A Discussion with Robin Denney, Agriculture Consultant, Episcopal Church of Sudan

With: Robin Denney

April 16, 2010

Background: This telephone conversation between Robin Denney, Katherine Marshall, Thomas Bohnett, and Hahna Fridirici took place on April 16, 2010, as part of a World Faiths Development Dialogue investigation of connections between faith and agriculture. Ms. Denney grew up on a farm and was trained as an agronomist, then decided to work as an Episcopal missionary. She worked in Liberia, and is currently based in Juba, in the southern Sudan. She describes the difficult challenges but also the hopes for the Sudan, the central importance of agriculture for the people, and emerging strategies, including tensions between small and large scale farming approaches. The church program builds on very small scale church garden schemes, common in the area, and involves a wide range of extension and development schemes. Churches work with government and NGO partners, with arrangements varying from place to place depending on who is present and capable. Volunteer inputs are critical. The church plays a central role in providing many social services in the region (schools and health as well as farming). The interview also highlights the importance of women's roles both in the Episcopal Church in Sudan and in their agricultural work. She observes that “part of the essence of being a worker in the church is that you go and live among the people; in doing so you learn a lot about the struggles of the people, about what works and what doesn't.”

What is your own story: how you came to Sudan, agriculture, and the Episcopal Church?

I have always been Episcopalian, though for a long time I was not particularly devout. I have deep Episcopal roots in my family. My older sister is a priest, and my mother became a priest last year as well. I grew up on a farm, raised livestock, was in the Future Farmers of America, and sold produce at the farmers market. I studied viticulture and enology, which is grape growing and winemaking, in college. When I finished college I worked in the state legislature on agricultural issues for a state senator. I also worked for an agriculture non-profit. At that point, I felt very un-fulfilled working in this field. I started having the sense God was calling me into something new.

At around that time, I realized for the first time that the Episcopal Church has missionaries. I think we’re a fairly quiet bunch—it is a well kept secret. As soon as I found that out, the option to join felt right to me. I felt that desire to go out into the world and do something with the skills I had been given.

I got in contact with the Episcopal Missions group. The way they work is that, for every potential missionary they consider, they look at the skill set they already have and try to find an assignment that matches, because they receive many requests for missionary help from around the world.

Before my first posting, I recognized that all my experience was in temperate climate agriculture. I worked for a few months in Australia on commercial agriculture, but even this was still in the temperate zone. I wanted to learn something about tropical agriculture because I realized that that knowledge would round out the skills I would be able to share. At that point, someone introduced me to the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), and I studied there for a few weeks. They have a great program for students where you come and design your own program. You work on the farm for part of the day and you sit in the library the rest of the time. The farm has demonstration areas for the different climatic zones throughout the tropics. They have different parts for sustainable systems that you can design in these climatic areas. You read about it in books, then go out and see the design in practice. You can then talk to the people who are working on those designs. They do a lot of so-called “appropriate technology”—methods like mulching, composting, and permaculture. These things can be put in place with very little investment, mostly just effort on the part of the farmer.

What I learned there completely changed my perspective. I had always been more interested in small-scale, sustainable of farming than large-scale commercial agriculture, and my time at ECHO strengthened that interest.

My first assignment as a missionary was in Liberia at an Episcopal University. I went as a teaching assistant in the agriculture school and ended up teaching classes and designing curriculum and programs on the school farm. Most of my students were planning to become agricultural extension workers, and so we did a lot of evaluation of agricultural systems and problem-solving.

Teaching there was a real challenge, because the educational style I used was different from the one they were used to. Most educational systems I have come across, both in Liberia and Sudan, are based on memorization. The students just copy down what the teacher says. Getting the students to think outside the box and do problem solving in the classroom was almost impossible at first. But when we went out into the field, then they knew all the answers. It was as if as soon as they got out of the classroom they were easily able to think critically. It was almost as if the classroom environment was holding them back.

I learned a lot there about implementing projects and teaching, specifically how to approach doing new ways of agriculture, particularly in societies where the old ways have been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It taught me a lot about respecting the knowledge and experience that is there and to look at why it works or doesn’t work. We had to learn how to explain to people what their shortcomings were. For instance, burning is a huge practice across most cultures. They see it as beneficial, because they can see the benefit of the ash and how plants grow better in ash. But if you can explain to them why it happens that way, then also explain why it is that after two years the ash no longer works—that the nitrogen is depleted from the soil, that the nitrogen comes from the roots of the plants that are dying—then people understand, and they will consider adapting their practices. It helps to explain that the nitrogen is going up in the smoke. They can see the smoke, and understand that the smoke is dark in color because there is something in it. You can tell them what it is in the smoke and what they are losing as it burns off, and a light goes on. Then you go to the forest and you talk about how the forest renews itself and the thick layers of mulch form when there isn’t yearly burning. It is methods like that which have been useful in my work in Sudan as well.

I was in Liberia for a year. I then went back home for a year. When I was ready to return to Africa, there was an opportunity to work with the Episcopal Church of Sudan to set up an agriculture department. I accepted and I have been here for a year.

We have spent most of the last year on planning, as we didn’t have any money to go forward. I visited all of our dioceses in the South. I observed what kind of farming they were doing, what challenges they were facing, what opportunities they had, what their strengths were, and whether they would have volunteers for agricultural initiatives. We came up with some plans and now this year we hope to implement some of them. We are looking at income generation, large scale projects, as well as assisting dioceses to have trainers on the ground to teach subsistence farmers good techniques at the local level.

What did you find in your assessment of capacity and projects already underway? What did you learn about the dioceses?

Most of them were active already on a small scale. They did not have money to do projects, and so it was mostly gardens at the churches. In the culture here, when people gather they need to be fed, because most have traveled a long way and meetings tend to last a long time. However, people don’t have extra food or money to go out and buy food, so at the church they have a garden to grow food for the meetings. Some churches will expand their garden to grow food for their pastor—especially important in cases where the pastors are not paid. Generally, those gardens are not used for training in improved techniques. Training is not widespread in Sudan due to the war. In other places I am sure you find that: places like Tanzania and Kenya, places where improved agriculture techniques have been used longer. Churches there are also more connected with training in that aspect. This is something people are interested in here.

We hope to have agricultural officers in each diocese. There are eleven dioceses that have put forward names for a three-month training, which will hopefully launch very soon. When they return to the diocese they will have been trained in sustainable techniques: basically they’ll be trained as extension workers. It will depend on the diocese how the officer will operate within the diocese. Some officers will be teachers at theological colleges. They might teach pastors new techniques so that the pastors can go out and teach in their parishes. In some cases they will be agriculturalists working on the bishop’s staff, and traveling around advising congregations. In other cases they will be advising churches to upgrade the pre-existing simple gardens into gardens that show improved techniques, turning them essentially into demonstration gardens. This is nothing fancy. Often you see expensive infrastructure put in place to start a training center, but in this case a garden would be run as it always has been, with perhaps half using traditional techniques and half using improved techniques to show the difference. Hopefully, with the passage of time, they could develop projects for income generation such as vegetable production. They might look at marketing in the region and identify where the opportunities are in order to put together cooperatives. Whatever opportunities there might be, if there is a trained person there, that person can help them tap into these opportunities.

It’s worth mentioning that there are more developed pockets within the dioceses, too. One of the dioceses has a teak plantation that they planted from wild seedlings. They planted this during the war, so the trees are not quite yet mature. It might be another 10 years, but the plantation is definitely on its way. There is a citrus orchard that one of the dioceses planted. A couple of dioceses have launched commercial-scale projects; they got ahold of a tractor and planted sorghum and other staple crops for sale. Other dioceses already have in place agricultural officers who go around and work with churches. In some areas they have livestock projects: there was a bull-fattening project and a fishpond project. There are some small-scale vegetable production projects placed near rivers so they have access water during the dry season. Also there are ox-plow trainings. This is a difficult concept in some of the cultures here because cattle are revered, and it is often not considered acceptable to use them for work in those areas. Over the last 15 years agricultural missionaries and local members of the church have slowly been working on that because they saw an opportunity. Today in some areas where ox-plows were once almost taboo, they are now extremely valued. They are easily stolen as well: one person told me they had to lock their ox plow inside their house to keep it from being stolen at night.

To what extent do you observe that the work in the dioceses on agriculture is in parallel to government agriculture work? What do you see the government doing on agriculture in the areas where you are working?

In some places there are government agricultural advisors who do a great job and work for little pay but see it as a calling to work with local people. Then there are other areas with no agricultural advisors at all. The Ministry of Agriculture here sees agriculture as a way forward for the country, as the basis of the new economy. But because there are so many struggles and they are starting a government from scratch, the government is definitely impaired as to what it can accomplish. Also, whenever the government gets involved, people expect to be given something. It is the same with NGOs. The people have experienced over a long period of war that when NGOs or government show up, the people are going to get something. This makes it harder to find volunteers when you try to introduce larger projects into an area.

Much of the work is being done with volunteers and it is being done in areas where not a lot of help is given from the outside. The work is somewhat limited because there is no access to small loans or other help. From what I have seen, the people who are most motivated are those who are working from their own vision and on something the community has decided is important. Since I am working in such a large area, it is really hard to focus and look where to go, so I really appreciate it when I see that vision. I try to work with those groups that already have an interest and passion in agriculture.

We also have donors who are involved, most of them based outside the Sudan. We look for grants but it is harder as a church institution because mostly it is Christian NGOs who support us. We have a little harder time gaining support from secular institutions. Even though our projects do not exclusively target church members, it is still difficult. Most of our support comes from church partnership. We face the same problem that the government or NGOs might have: when you step in with the appearance of money it makes getting the work done more expensive in a lot of ways.

You said that Episcopal Church agriculture programs don’t necessarily target church members. Could you elaborate on that?

It depends on the kind of project you are doing. Some projects aim at income generation, and are not limited to church members only; they are open to the community. In other projects, we work with internally displaced people, not through my office but through the development wing of the church. I know in some cases there have been distributions of food which are not dependent on religious affiliation. Even though it is distributed through the church it is not distributed only to church members.

In terms of the greater Episcopal Church and the Anglican presence, how many people do you have in Southern Sudan and the geographic area surrounding Juba?

There are approximately four million members in the Province of Sudan. It is the second largest Christian denomination in the country, behind the Catholic Church. The Church has a very substantial presence in this country and has played an important role in the course of the war in terms of social service provision to the people when there was no government for the last 25 years. The church kept 2,000 schools open and opened health clinics, among other services. There is a lot of respect from NGOs and the government of the church’s ability to provide services.

How many people are employed in the Episcopal Church development office?

Right now there are about 10 of us at the provincial level. Then each diocese has a development officer, and often other development support staff. The Catholic Church has a large development wing, and there are various Christian NGOs that are focused on development like World Vision, Tearfund, and World Relief.

Is there any official relationship with the government? How does that work?

There are definitely un-official connections with government through church members who are also working in the Government. The church will also work with government in specific projects that require government help. Up until recently all the church schools had government-employed teachers in them. The church would build the school and support some of the teachers and then the government would give money to employ the remaining needed teachers. There are other similar partnerships. The same applies with the health clinics: the government pays the salaries of some of the health workers.

How do you feel that people respond to opportunities around agricultural technology?

It is hard to describe the attitude coming out of war but there is real excitement here because of peace and many have a sense of what ought to come now that there is peace. It is almost as if people expect that everything ought to come at once: we ought to have skyscrapers and a million tractors. There is real almost desperation to move forward as quickly as possible. Almost everyone I talk to wants to know if I can get them a tractor. There is a focus on the future and the sense that Sudan has been left behind.

There are parts of East Africa that are very well developed, and because of the war here and displacement of populations, a lot of people have spent time in places like Kenya and Uganda. They see that Sudan has been left behind and they want to get there. There is not a great concern for sustainability, the future, the health of the land, or what is best ecologically. I am just speaking generally here. This is certainly not the opinion of the church.

It is thus important to hold out that idea of sustainability and talk about it. I think it is easier to talk about it in places like Tanzania and Kenya, where deforestation has happened and people can see the effects they have had. In those areas there is a real effort to try to farm more intensively and more sustainably. Whereas here, there are thousands of miles of completely undeveloped land, which people see as an opportunity rather than a resource to be preserved. In sum, that is where I see the outlook of the general population right now: get it developed, get developed now, make a profit, and let’s have food security in the region because it is an extremely fertile area and yet people still go hungry.

What is the nature of the large scale/small scale debate in Sudan? Are there efforts to introduce larger scale operations as drivers of economic growth?

There is an interest and some movement in that direction, but I have not seen a lot of success yet. It will happen because of the degree to which people are pushing for it. It won’t happen from the efforts of development workers, but it will happen from foreign investments, which is a little scary. What we’re seeing now around the world is countries are buying up land in Africa because they are running out of food production capacity in their own countries. They contract farming in other places and take the food to their own countries. There is a lot of fear that that could happen here. In the excitement to develop, foreign investors may come in and only have their own interest at heart, not contributing to local food security but only exporting all their produce.

There are some NGOs looking at larger scale farming and that is something that the church is certainly interested in as an income generation possibility. Done well, it could be an engine for job creation and kick-start the economy. We have yet to see how well it can work and how sustainable it could be. Tropical soils tend to be quite fragile and its organic matter is very quickly used up. When you’re not using fertilizer and you’re not replacing that organic matter, you can very quickly destroy the farmland. And that happened in Sudan in the Gezira area. Cotton farming there in the North basically funded the government in the 1930s. They used modern farming practices there and brought in people who didn’t know the land. They didn’t care about the future, sapped the land and left. I have concerns about that, but I am not sure how widely that concern is shared.

The type of agriculture most development organizations are pushing is loans, smaller scale agriculture, livestock production (namely chickens). You see a lot of that going on.

Could you talk a bit about gender roles in agriculture and how the church addresses that? Is that an issue?

It depends on what culture you are in: there are so many different cultures spread through Sudan. In a lot of areas the women are the primary farmers and livestock herding is men’s work. That is generally how it breaks down: housework and farming is the work of women.

Could you start with the church? Are there a lot of women priests? Where does the Episcopal Church stand on that?

We have a lot of women priests and the church is very supportive of women’s ministry. The Mother’s Union is a very important organization within the church. They have even approved the ordination of women as bishops. We don’t have any at the moment but the concept is there. If you compare the Episcopal Church of Sudan to other Anglican Provinces it is definitely much more accepting of the importance of the women’s role in the church. This doesn’t necessarily translate into agriculture. We run trainings and will train whoever shows up. It generally tends to be a mixture of women and men.

Are there residual issues of violence against women? Any issues on going to school? Or does that follow the general trend you were describing?

Certainly, I think it follows the trend across Africa where it is more difficult to get girls into school and keep them there, particularly because they marry at a young age. There is violence against women. The idea of women as property is a big issue.

Do people talk about it in the church?

It is hard to say generally. It is talked about in the church but, in a country coming out war, the life and death issues are hunger, famine as a result of drought, and tribalism. Tribalism is probably the number one topic I hear preached about in the church, because that is the number one thing tearing the nation apart right now. Other issues like AIDS or violence against women are talked about but not as the main focus.

How much more specifically and pragmatically do you work with women in agriculture?

Let me assure you the women will not be left out. To me the Mother’s Unions are the power of the church. You don’t get anything done in the church unless you are working with the women. Everywhere I have gone the Mother’s Union has turned out with their representation. The church does not work without the women.

Are there issues or topics we’re overlooking in our line of questioning?

In Liberia I saw and was concerned by the tendency for development workers to arrive with their own ideas. That does occur here from time to time; people are very eager to solve the problems that they see. A development worker arrives and sees hunger. They think, "clearly these people need something like we have at home in the West because we can feed ourselves in the West." But they underestimate the situation and they bring in ideas that work in the West but not in the tropics, and in fact can be extremely detrimental in tropical settings. They bring in livestock with disease. They crossbreed animals that are susceptible to local disease. These are just the obvious examples of how development workers have caused problems.

There are more subtle things. In Liberia they pushed pigs. On paper, pigs are the most efficient converters of feed to meat: they produce the most offspring, they grow the quickest and on paper make sense. But pigs need high quality protein to survive and grow. They are in competition with humans for the same food sources, so unless you have a surplus of crops, pigs become expensive very quickly, and they also spread disease. Outside experts pushed pigs in Liberia, and so many people wound up so discouraged and lost so much money. They had taken on these pig projects and were having to go to the market to buy food for these animals that they could not sell for the value they had invested in them. That happens with chickens as well. There is not enough pushing for goats and cattle in Liberia because there are not as many there and they do suffer from disease. Here in Sudan, there are a lot of goats and cattle so it is not as big of a problem. Goats and cattle are so much more versatile because they are ruminants (they digest plant fiber into proteins).

That is just an example of thinking traps. It represents the way people can think about fertilizer and GMO seeds. Not that those things are bad. I am not with the camp of people who say all of those things are just evil, and organic is the only way to go. I do see that you have to think sustainably and problem solve at the level of the village, looking at why they do things they do and come up with solutions that work for them. With hybrid seeds, you have to buy them every year so it doesn’t work for a villager. Fertilizer is expensive so it doesn’t work for a villager. You have to come up with other options. I think there are not enough development organizations thinking that way. One of the advantages of agricultural missionaries and church workers is that they do think that way. Not necessarily because they are greener in their thinking but rather because they are working at the level of the villager. Part of the essence of being a worker in the church is that you go and live among the people; in doing so you learn a lot about the struggles of the people, about what works and what doesn’t.

What I learned through the people with whom I’ve worked at ECHO is that we really have a common experience throughout the world, wherever we go, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. That is something great the church has to offer: a different perspective when it comes to agriculture based on caring for the land and caring for each other.

We know land issues are huge all over Africa, particularly in the Sudan, where people are returning to their land after war, etc. Is the church involved in mediating land disputes? I imagine there are even instances of church land being abandoned and that could be difficult to reclaim in some ways.

I am not aware of it being a super critical issue. We have had a fair amount of success getting communities to donate land to the church for use in agriculture. I am sure at the local level the church gets involved helping individuals who have land disputes, but I haven’t come across it at the provincial level.

Are the Mother’s Union groups the standard women’s group across the province? Is that consistent congregation to congregation?

The Mother’s Union is a worldwide organization of Anglican women. It has a worldwide identity. Within the province, most women would be a member of it. It is an extra commitment to the church and they meet on Tuesdays to pray. They commit themselves to supporting the impoverished in their parish. They do run all kinds of training projects. Basically they look at all kinds of different ways of improving their community. Generally, they have a lot of passion and a lot of volunteerism. Obviously, there is high church attendance from that group and they are a wonderful force in the church. When I ask the bishops what are the assets of their dioceses, they always mention the Mother’s Union.

Have they had any particular slant on these agricultural issues? If we wanted to look at Mother’s Unions and agriculture, have they been particularly involved or not involved in agriculture? Do they have a particular area of interest?

Yes, they are definitely involved in agriculture projects. They are usually the ones running the church level garden. I have even seen diocesan level gardens where they are growing vegetables to raise money or they will have a demonstration garden to teach people. There is a poultry project in several dioceses where they are keeping poultry for eggs and meat.

Do you see differences from Liberia in terms of the way the women’s groups function?

Absolutely, huge differences. The church in Liberia is much smaller. The culture in Liberia is much different. The nature of the war was so different in Liberia and the people exited it so demoralized and without hope. Whereas in Sudan there were many martyrs in the church who stood up for peace and who were killed. Because of that there is a real commitment to the church today and an understanding that the church has been there for the people. Because of this sense, there continues to be much more commitment to the church and an opening for the church to be active in the daily life of the people.

Is there any cooperation in agriculture with government and/or other faith structures, such as the Catholics or other groups? Or is it mainly congregations working independently?

It is mainly independent except for the fact the government gives us land. In some areas we work with the local agricultural advisor or the town commissioner in order to open up trainings to others in the community and to ensure employment in the community is done fairly. The government here likes to be involved in projects that happen at the community level: we aim to keep each other appraised of what is going on. There is a lot of cooperation between the Catholic and Episcopal Church but not on agriculture projects yet. My department is brand new as of last year as far as coordinating things at the provincial level. At this point agriculture is done more at the parish and diocesan level. The work that is done together with the Catholic Church is mainly peace work: we work on peace programs, release joint statements on peace, and encourage people to vote and things like that.

How do you work with Ellen Davis, Duke, and the U.S. theological education professors?

I would describe it as an informal partnership. I know Ellen and Duke have been involved a long time in Renk Theological College. I believe that is where they first started. Renk is a diocese in the center, a bit east, in the country. The Archbishop was formerly the bishop there, and Ellen Davis got to know him by working in his diocese on trying to improve the quality of education at that particular college. When he became archbishop, then Duke leveraged their resources to ask: what can we do to help the five provincial colleges? There are five, not just that one. That process is still developing. There are other theological colleges in the United States that are also looking to assist us and be involved.

The sustainability message—is that something that you found people are receptive to or do you find it difficult to fight the tide of “let’s rebuild bigger and faster, immediately?"

It is difficult to fight against the general concept. You really need the paradigm of scarcity of resources to understand the concept of sustainability. Where that paradigm does not exist it is almost impossible to teach sustainability. For Sudan, in some ways this is good: we are trying to get ahead of the curve. There is not yet deforestation all over Sudan, there is still time. I think church people are more receptive to the ideas since we come at it from a different angle. The traditional way of communicating sustainability says you need sustainability because the way you are doing things is going to hurt you. Getting the sustainability message across is about communicating fear for the future. We try, instead, to look at what our responsibility is toward creation as Christians, as members of a community. We consider our responsibility toward future generations and our role as caretakers of creation, stewards of the land. We read a passage from the Psalms 24:1, “the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” I ask people in workshops, pointing: that little bit of land under the pile of rubbish, does that belong to God? You can change your paradigm to think this is a holy planet we live on and that we ought to take care of it simply because we ought to take care of it. That can jump start the sustainability process and makes farmers think differently about their role as farmers. They can see their role as a calling, not just work that was left to them: it is important and honorable work.

You sound wonderfully optimistic. We hear some fairly dark stories about southern Sudan: that war may break out again, etc. How does it look sitting there?

It is always different on the ground: everything seems more dangerous and hopeless stateside, I think. When you get on the ground you meet people who have lived through 60 years of civil war, tribalism and ethnic hatred playing out in their country, they have come out the other side with laughter, hope and joy in spite of their suffering. The church is different because the church is here forever. I am not going to be here forever, I will only be here until such a time as I need to leave or my contract is finished. But the church is here no matter what happens, whether there is war or peace. The attitude of the church is much more peaceful: no matter what happens we will be here with the people working for peace and justice hoping that it will be accomplished. Yet what is said in the news is true. There are so many problems and so much uncertainty but if we focus on that and not the work at hand, nothing will be done. So we’ve decided to hope, think and plan for the best. The process of believing in hope can help make it come true.

It has been educational and inspirational to learn from you today. We’re so grateful for your time.

It really is all about the small scale farmer. Large scale agriculture has its place and is necessary for food security. But, if the small scale subsistence farmer is neglected, I truly believe that agriculture will not work in Africa.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.