In a remote area in Benin on a Saturday afternoon, a group of men, women and children dressed in their finest attire listen to a choir singing, “Oh, Happy Day, when Jesus washed my sins away!” One might think they were at a church service, but this is a celebration of achievement.
Twenty four-year-old Serge Medeho is proud to stand among his classmates at the Food for Life graduation. He displays unusual maturity and determination. He has worked extremely hard for 4 long months, and today he will stand with his 19 classmates to commemorate the completion of the program. He simply says, “Now, I am looking ahead , and I am ready to return home and use what I have learned. I hope to get a large plot of land to practice my biological agriculture.”
Mercy Ships teamed with Bethesda of Benin, a non-governmental organization (NGO), to create the Food for Life Agriculture Program. The second graduating class boasts nineteen men and one woman. They have completed a gruelling 16-week course in which they learned about biological agriculture and how to manage and market a farm. Now they are armed with the knowledge, tools and skills required to become thriving agriculturists – and, better yet, they can teach others to use these new methods.
The director for Food for Life Bethesda, Urbain Lontchedji, spoke to the graduates and guests at the ceremony, saying, “I know our training was very hard , and the students got up ev ery morning and worked long days. Thank you to the families for letting your brothers, sons, and husbands leave home and come here to learn. They will be better off because of it.”
The partnership between Bethesda and Mercy Ships was the key to the program's success. Bethesda Director, Victor Gbedo, explained, “This program would not exist without Mercy Ships . We had the idea for this program, but not th e means to see it through. Mercy Ships stepped in and provided funding. We are so thankful for this partnership, and I know the graduates appreciate it just as much. We are transforming lives. ”
Half of the twenty participants were selected by Mercy Ships and half by Bethesda. Applicants were chosen according to their background in agriculture, and they attended the program free of charge. They gained in-depth knowledge about organic farming – such as composting, using home-made insecticide, and layering crops that thrive when planted together.
During the course, the participants live on-site at the Bethesda Food for Life Training Center. Each student is given a plot of land to maintain. They grow fruits and vegetables such as pineapples, tangerines, corn, beans, peanuts, eggplant, tomatoes, and green beans.
The students and teachers live off of the crops they grow at the center, but they cannot possibly eat all the food they grow! Thus, the center is a wonderful food source for people living in the surrounding villages. “We don't even have to bring the food into town,” says Mercy Ships Agriculture Program Facilitator, Jean-Claude Mouditou. “They know it is here , and the people come and purchase the food right as it is harvested.”
Providing food for villagers is an added bonus to this amazing program. The main benefit is that the students receive skills and knowledge to be successful farmers. The ultimate goal is that they will share their new-found skills with others, expanding the impact of the program.
Mercy Ships Managing Director, Donovan Palmer, told the graduates that Mercy Ships is delighted to be a partner in this program. He also gave them a challenge, saying, “I want you to use your faith and ask God to take what you have learned and grow it into something greater than you can ever imagine.” Then Donovan paused and asked, “Are you excited?”
And the graduates replied with a resounding, “Oui!” (Yes!!)
At the end of the ceremony, each graduate was presented with a new wheelbarrow filled with a set of supplies. Two watering cans, a shovel, a pitchfork, rubber boots, a bucket, and seeds were among the items. As the graduates excitedly rolled their wheelbarrows out of the building, Serge Medeho expressed the feelings of all of the participants when he declared, “This equipment is so wonderful. It will help us truly succeed!”
After the ceremony, Serge paused to reflect on his experience. “I don't even have the words to say ‘T hank you. ' God passed through this organization and helped each one of us. How did I get so lucky? Being here has added so much to who I am … t o what I can do. It's t ruly amazing.”
Serge's sister, Therese, has seen a change in him. “He loves it here. He behaves so differently now. By God's grace , this is possible, and I know he will be very successful now.”
At the close of the ceremony, Mercy Ships Switzerland Director, Bryce Wagner, said a few words expressing how proud Mercy Ships is of these graduates and how their skills will serve them well. He concluded, “Vous êtes l'avenir d'Afrique” (“You are the future of Africa!”)
Indeed, they are! And the crowd obviously agreed as they stood and erupted into claps and cheers.
Story by Claire Bufe