By Muyiwa Adetiba
Imagine you were in your 30s, had doctorate degrees in a couple of disciplines which gave you a prestigious and comfortable lifestyle in an American University. You were single and therefore devoid of distractions in an environment that would allow you to fulfil your academic and social potentials. More significantly, you were a black person from Africa where diseases ravaged, poverty ravaged, crime ravaged, corruption ravaged and had been lucky to escape all these into a different clime where freedom and opportunities beckoned.
Would the images of Africa, the documentaries on Africa that the media constantly aired give you a sense of relief that you had escaped the throes of war, insecurity and hunger which the continent increasingly represented or would they haunt and make you question the meaning of your life? Would you deem it wise to give up the shoes many covet and go back to the very place thousand were dying to escape from?
This however, is not a hypothetical story. It is the story of Rev. Fr. Godfrey Nzamujo, a Dominican priest. By 1983 while still in his 30s, he had obtained doctorate degrees in Electronics, Microbiology and Developmental Science and was ensconced in the comfort and security of university life as a professor. But it was at a time famine was raging in Ethiopia and the pictures of children with sunken eyes and bloated stomachs filled the international media.
The pictures haunted Fr. Nzamujo and eventually challenged him. He was quoted as saying ‘The stories coming out of Africa challenged my values as a Priest, an Academic and as a Developmental Scientist. I knew Africa to be rich with vast resources everywhere. The fact that Africa had become so poor that it needed aid to survive upset me and I felt I needed to show the world a different Africa.’
His vision was to kick poverty out of Africa with dignity through industry. In choosing the name Songhai to drive his vision, he chose to remember the history of the West African region as a powerful and economically stable zone. He also noted the core values that had contributed to the emergence of the civilisation of West Africa; namely vision, courage, creativity, discipline and a sense of community.
This was in the days of the Songhai Empire. This history of West Africa which dated over a thousand years, had been broken but he felt it could be fixed again through integrated and sustainable agriculture. He also felt the land which had been abused and damaged through indiscriminate use of chemicals could be rejuvenated again.
His ultimate goal was a holistic integration of bio-energy, aqua-culture and crop production to develop human, technical, environmental and financial resources throughout Africa. He also wanted to develop people who would have the vision, motivation and capabilities to actualise this goal for Africa.
It was a tall order. One that met with resistance everywhere even within his family members and country. The biblical saying of ‘A prophet is not without honour save in his own country’ which Fr. Godfrey must know very well as a priest, became more than true in his case. After being turned down by Nigeria, he went to Benin, a tiny neighbourhood country which started him off with a mere hectare of land.
That hectare yielded bountiful fruits literally and figuratively. Songhai soon became a pride to Benin, a pride to West Africa and a pride to Africa. One hectare yielded 22 hectares in Porto Novo and became a mother farm birthing 150 and 300 hectares in other parts of Benin Republic. It also now has franchises in 15 African countries with Nigeria leading the pack. The rejected stone had become the corner stone of Africa’s agricultural developments.
I had heard of Songhai before and longed to visit. What I discovered when I found myself as part of a tour group jointly organised by Hadur and Glaf —the former is a tourist agency while the latter is a farm—fascinated and impressed me. To start with, it is difficult not only to keep a dream alive but also to make it grow year in year out. It takes grit, determination and grace. According to our guide, the Songhai experiment is an experiment in determination, organisation and discipline. These are some of the qualities needed in order for Africa to stand up and be counted.
Songhai encourages people to develop themselves using the resources available to them. But as I toured the different areas of Songhai in search of knowledge I could not help but observe workers working at their own pace. Some were leisurely while some really applied themselves. It made me think of the attitude of African workers to work. It also made me think of the challenges of a motivated workforce. I thought of the vastness of the farm and what it would require in terms of security to prevent pilferage.
This inevitably made me think of the periods of frustration and the number of times Fr. Godfrey would have felt like packing it all in. I thought of the inevitable sacrifice that gave birth to this oasis in the African desert; this spot of light in the African darkness and I am glad he didn’t give up because of the hope it has given to many.
Many have tried to replicate the Songhai experiment and have failed even with the help of Songhai personnel because it takes more than money and lip service. It takes passion, discipline, motivation and a burning desire to offer this kind of service to mankind.
Songhai has become a Mecca of sorts to people. Some visit as a place of spiritual retreat, some, a place to honeymoon; and judging from the number of expatriates I saw milling around, a tourist attraction. But actually, Songhai is a school—principally of agriculture, but also of life.
Over 300 students within the ages of 18 to 35 graduate every year after spending 15 months learning the theoretical, practical and business sides of farming. The idea is to plant good seeds into these youths in the hope that some of the seeds will fall on fertile minds and germinate. This is in addition to those who do sandwich courses.
To me however, Songhai is first of all about nature—the relationship between air, water and plants. It is about using research and technology to maximise your resources—almost everything used at the centre is made within it with water being filtered and recycled through hyacinth, a plant we have not been able to find a worthy use for in Nigeria.
Songhai is about a man who re-examined his values and was determined to grow beyond his personal needs. A man who found a purpose for his life and defined success his own way. Finally, Songhai is about what is possible in Africa.
An apt summary of the Songhai story is: “Head, Heart and Hands.” On second thoughts, start with “Mind.”