Sharing Food for Life

Several hours northeast of Conakry, Guinea is the Fabik farm — a rare oasis of green amidst a desert of dry and dusty fields. In some cases, the land is still smoking, a result of the slash-and-burn farming technique that’s common in this part of the world.

Among the freshly planted rows of corn and lettuce, there’s a group hard at work planting, watering, and weeding. This group of 32 Guinean men and women are the participants of the Mercy Ships Food for Life program. Nominated by local NGOs working in the region, these participants gathered to learn the ins and outs of nutrition, crop production and packaging and organic agriculture. They’re also taught how to train others, with the goal of returning to their communities and continuing the education program long after they graduate.

While the main focus of Mercy Ships is on providing surgical care, nutritional agriculture is a key component for maintaining a healthy community.

‘Mercy Ships is investing in farming because we recognise that in order to have good health you need to have good nutrition — and for good nutrition to be effective, you need to have safe food,” Agricultural Program Manager Eliphaz Essah said. ‘To do that we need to get the best knowledge of how to produce safe food, and that’s why [the Food for Life program] is here.’

Essah’s words ring true as many conditions on the ship — such as orthopaedic cases — are often linked to malnutrition. By educating a group of innovative and socially-minded locals, the goal is to see a ripple effect in each nation as they return to their homes and teach others what they’ve learned.

‘When participants go back as trainers in their communities, there’s a type of paradigm shift that happens,” Essah said. ‘The impact that we see in the community is that people are able to secure their product and their income. The quality of the food that they eat improves, and even the way they put their food together changes.’

Among the 32 graduates from this year’s program was Marie-Louise Kantabadouno, a Guinean NGO worker who came highly recommended by her organization, and became a stand-out student.

After graduating, Marie Louise immediately jumped into action to apply what she’d learned. Along with two other course participants, she’s now travelling to smaller villages across the region, teaching women nutritional basics, food production techniques, and packaging methods so that they can store or sell their food more efficiently. They also stopped in a local classroom to run an interactive workshop — and gave the children nutritious food that the volunteers had grown themselves during the course.

‘I learned from this training that children are malnourished because there is a lack of means and a lack of education of their parent in the area of agriculture,’ Kantabadouno said. ‘Their parents are all farmers, but they do not have any experience. I’ll now have the chance to talk to families and help them evolve in the field of agroecology, the association of cultures, the rotation of cultures and mulching, and the use of compost to abandon chemical products.’

Without the partnership of local NGOs and workers, the Food for Life course wouldn’t be possible. It’s a medley of different organisations, goals, and methods — and a beautiful symbol of the successful way in which these can all work together to reach a common goal.

‘There is hope and healing through this program for African farmers,’ Essah said. ‘When someone starts understanding that the way they used to farm was not good for the field, they’ll try to understand the best way to be a friend to their land. When the soil is happy and yields good crops, healing can begin for both farm and farmer. Hope comes when there is sustainability and long-term growth.’