Benin, a small West African country, is home to over 9 million people, including many of the poorest, yet most resilient, hospitable people on earth. Since 2007, Gonzaga has sent students here, to learn from – and contribute to – a remarkable enterprise.
By Professor Mark Alfino Photos by Professor Susan Norwood and Professor Alfino
For seven summers, Gonzaga faculty have led small groups of students to the Songhai Centre, an innovative hive of teaching, farming and agri-tourism. Here, we share the story of Songhai itself.
People who live in wealthy parts of the world, such as North America, Europe and, increasingly, Asia, hear a lot about the obstacles to development in the poorest parts of the world. But there are many heroes of development as well. Their stories are harder to collect than generalities about the absolute poverty of the “bottom billion” of the planet. Father Godfrey Nzamujo of Porto Novo, Benin, is one of those heroes.
Philosophy Professor Mark Alfino: “My teaching and research takes me to Benin to appreciate its culture, to learn about the nature of human culture, our obligations to people in absolute poverty, and maybe something about the problems of our own society. These are the concerns that motivate my courses in the Benin program.”
It is another late arrival for the flight from Paris to Benin. After a long wait for luggage, we meet our guide and begin the drive to Porto Novo. The road takes us across long bridges spanning the shallow lagoons and marshes that make up the coastline of this narrow, low-lying country. Drivers are towing cars to sell in nearby Nigeria. Gas arrives from Nigeria on motorcycles loaded with 50-liter drums and one fearless driver. Canvas-covered pickup trucks are packed beyond capacity with oranges and pineapples. Even near midnight,
the 34-kilometer route – 21 miles – is lined with people buying and selling goods from small stands.
Our destination is the Songhai Centre, a 54-acre agricultural development NGO, or non-governmental organization. Founded in 1984, Songhai is directed by the Nigerian-born, globally educated, Dominican priest Fr. Nzamujo. Gonzaga University has brought scores of students here to Songhai over the last seven years. The compound has the feeling of a tropical college campus, walled off from the chaotic street life of Porto Novo and laid out in well-kept dirt roads that connect dozens of buildings, fields of crops, and other agricultural demonstration projects.
We didn’t expect to see Fr. Nzamujo this late, but as we gather room keys and make our way toward one of Songhai’s agri-tourism hostels, he emerges from
a half-lit road to greet us with warmth and enthusiasm. Even at this late hour, the staff at Songhai’s restaurant has prepared a dinner for us. Our three-faculty delegation is exhausted after a 30-hour trip from Gonzaga, worlds away. He is a gracious host, wishes us a good night, and reminds us that our itinerary starts early tomorrow. We eat under an outdoor gazebo while frogs make nearly human noises nearby. A cooling breeze carries the sound of Koranic chanting from the mosque a few blocks away. It’s Ramadan, the annual month-long religious holiday that is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith.
GU-in-Benin began in 2006, with engineering students developing ceramic filters to ensure clean drinking water for villagers. The Songhai Centre now manufactures those filters.
The Songhai Centre borrows its name from a 16th century empire centered on the Niger River, encompassing a large section of sub-Saharan West Africa, and cutting across many of the borders European colonialists would draw much later. As a model for agricultural development and revitalization of rural life, Fr. Nzamujo’s Songhai may well be known across more of West Africa than the original Songhai Empire. The Songhai model of intensive and sustainable agriculture is designed to be replicated and, since recognition as a U.N. Center of Excellence in 2007, has grown as fast as the crops in its fields. New Songhai centers are emerging via public and private partnerships across Benin, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and other nearby countries. Over 1,500 farm interns have trained at the Porto Novo site in the last 25 years; many receive micro-finance loans to begin farms based on the intensive methods demonstrated and improved upon in Porto Novo.
A Songhai tour presents countless lessons in “extreme recycling and reuse.” Drainage canals along the roads collect water to refresh fish ponds; palm husks from palm oil production are reused to grow mushrooms and then reused again in compost. Waste from animals produces bio-gas. Effluent from the fish ponds goes back into the fields as fertilizer. Dead animals and manure grow maggots to feed fish. Nothing works alone here. Songhai has also cultivated hybrid varieties of plants for seed crops and even domesticated the marmot-like “grasscutter” (overhunted in the wild as “bushmeat”). You will find many typical crops here, such as tomatoes, peppers and green beans, but also elephant grass (for the grasscutters), bryophyllum, a natural antibiotic, and water hyacinth, which thrives on the effluent from latrines. There are chickens, pigs, quail, guinea fowl, snails, rabbits and turkeys, many in varieties that thrive in West African conditions. Catfish and tilapia fill the fishponds. There isn’t a bag of store-bought fertilizer in sight.
Nursing Professor Susan Norwood poses these questions to her students in Benin: “How do features of the environment such as geography and climate, air quality, water availability and quality, and urbanization affect health? To what extent do differences in these features for the U.S. and Benin explain differences we see in disease occurrence and overall well-being for these two countries?”
Biogas production has been in place for years. New this year is a wood-gasification electric generation project, supported by two engineers from India. The fuel comes from a fast growing tree variety, the moringa. Widely used in developing countries, this technology can make a kilowatt of electricity from about three pounds of this wood, which can be grown as a crop. Waste from the gasification process goes into a steaming compost pile.
At breakfast the morning after our arrival, Fr. Nzamujo mixes Songhai news with tangents on development theory and agricultural research. At times he sounds like an agricultural extension agent, ready to tell you how to get more tomatoes from your plants. He’s clearly passionate about increasing the productivity of subsistence farmers. With advanced degrees in science and engineering, he also knows the details of most of the techniques developed and demonstrated here. The breakfast talk shifts seamlessly from cultivating crops to cultivating character and personal discipline and from there to spiritual transformation and the need to reverse urbanization in Africa. I first heard this eclectic spiel of development, sustainability, entrepreneurialism and spiritualism in 2011, when we brought a group of Gonzaga students for the Gonzaga-in-Benin program, a small-group study abroad program. I teased him then, asking if he were businessman or priest. Without pause he reminded me and the students that Jesus did not make that distinction; the miracle of multiplying bread and fish to feed a crowd of thousands was also part of Christ’s spiritual mission. For good measure, and perhaps because he knew I am a philosopher, he connected his point to Western philosophy’s separation of form and content, even using the Greek term for this, “hylomorphism.” It might have been a stretch, but he clearly did not feel the need to interpret the miracle story through the categories of Greek and Western European thought. Feeding body and spirit are part of the same project for Fr. Nzamujo. It is significant that religious affiliation is not a selection criteria for interns at Songhai. As throughout Benin, Christians work side by side with Moslems, and voodoo is still widely practiced.
Nick Pangares: “Studying in Benin this summer allowed me to conduct hands-on research on economic development in a sub-Saharan African country. I wrote my paper on the Songhai Centre and how it relates to other models of development and the cultural tendencies of African communities. This is exactly the type of economic study I would like to do in the future.”
Click here to read It Takes a (Beninese) Village by Nick Pangares
In keeping with the mantras of synergy and recycling, Fr. Nzamujo welcomes every contribution that fits the model. That includes the Gonzaga-in-Benin program itself, which has a seven-year history of educational, technical, and humanitarian projects with Songhai. Former Gonzaga engineering faculty Brad Streibig started a successful water filtration project here, which Songhai has taken on as a business. Gonzaga has provided health education for Songhai interns under the leadership of Gonzaga nursing faculty, Susan Norwood. At Songhai’s request, we will bring future students for new projects such as documenting outcomes for Songhai graduates. Gonzaga’s two-week visit each year is a very small moment in the lifecycle of this buzzing hive of rural regeneration. Meanwhile, our presence supports everything from the restaurant to the growth of the water hyacinth. We are a form of higher education agri-tourism for Songhai, taking knowledge, news and inspiration from Songhai and leaving service, projects and a bit of hard currency, which is, of course, recycled as well.