By: Christa Meland
When United Methodist missionary Paul Webster arrived in northwest Zambia in 2000, he immediately became aware that the people of one of the area’s tribes—the Lunda—were exhibiting signs of extreme protein deficiency. Game in the area had been completely hunted out, and there was no predictable food source. The Lunda people had the lowest life expectancy rate and the highest mortality rate in the country. In other words, people were literally starving to death.
Around that same time, the local chief of the Lunda people gifted the Zambia Conference 2,500 acres of land—which included a river and a waterfall. So Webster set about propagating high-protein foods, starting with soybeans and eggs.
Now, 17 years later, that land is referred to as Mujila Falls Agricultural Center. It’s still run by Webster, and it has created a robust local economy that not only feeds local people but provides them with business opportunities and income.
“Every day, I see God at work,” said Webster, one of 17 missionaries supported by churches in the Minnesota Conference. Webster spent a week in Minnesota in August to visit with and provide updates to some of the congregations that support him. “There’s nothing I could have done without the prayers and support of United Methodists across the country…it’s accomplished miracles.”
Improving food sources and education
Among the crops that Mujila Falls now grows and sells are plantains, cabbage, carrots, guava, strawberries, papayas, lemons, rhubarb, oranges, and avocados. The agricultural center also raises and sells chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, ducks, and cows.
Mujila Falls sells crops to residents at wholesale price, and they in turn take the crops to their home villages and sell them to others for a profit. Locals can also purchase breeding pairs of animals to take home, raise, and use to create a business.
In addition to improving food sources, another component of Webster’s job has been education. When he arrived in Zambia, it was taboo for women and children to eat eggs. The Lunda people had been taught that the best food—including eggs—were to go to the men of the family. Knowing that eggs were an excellent protein source, and one that small children could digest, Webster worked to eliminate that taboo and ultimately succeeded.
Mujila Falls now sells 2,000 eggs a day. People come from their farms by bicycle to purchase eggs at wholesale prices, and then take them back to their villages and sell them retail.
“Families have income from selling eggs, and the rest of the village has access to a protein source for the first time,” said Webster.
Additionally, before Webster arrived, locals used slash-and-burn agriculture. The problem with this farming method is that you can only plant a crop on slashed-and-burned land for about three years—at which point it takes another 20 to regain fertility. Webster introduced the idea of growing crops year-round and showed villagers how to do that.
Not only does northwest Zambia now have improved wells, hospitals, and a daycare center, but significantly more children are now able to go to school than when Webster arrived. Zambia has long had free and universal education for children, but most families didn’t used to be able to afford to pay fees for required uniforms, books, shoes, and other items. Most children would have big gaps in their schooling while their families saved up enough money for them to go back. Consequently, some young adults who are now in their 20s still haven’t finished 12th grade.
Boosting the local economy, however, has helped locals be able to afford to send their kids to school. Additionally, Mujila Falls hires high school kids during their off-month between each school term. They then take the money they earned directly to school to pay fees for the next term.
In addition to running the agricultural center, Webster—who was ordained in the Zambia Conference in 2006—conducts training for local church pastors and lay people. Oftentimes, church services in Zambia consist of people singing songs.
“I teach on how a church service should be a mountaintop experience—you work your way up the mountaintop to be close to God and come out on the other side so people feel like they’ve had a close encounter,” said Webster, who also educates lay people about the critical role they can play in their congregations.
Future plans for Mujila Falls include the addition of fish ponds and a piggery. Electricity is also on the horizon. This will require a shift from diesel engines to electric motors, but one of the big benefits will be the ability to reliably freeze meats and other products.
Webster’s greatest pleasure is hosting people—government workers, chiefs, and others—at Mujila Falls for a meal and being able to point to the table and say, “Everything here was grown on this farm.”
“What’s rewarding to me is to see the Lunda people become the whole people God created them to be,” he said. “Just because they’re rural people and poor people doesn’t mean they can’t live abundantly.”
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Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church