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It is difficult to convey the sense of excitement and uplift we felt at Songhaï. To get the full effect you have to be there, with the irrepressible Fr Nzamujo to explain what's going on. Nonetheless, here's an attempt to describe the project.
By way of background, Benin is a desperately poor country. Annual GDP per capita is around $1200. Official figures put some 30 percent of the population below the poverty line, but this figure must be based on a restrictive definition of poverty. Life expectancy is 54 years; infant mortality (to age 5) is 167 per 1000; literacy rates are 49 percent for men and 29 percent for women; 44 percent of the population are without access to safe water.
Another part of the background is widespread corruption. We heard that if the government could collect 70 percent of the customs duties they are due, in the port of Cotonou, this alone would solve the problem of government finances; at present they collect more like 20 percent, while customs officials enrich themselves at the expense of the state. We also heard of large-scale barefaced theft of state property by local capitalists.
Fr Nzamujo Godfrey,
A third factor to bear in mind is the utter failure of grandiose "development projects" planned by outside consultants and financed by institutions such as the World Bank. Part of Songhaï Savalou occupies the site of one such project, a $12-million deal whose legacy today is a heap of rusting farm machinery (which Songhaï will melt down for scrap) and some concrete farm buildings described by Fr Nzamujo as "death traps" (and due for demolition).
Against this background, the aim of Songhaï (founded in 1985, and named after the great medieval West African kingdom) is to foster a mode of development based on a thoroughly scientific approach to agriculture and small-scale industry, combined with honesty, integrity, and a highly developed sense of community. Songhaï aims to "put Africa on its own feet", making the best use of local resources and contributing to the world an economic practice grounded in advanced ecological principles. The three Songhaï sites in Benin are "model farms", showing what can be done with the application of intelligence and public spirit. They are also centres of outreach to the villages, offering relevant technical education and links to the "outside world" via digital radio and computer systems.
Fr Nzamujo's motto is "The only way to fight poverty is by helping the poor become productive". The Songhaï website states,
"Our objective at Songhaï is to promote agricultural entrepreneurship among the young Africans while developing and transmitting appropriate human values for a change of behavior so that they become actors of their own development, capable of initiative and creativity. The Songhaï philosophy is replicable all over the world."
Songhaï, and Fr Nzamujo personally, command a remarkable degree of respect in Benin. Almost all the officials we met held up Songhaï as a paradigm of what could be achieved and a sign of hope. Harry Lightfoot of USAID, who formerly headed the agency's West African operations, told us that he took a posting to Benin specifically so that he could work with Songhaï, and indeed we saw plaques acknowledging USAID assistance at the Songhaï telecentres.
Fr Nzamujo makes it clear to Songhaï employees that giving or taking bribes is a firing offence. This rectitude has sometimes landed Songhaï people in trouble with low-level officialdom. Fr Nzamujo mentioned one recent case where he had to rescue an employee from jail. He was able to do so because he has the respect of government Ministers (the top officials we met struck us as honorable people and Fr Nzamujo is able to exert considerable moral pressure). His access to government dates back to 1985, when General Kerekou's Marxist regime granted him land at Porto Novo to start Songhaï.
At present Songhaï is centered in Benin, but a large expansion is planned for neighboring Nigeria. Ultimately, Songhai's ambition to transform the poor into productive, educated and community-minded citizens is continental, if not global, in scope.
From the start of Wake Forest's summer program in Benin, in 1998, relations with Songhaï have been close. This summer the Wake students began their time in Benin with a week at the Porto Novo site, Fr Nzamujo helped arrange our meetings with government officials, and it was Songhaï drivers who took us around the country.
The question that naturally arises is, What can Wake Forest do to help Songhaï? In past years some students have stayed on in Benin to work at Songhaï after the end of the study program (for instance, last year a Wake student translated the Songhaï web materials into English). We could do more of this, and involve faculty and staff as well as students. Some practical possibilities are: