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Some of the Children at Chez Papa Geoff

HATW volunteers Dick Wheelock and Nigel England have recently returned from a visit to Benin, where the Orphanage Chez Papa Geoff has now been in operation for 6 months.

Dick writes:

My responsibility is for the agricultural project which is to provide for running costs of the orphanage. The fields or “les champs,” as they are now being called have changed out of all recognition since I saw them last autumn. Now, most of the 8 hectares (20 acres) have been cleared of weeds, rank grass and non productive palm trees. There are still roots to be removed; brutally hard work in which Dieu Donne and Albert have now been joined by Justin.

Justin is the tailor who has always made school uniforms for those children who are supported by Hands Around the World, but has found his other work declining. He seems to love the change of pace and has become a valuable member of the team. Equally useful is his encyclopaedic knowledge of the locality and where, for instance, the nearest welder can be found.

April is the most important month of the year for planting maize in this region and several hectares of ground had already been prepared before our arrival. A broken injector pump on the tractor had caused a temporary hold up but we were able to bring a replacement with us. The two-row seed drill which I had built using proprietory seeder units, mounted into a far more robust frame and powered by a two-wheeled market garden tractor, was given its first real test. After a few very minor modifications and on a seed bed that was far from ideal, it worked as well as I could have hoped. At the same time as planting the seeds it also places fertiliser along the rows. On the impoverished soils of the area this will give much improved yields.

In 6 hours we were able to plant half a hectare (over 1 acre), with only one operator. A large gang, even if it were possible to recruit one at this busy season, could not plant as much by hand. The drill will also be used to plant peanuts and haricot beans later in the season. Once the maize has started to grow, manioc (cassava) will be planted between the rows giving a second crop maturing after the maize has been harvested in July / August.

There are still trees for firewood, fruit, or palm oil to be planted. As June is considered the only month wet enough for tree planting it won’t be possible to plant all that Dieu Donne would like this year. It will take several years before ‘les champs’ reach full production, but the start which has already been made is most encouraging. I look forward to seeing even more progress on future visits.

Nigel adds:

On arriving at Chez Papa Geoff (the orphanage) we were delighted to see the 11 children and young people were settled and happy. They had got used to each other and were making friends with the local children. Alice, the full time carer who joined the team last October, was making a great job of feeding the children well and getting the balance of care and discipline at the right level within the cultural setting.

Two of the boys have a disability. Epiphane has a problem with his legs and needs an operation. We are trying to get an agreement with his family to have the operation but without much success yet. Marc, who is the oldest boy in the orphanage had an ulcer on his arm when he was younger and it has left his right arm permanently bent. We have arranged for him to have the operation he needs and his mother will accompany him to the hospital.

We were able to take out clothes donated by people at my local gym and they were a great success. All the children tried on clothes for their size and chose the ones that suited them the best. They then gave us a fashion show. We also took out some footballs and taught the children a form of basketball. They had a great time. The children made up, produced and performed a play about coming into care. It was heart rending and I am talking to people I used to work with in the UK about the therapeutic benefits of this.

The solar panels we sent out were working but not to the output they should. Dick has been speaking to the manufacturer to try to sort it out.

The main building is working well and we hope that after the planting season the new well should be completed, and the water pump supplying the orphanage should be up and running. At that point and with the fields producing enough food we hope to increase the numbers of children in Chez Papa Geoff to the maximum of 24. It is expected that within two years Chez Papa Geoff should be self supporting with food and a cash crop from the fields.

We now support 110 young people in secondary education and 6 in university and 4 in apprenticeships. After visiting all the school directors we have 88 reports and at the end of the academic year we should have all 110. I am creating a system to monitor attendance and attainment records and be able to identify young people who are able to access a university place, or an apprenticeship.

Thank you for your interest as we seek to make a major and lasting difference in the lives of these children in Benin.

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