Sandra Philips, who spent two years on the ground for SELF in northern Benin, shares her personal story:
When I stepped off the plane in Benin’s capital, Cotonou, I was greeted by warm fat raindrops and the assurance from locals that arriving with the rain is a blessing. I did not attach any particular meaning to this at the time, given the abundance of water. I fell asleep to the sound of the rain on the tin roof each night and ate fresh fruit every day. My laundry never dried, and mold grew on my shoes. But, two weeks later when I journeyed to Benin’s northern village of Kalalé, I had a much different experience.
There, the heat rose, the dirt paths turned to sand, the bush dried into crisp tinder, and wells began to go dry. My heels cracked and bled, and I learned that thirst is something you can feel with your whole body. Water became a constant source of stress and my most precious resource. I mourned every drop I spilled and would never have imagined “wasting” an ounce of it trying to grow something, despite how badly I craved any food that was green. Before my arrival in Kalalé, I couldn’t have imagined that one of the best gifts I’d ever receive would be a bouquet of fresh leafy lettuce, brought to me by my new friend Zacharie.
The lettuce was from a women’s farming cooperative in nearby Bessassi, where the wells were often empty by the second month of the dry season. Yet, the women had managed the inconceivable: filling two half-hectare gardens with beautiful vegetables, thanks to solar pumps carrying water to drip irrigation. The system, Solar Market Gardens (SMGs), was created and installed by SELF. The organization trained Zacharie to install and maintain the solar arrays and irrigation systems that made the gardens possible. Who could have guessed that in the midst of severe drought, the solution for Kalalé’s water shortage would be, of all things, the sun! Thanks to SELF’s ingenuity, the same incredible gift that Zacharie gave me would transform the lives of thousands of others who would otherwise be starving and malnourished.
I worked with SELF’s partner in Kalalé, ADESCA, a local, women-run organization that manages the solar market gardens to create further change in the community by expanding the gardens and pursuing new small businesses. When I left, I realized I’d arrived in Benin with the blessing of the rain, but I was departing having witnessed the blessing of the sun.