Food for Life graduation

Mercy Ships, Photojournalism

Firstly, here’s a photo I took on the way to the graduation ceremony in Benin. It has little relevance to the rest of the blog, other than it was my first taste of Benin… not that we saw any other violence. I was driving one of the landrovers on the way there and hopped out briefly to take this snapshot. Unfortunately the humidity outside relative to the cool dry air conditioning inside the vehicle meant my lens immediately clouded up. And I couldn’t stay long enough to get closer or wipe the lens because the queue was starting to move and the six people I’d abandoned inside the landrover were eager to move on…

Mercy Ships teamed with Bethesda of Benin, a fellow NGO, to create the Food for Life Agriculture Program. The following photos are from the second graduating class so far. They underwent a 16 week course where they learnt about biological agriculture and how to manage and market a farm. Now they not only have agricultural knowledge, tools and skills, but they can pass on their knowledge to fellow Africans to improve farming practice in their local areas.

Here is Jens, one of the ship’s carpenters, who came along to join in the celebrations. The wheelbarrow full of farming tools in front is one of those given to each graduate.

Urbain Lontchedji (left – director of Food for Life at Bethesda) and Jean-Claude Moditou (right – the Mercy Ships Agriculture Program Facilitator) host the graduation ceremony. In an interview with Claire, Urbain said “This program would not exist without Mercy Ships. We had the idea for this program, but not the 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.”

In my opinion it is the small steps like these that can really transform communities. Work like the surgeries the Mercy Ships performs are totally life changing for the individual, but to help a continent like Africa it is the health, sanitisation, agricultural and general education programs that improves life and prevents many of these diseases and afflictions in the first place.

As with all African celebrations of one sort or another, singing and dancing always plays a role. A choir of graduates that started with a rather forced rendition of  ‘Oh, Happy Days’, suddenly exploded into a full on celebration of songs that are now beginning to become familiar…

These ceremonies tend to go on for a while, but eventually culminate with a certificate and photograph being presented to the graduates.

Here Jean-Claude showed the tools that are presented to each graduate. Half of the twenty participants were selected by Mercy Ships and half by Bethesda. Each was identified because of their background in agriculture, and attends the program free of charge. They gain in-depth knowledge on organic farming such as composting, using home-made insecticide, and layering crops that thrive when planted together.

The participants live on-site at the Bethesda Food for Life Training Center for the duration of the course. Each student is given a plot of land that is theirs to maintain. The trainees grow fruits and vegetables such as pineapple, tangerines, corn, beans, peanuts, eggplant, tomatoes, and green beans.

The students and teachers live off of the crops they grow at the centre, but they grow far more than they can eat, so locals come to buy food directly. Though it is not much, this money then of course goes back into the program.

As anyone who has visited developing nations knows, people may not have a proper diet, access to basic health care or a fair income or wage. But they will almost certainly have a mobile.

I remember showing a few photographs to David Hurn a while ago, hoping to receive some feedback and critical advice. He noted that I’d taken a few large group photos and said that it was something he’d regretted not taking more of. If you look through peoples photos on sites like facebook group photos come up again and again, but for many amateur/enthusiast photography sites like flickr, they’re not so common. Group photos from the past are always interesting I think – whether you know the people or not. It is interesting seeing/being reminded what fashions were like, how people have aged since, and what the relationships between the subjects are.

A Food for Life graduate with his friends, family and Claire (left).

Food for Life graduates from Togo.

Food for Life graduates pose with friends and family.

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