“Kyria, what do you think it means to preach the gospel to all creation?” my friend Katie asks me as we sweat over a garden bed in preparation to plant the next rotation’s crop. We’re working in the vegetable garden that Katie oversees. My sore muscles, blistered hands, and fatigue level (not to mention the continuous trickle of sweat down my back) are reminders that I’m not yet accustomed to serious manual labor in the West African climate. I smile at Katie’s question; after almost three years living here, she can work tirelessly all day and still has the mental energy to have deep philosophical conversations, mid-swing of a hoe. I invite her to share with me how she’d answer her own question.
Let me tell you about an oasis in the West African Sahel, a place you should visit if you’d like to see how a group of people are answering Katie’s question. This oasis is called The Beer-Sheba Project. It’s where Katie works, along with a whole team of people who have a vision for agriculture, community life, and transformational development. It’s a place where faith and farming are joined, where the Creator and His Word instruct interns in caring for the creation, where future leaders of the West African church are trained to also be agricultural leaders in their communities.
The Beer-Sheba Project is 100 hectares of hope. From atop the water tower (which is another story in itself), one can clearly see where Beer-Sheba starts. Inside the fence, it’s a forest. On seeing the forest, one older Muslim man from the driest region of the country commented, “This has given me a picture of what my land used to look like and a vision of what it could be again.” Outside Beer-Sheba’s fence, the landscape is typical of the Sahel – dry and with little growth. Yet I was surprised to learn from Katie that the surrounding shrubs and the trees making up Beer-Sheba’s forest are actually the same species. What makes the difference?
Care. When the shrubs are pruned and protected from free-roaming livestock, they grow into shade-giving trees. Within the fence of Beer-Sheba, interns are taught to care for and appreciate the trees. This is important because when many West African farmers see trees taking up space in their fields, they see it as competition for the crops that will feed their families. And so trees are chopped down, uprooted, burned. But some trees in a garden or field are ideal because they provide cooler growing temperatures, they serve as breakers against the strong wind, and they trap nitrogen from the air, bringing it down to the soil. Perhaps most importantly, trees help the rains come. As Katie explains, trees are the connection between the soil and the atmosphere: they allow the rains to come by collecting water from the soil and releasing it into the atmosphere, playing a key role in the water cycle.
And rain in the Sahel is crucial. This region of Africa is named after the Arabic word for “shore.” But the Sahel isn’t the shore of an ocean; it’s the shore of a desert. The region stretches across the continent in an arid band of semi-desert south of the Sahara. Farming in a semi-desert climate is no easy task. It takes skill, knowledge, hard work, perseverance.
And Beer-Sheba is a place where Christian village farmers are equipped and encouraged to take on this most honorable work. Along with care of trees, they learn to amend the soil with compost, wood ash, charcoal, and the leaves of the neem (a naturalized tree which adds nitrogen to the soil and keeps pests away). They learn the crop rotation of “bean, leaf, fruit, root,” which breaks the pest cycle and replenishes the soil. They learn to “cut and mulch or compost,” instead of the common “slash-and-burn” method. And in classes, interns learn how all of these farming methods reflect God’s heart in caring for His creation.
Where did the Beer-Sheba Project come from? When Eric and Heesuk came to the region of the Serer-Sine people group to work with SIL International and to plant a local church, they realized several things. They witnessed the trend of urban exodus and its effects on the church. The younger generation increasingly seeks education, employment opportunities, and “the better life” in cities. For the church to be healthy and self-sustaining in a village setting, Christians would need to be motivated to stay in the village and equipped to thrive there so as to support their families and churches. Before this could happen, though, the image of the farmer would need to change.
For the Serer-Sine, as for most of West Africa’s people groups, farming is a village-dweller’s main livelihood. However, with urbanization has come a diminished esteem for the small land-owner and cultivator. Farming is seen as second-class work. It’s fit only for the poor who don’t have the means to live in the city and seek “more dignified” work. And if an entire generation loses the sense of dignity in work which is already difficult, why wouldn’t they leave their families, homes, and churches to seek something else in the city?
Yet the work of farming is foundational and absolutely vital in any culture. This is where Eric and Heesuk saw the need for a place like Beer-Sheba – a place that would show from God’s Word that farming is a sacred calling and that would empower those taking on this calling here in West Africa. Interns are accepted into the year-long training program as long as they have the support of their local church. This year, they are a mix of men and women hailing from four different West African countries. The Beer-Sheba Project exposes and trains them in organic gardening, animal husbandry, beef production, ecological charcoal-making, and much more. The interns live on site in community. Their day starts at 6am with a time of prayer and worship before breakfast. Between the morning and afternoon work hours, they attend classes centered on the integration of faith and farming. Oh, and they read through the entire Bible over the course of the year. At the end of the program, interns return to their home village and put their training into practice.
There’s much more to say about this little oasis, but you’ll just have to come and see for yourself. In the meantime, check out the website (click here) and pray for the work.
I’ll let a couple past interns express the impact of the Beer-Sheba Project:
« Mes yeux se sont ouverts pour voir comment respecter la forêt et les animaux en même temps de servir Dieu. Le Projet Beer-Sheba ressemble au jardin d’Eden avec ses arbres et ses cultures. » –Pierre
(“My eyes have been opened to see how to respect the forest and animals while serving God. The Beer-Sheba Project resembles the Garden of Eden with its trees and crops.”)
« Je rends grâce à Dieu pour cette année de formation à Beer-Sheba. J’ai appris à connaitre Dieu d’une manière merveilleuse au travers de l’agriculture et sa volonté pour moi – paysan sérère en zone Sahélienne. Maintenant, je suis plus ambitieux et j’ai de plus grandes idées pour ma vie. Je vais me servir de ce que j’ai dans les mains pour faire de grandes choses. » –Ernest
(“I thank God for this year of training at Beer-Sheba. I learned to know God in a wonderful way through agriculture and His will for me – a Serer farmer in the Sahel. Now I’m more ambitious and I have greater plans for my life. I will use what I have in my hands to accomplish great things.”)