To reap the optimal yield per harvest, the training utilizes natural, practical, low-cost, non-invasive farming methods taken from the Scriptures. It also provides fundamental nutritional advice about creating a healthy balanced diet by using the food grown in each crop. This knowledge will help reduce common illnesses by increasing the volume and variety of vegetables and by improving nutrition.

Each partner in the project recruited farmers to participate in the four-month Food for Life course. The trainees were selected from a wide area of the Western Province so they can support each other as they set up their own training sites.

Upon arrival, each trainee was allocated a garden plot for implementation of the new techniques. Each day started with a Bible study. Then farming methodology was taught by Mercy Ships Agriculture Program Facilitator, Jean Claude Mouditou. His wife, Anastasie, provided training in nutrition – the nutritional content of specific foods and methods to create a healthy balanced diet – thus supporting long-term health care in Sierra Leone.

The Mercy Ships Food for Life training at the Waterloo agricultural site is led by Jean Claude Mouditou and his wife Anastasie.

Bambay Sawaneh joined the program with his wife and baby despite a physical disability he suffered during the war. Rebel soldiers chopped off both his hands. A compassionate nun arranged for him to have a surgery that split the stubs of his arms to allow him to grasp things. Without that surgery, farming would have been impossible. His dedication to farming comes from a family history in agriculture. In comparing the Food for Life methods with the traditional ones, he said, “Through this form of training, I came to learn that we have been wasting our time and wasting our energy. It’s like we’re working like an elephant and eat like ant…We destroyed everything out of ignorance.”

Traditionally, African farmers brush and burn the land before scattering seeds, followed by fertilizing with bought products and watering. The organic methods, which do not use brush and burn techniques, produce a high yield of a greater variety of well-formed vegetables three times a year. The investment of money and labor is reduced, while optimizing natural materials to conserve the environment. For example, farmers produce their own compost, rather than purchasing harsh chemicals. Bambay expressed the hope and enthusiasm the farmers have received from the training, saying, “It’s wonderful! I never knew that we are destroying what God has put on this ground to bless us…Now my eyes are open, we can do it the organic way.”

Bambay Sawaneh joyfully accepts his graduation certificate presented by Mercy Ships Interim Africa Mercy Managing Director, Kerry Peterson.

On the day of the graduation, many guests gathered to celebrate the success of the Food for Life Program in Sierra Leone. As they took their seats, they were entertained by the vibrant choral songs of the Women’s Empowerment for Self Development Association. Mercy Ships Programs Administrator, Keith Brinkman, began the ceremony with prayer and worship. Then Bambay Sawaneh, representing the student farmers, gave a comprehensive summary of the knowledge delivered through the program. Next, Jean Claude addressed the trainees, saying, “In Africa, we are blessed from the West to the East. We are living in the blessing of the Lord. You’ve learned a lot, combining agriculture with nutrition. I’m very proud of you people.”

The final speech was delivered by Mercy Ships Off Ship Projects Manager, Tracy Swope. She emphasized the importance of partnering with fellow non-governmental organizations to ensure the new prosperous future.

This sentiment was echoed by a representative from Heifer International Sierra Leone, who stated, “It is very good training to improve knowledge and skills for organic farming from cultivation to harvest. People will have more fruits to sell, and have money, and have nutrition and benefits from the foods.”

Then jubilant celebration erupted as the student farmers officially graduated. Each one received a certificate presented by the Africa Mercyinterim Managing Director, Kerry Peterson. They also were given wheelbarrows, pitchforks and seeds.

Wheelbarrows and spades were presented to the graduate farmers during the graduation ceremony.

After the ceremony, the newly-graduated farmers led the guests on tours of the cultivated garden plots at the Mercy Ships agricultural site. The plots were densely flourishing with an impressive array of shiny vegetables arranged in tidy rows. Hannah Nasu, one of the farmers recruited by Hope of Glory, confided that she expresses her new-found passion for farming in her spontaneous dancing as she sings gospel songs while watering her garden plot. She explained, “I love the work so much that I built my well to water the plants. This is farming God’s way. Everything God has done is perfect.”

Another farmer, 64-year-old Victor Tamba, impressed guests by energetically leaping around his garden plot. His life was filled with unhealthy living and alcoholism, but the training transformed his life by giving it a new purpose. He is delighted that he can share his new knowledge with other families, bringing joy into their lives. He confidently explained, “God opened my eyes. I have come and learned better things for the future.” In fact, he has already used his newly-learned farming methods to create a vegetable plot at home to start feeding his family home-grown vegetables.

Victor Tamba demonstrates the care taken to grow seedlings in natural compost to maximize future plant growth.

The Mercy Ships Food for Life Graduation Ceremony symbolically marked a new beginning, bright with hope for the future. In a country suffering a shortage of food and high import prices, there must be a radical change in food production. The Food for Life Program has the potential to develop the nation agriculturally as the trainees become trainers in their communities. In Victor Tamba’s words:  “God gave this to me. I never dreamed of it. Now I’m an agriculturist. I know my future will be very good now. I can never, never forget it!”

Story by Claire Ross
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Liz Cantu

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