Passing the wisdom along - MRDF in Togo

‘Once I saw what people really think of wisdom. It happened when a powerful ruler surrounded and attacked a small city where only a few people lived. The enemy army was getting ready to break through the city walls. But the city was saved by the wisdom of a poor person who was soon forgotten. So I decided that wisdom is better than strength.’ Ecclesiastes 9:13 – 16a.

Kombate tends his plots of onions – one of the many crops he now grows, thanks to training from MRDF’s partner.

What is wisdom? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the possession of experience and knowledge together with the power of applying them critically or practically”. But for a group of communities living in Northern Togo, it means more food on the table and extra funds to send children to school.

In a country ranked 159th out of 179 countries by the Human Development Index - which measures factors such as life expectancy, literacy levels and income - this makes a significant

difference to people’s lives.

Deepening a community’s wisdom – by equipping people with skills and knowledge that they can use to support their families in the long term – is a vital part of the work of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund (MRDF). In the rural Dapaong area of Northern Togo, where the soil is dry and sandy, the charity is seeing the results of teaching people how to improve the quality of the land so that they can grow food for life.

‘Before the soil was only rock’, said farmer Pakteka Lamboni. ‘Now it is fertile and the harvests are better. On my plot I could only harvest one bucket of rice, now we harvest two, sometimes three.’

For Pakteka, the difference between her ‘before’ and ‘after’ was the training sessions she took part in. Over three months, she and other villagers participated in sustainable agriculture workshops, which included activities in environmental protection and tree planting.

Rain used to wash the soil away, making it impossible for crops to be grown on the land. Community members would gather stones and make small piles with them in their fields to stop the rain destroying the soil, but this didn’t work. Now, armed with new-found knowledge, they gather large stones from their fields and create short, straight walls on the edges based on the flow of water during the rainy season. When it rains, the lines of stones slow down the flow of water, effectively reducing the erosion of the soil.

Eco-friendly stoves are now being used in the communities. Pakteka’s pot fits neatly into the hole, reducing the loss of heat..

Pakteka and other villagers also learnt how to enrich the soil by using compost made from tree leaves and vegetable skins. Pakteka and her husband grow rice, maize and okra, which means their family has more regular meals during the dry season.

Villagers also participated in workshops in market gardening, which trained people in how to grow onions, peppers, tomatoes, aubergines and herbs. This type of gardening has proved particularly crucial to the villagers during the dry season when crops such as rice and maize cannot be grown. The fact that people can eat these vegetables and sell them at this time of the year is a major feat. During previous dry seasons, families would have been uncertain about where their meals would come from.

Yannick Milev, MRDF Programme Officer for West Africa, met many people like Pakteka when he visited Togo in April. ‘I spoke to a number of community members – I wanted to find out how our work had impacted on their everyday lives. One man told me he used to harvest one bag of maize every year and he now harvests four. He now has extra money to send his children to school. Another told me how he had doubled his onion yield. As a Programme Officer, I had read about these kind of results in reports – it was amazing to see first-hand how this type of training can revolutionise communities.’

MRDF’s partner has also provided eco-friendly stoves to dozens of families. Pots are shaped to fit into the stoves, so there is no loss of heat and ashes do not go into the food. The shape of the pots also stops the wind from blowing hot ashes onto the dry grassy areas and starting bushfires.

The use of eco-friendly stoves has also led to a dramatic cut in the amount of charcoal people use for cooking – up to five times less, according to the villagers. This means that fewer trees are being cut down for fuel. MRDF’s partner is also providing resources for villagers to plant trees that are indigenous to the region – which is helping to reduce soil erosion and provides leaves for compost.

MRDF supports community-saving schemes where individuals regularly contribute small amounts of money to a communal fund. Group members can access this to start a business, pay medical fees or invest in farming equipment. Pakteka has been a member of a group for five years. She said: ‘I gained a sense of belonging when I joined my group. It’s a place where I can learn and where we share ideas. My group also helped me to start my soybean plantation.’

Pakteka was able to start her plantation by borrowing funds from her group’s savings account. Before this, she had participated in MRDF-run workshops and learnt how to use soybeans to make more nutritional foods for her three children. Like many other women, she also made enough produce from her soybeans to sell in the local markets and in schools. MRDF is currently supporting 29 groups like Pakteka’s in Northern Togo.

As well as facilitating workshops in agricultural techniques and supporting saving schemes, MRDF’s partner also provides training on household budgeting and managing harvest yields. Men are taught to share the power of decision-making with their wives and together they work out expenses for farming production and household needs. The workshops emphasise the importance of saving money for medical and school expenses, to repair tools after the farming season and for emergencies like funerals.

And in one home, the budgeting sessions have helped bring peace to the household – Kombate now quarrels less with his two wives. He said: ‘Before I was the master in the house and did not listen to my wives. We now sit down together to discuss the management of the household.’

For Kombate, learning how to manage his harvest outputs has also transformed his life. Staff from MRDF’s partner organisation encouraged him to carry out an assessment of his crops at the end of the harvest period. He now calculates how much of this his family will need on a daily basis over the year, ensuring that they have enough to eat during the dry season.

He said: ‘[Before this teaching], all of a sudden the granary would be empty without me knowing it, and this would always happen in the dry season. Now I can ensure my family has food to eat all year round.’

For Pakteka, Kombate and thousands of villagers in Northern Togo, training has transformed every aspect of life. The soil is more enriched, crops are growing and the environment is being preserved. As a result of more food being grown and sold, more children are attending school and families are saving more for emergencies and business investments. Thanks to MRDF support, communities that were living on the edge of poverty now approach the future with a greater sense of security.

Furrowing is helping to prevent the soil from being washed away.

And the flow of wisdom continues. This year, MRDF’s partner organisation will begin training up locals as village-based facilitators – people who will share the skills and expertise they have learnt with others. Spreading the knowledge in this way will ensure that more people get the most out of their land. Kombate will take part in this new training scheme. He said: ‘I feel that my role is to make sure the knowledge that [MRDF’s partner] has imparted to me is useful to the whole community.’ Here, strength has come from wisdom.