In a four-hectares natural area located in the midst of the Pahou forest, in the town of Ouidah, educator and environmental advocate Mere Jah founded a Centre of Awakening, Animation and Stimulation for Children (CEVASTE): a unique educational concept in Benin. Mere Jah, who is over 60 years old, left the Guadeloupe nearly 20 years ago to settle down in the Benin Republic where she currently lives with her husband. Together, they created EcoloJah, a primary school providing opportunities for disadvantaged children from rural areas to thrive through a different approach of education combining Pan-African history and Agroecology.
An Eden Garden in the heart of Benin
15 miles away from Cotonou, Benin’s economic capital, Mere Jah built her own Eden garden: an ecological village with a primary school where agroecology is one of the main subjects. A dream she, and her husband, nurtured for so long and that is now a reality. Known for her commitment within the Rastafari community, Mere Jah worked and advocated for several years to encourage the massive return of people of African-descent on the African continent, following the footsteps of Marcus Garvey, a pioneer of the Back-to-Africa movement in the 20th century. Settling in Benin, especially in the city of Ouidah, was not a trivial choice since this village once housed one of the main slaves ports of the transatlantic slave trade.
Inside the CEVASTE founded in 1999, a one-of-a-kind school was simultaneously born: EcoloJah, a primary and alternative school with about a hundred students from rural areas. In addition to the traditional teachings of Benin’s national curriculum, the focus of this school is the transmission of key values, the teaching of the Pan-African history and practice of activities such as agroecological farming (an agriculture respectful to nature), food processing and utility crafts.
Today, the most fertile lands are the children
While alternative education is not entirely new in Benin, EcoloJah is the first primary school in the country in which agriculture, ecology, and sustainable development are disciplines taught in their own rights as well as history or mathematics. According to Mere Jah, alternative education is now essential. She believes that it’s time for Africans to “get out of the colonization model to establish a new model rooted in their own values and that meets their needs.”
Revaluing the farming profession
In Benin Republic, a West Africa country of 9 million people where 60% of the population live in rural areas, agriculture plays a major role in economic development. Despite a good climate and fertile lands producing a variety of food crops such as yams, cassava and maize, this sector faces many challenges: lack of farmers’ training, difficult access to land and resources, ecological issues and rural exodus.
By creating an endogenous school, Mere Jah measured the key role of the farmer in today’s society and the importance of teaching agroecological farming at school from an early age. EcoloJah students, who are mainly from disadvantaged family backgrounds, learn how to grow their own fruits and vegetables, and feed themselves with mainly organic earth products.
The impact of this teaching on children of the rural sector is phenomenal because by introducing agroecological farming in their education, it rehabilitates the most essential job to humanity: the farmer. When we value the farming profession, children become aware of the importance of this function, and wish, in their turn, to do this job in the future.
An alternative model that pays off
This approach, which is complementary and not opposed to classical education since it integrates all the national curriculum subjects, is already bearing fruit. “Several former students of EcoloJah satisfied with their experience there, have subsequently enrolled their children,” Mere Jah said. “Our own children and grandchildren attended this school.” She adds that the specificity of Ecolojah is “to aim not only to fill the heads of students but to produce beings loving themselves as Africans, conscious humans with a sense of responsibility for the future of Africa, the Mother Earth.”
Today, one of our main priorities is the environment. Humanity has made the mistake of sawing off the branch on which we all sit, that is nature.
Agroecology, the future of agriculture in Africa
In EcoloJah, the focus is on a 100% organic, diversified and environmentally friendly agriculture. While it is true that AgroEcology is a more suitable approach to current climate issues since it goes against the industrial agricultural model, and privileges the use of natural inputs (such as compost) to the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in farms, its social impact could even be greater if it were more widespread in Africa. In a recent study published by the British organization Global Justice Now (From The Roots Up – How Agroecology Can Feed Africa, 2015), AgroEcology is defined as an entire ecosystem since it encompasses all the sustainable agriculture techniques, farmers’ rights, socio-economic and food chain policies and aims to optimize agricultural production while protecting the interests of farmers in priority, instead of those of multinationals. According to research, AgroEcology can increase production, employment opportunities, and agricultural biodiversity, reduce gender inequalities, improve health, reduce global warming and feed the whole of Africa.
Agroecology is one of the most effective ways to achieve food security.
A business model based on social economy
In the large Cevaste’s garden, a true agriculture lab Mere Jah loves to refer as “the students’ homework”, are naturally grown a variety of foods including market garden vegetables (lettuce, carrots, beets, eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, spinach, mint, basil) ; tubers (sweet potatoes, tarot, yams, cassava) ; fruits (coconut, oranges, lemons, mangoes, cashews, avocados) ; and cereals (sweet corn and soy). Food products are used both to supply the school canteen and feed the residents of the Centre (staff, volunteers, and visitors). They are also sold through a direct distribution network between producers and consumers based on the principle of Associations for the Maintenance of Peasant Agriculture (AMAP).
In addition to farmlands, there is a food processing section in the Centre consisting mainly of transforming soybean in milk, cheese and pate as well as producing fruit jams. Marketing vegetables helps fund the Centre’s activities, including the school, and is one of the main revenue of the Jah family. To this, are added a workshop production of utilitarian art crafts, cultural and historical pilgrimages, youth camps and personalized trainings. The business model of Cevaste is then based on an integrated, social and solidarity economy. Mere Jah also benefits from the support of several donors such as the Espace Afrique Foundation.
What is wonderful in Africa is that we can all do something. The smallest initiative towards our neighbour can be fructified
A Pan-African dream
Mere Jah’s commitment for education, environmental protection, the return to Earth, and the knowledge of the Pan African history earned her a weekly segment on Benin’s national radio. Although the Cevaste is attracting more and more visitors from around the world, and the number of students is growing, Mere Jah remains aware of the amount of work she has left in the fulfilment of what she describes as her mission: “Transforming Cevaste into a place of life, hospitality and emulation in order to influence the rest of mankind to return to a lifestyle in harmony with nature.” In order to achieve this, she highlights the many challenges she still needs to address: optimizing the Centre’s solar system, improving habitat capacity, opening a second school level dedicated to entrepreneurship in the rural sector, creating new workshops and purchasing a minibus for students, trainees and visitors transportation. But she does not stop there. Her dream? Duplicating this model in other African countries. We wish her the best of luck.