Fidji Kifufu, looks over a diseased manioc plant in a pastoral student's field.
Following the 2013 gardening season Fidji encouraged students to cover the gardens with a soil-enriching cover crop. Pastoral students will have more productive gardens this year, which means less hunger during the dry season.
While Rita Chapman has encouraged this energetic young agronomist, she is the first to recognize that this young man has breathed new life and hope into the pastoral school's agricultural program.
Kikongo pastoral students clear garden space for the dry season. Like nearly all rural households, pastoral students rely on fields, gardens and fruit trees around the house to feed their families, even as they study to be pastors.
That is one reason that the Kikongo Pastor’s School (IPK) made agriculture a key part of its program. Leaders wanted to make sure that candidate pastors and their families could make a decent living off the land. But their vision extended further. They knew that better varieties and improved agricultural techniques could improve rural people’s production. (It is not unusual to be able to double production with varieties and techniques available today.) They also knew that people had few opportunities to hear about and try out agricultural innovations. They reasoned that, if young pastors could see the potential of agricultural innovations while preparing for rural pastorates, when they started their ministries they would be equipped to share God’s provision for more productive farming, more secure food supply and better livelihoods.
Despite its importance, the agricultural program had been neglected for years. Students began to wonder why they should even have to cultivate fields at all. In 2013 that changed. IPK engaged an energetic and organized young agronomist, Fidji Kifufu, to work with students. During a short visit last spring, we worked together on a calendar of activities, with an emphasis on high-yielding varieties of peanuts, manioc and corn; simple ideas for improving soil fertility and a strategy for dry-season gardens (a supplementary food source during the “hungry season”).
At the end of May I spent a week with Fidji and the IPK students. What has happened in the last year has been remarkable. I hope that the change in these families’ prospects (both during their study years at Kikongo and in their future parishes) will be equally remarkable. The shift in direction was not easy. Students started off grumbling a lot. Cultivating fields is hard work! Juggling classwork and fieldwork, especially during planting and early weeding, requires intelligence and persistence. Under Fidji’s guidance, the students planted two new varieties of peanuts and manioc. The rains didn’t cooperate (three weeks of drought just at flowering time). The peanut harvest was disappointing … until students compared their yields with the even more disappointing yields of neighbors cultivating the current traditional varieties.
But the manioc fields I saw that week were the best fields in years. Manioc plants were tall and vigorous. Disease-resistant varieties dominate the student fields for the first time ever, I think. This may be the first year that student families can supply most of what they eat from their own fields rather than having to buy food on the local market or maybe even go hungry.
Fidji encouraged students to plant riverside gardens during the dry season last year. In past years, students maintained their gardens only through the last marking period of the school year. But in 2013, many families continued to plant and harvest vegetables through the long vacation. According to Rita Chapman, mothers were astonished at how well they ate during the dry-season break because of those gardens.
Students have been experimenting with cover crops this year too. Vining plants in the bean family help restore nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. After eight months, the gardens are ready to give another crop of nutritious vegetables. I found the students clearing and shaping the new planting beds. Rita says that many students remarked on how easy it is to clear and prepare the site covered in a cover crop (as opposed to natural woody bush fallow). Renewed fertility and less effort to prepare the next year’s garden – cover crops are beginning to make practical sense to students.
Students still grumble about the work in their own agricultural fields. But after a year, the grumbles are somewhat muted by surprisingly healthy crops and improved production. Two weeks ago, Rita wrote again after an evaluation of student fields:
"What really wowed us all was the impressive number of manioc tubers under each sample we looked at from each field. With only gentle digging, we counted 17 tubers on one plant - and there were probably more underneath that we didn't see. An Nsansi plant [improved manioc variety] had 15. The students are thrilled. . . . The third year students are saying that when they leave next week, they are going to tell everyone along the way that there is no more hunger at IPK."
Every once in a while, we get a chance to be part of people catching glimpses of provisions that God has made for people here in Congo. Seventeen tubers on one plant is not a fluke; it is the regular production of superior varieties planted at the right time and cared for throughout their production cycle. God created those plants and created inquisitive scientific minds that “discovered” them and the techniques that make them highly productive. Who better to tell people in impoverished communities about them than a new pastoral graduate who has literally tasted the fruits of God’s handiwork?