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Heavenly harvest

AIU students work in the garden. (Onize Ohikere)


Heavenly harvest

A Christian college in Zambia uses agriculture to prepare students for ministry

KAZEMBA, Zambia—Theology student Isaac Duwa’s typical day starts at 5:30 a.m. in a poultry house. There he refills water dispensers, restocks feeders, and extinguishes charcoal braziers that keep the chicks warm at night. Sometimes he spends the whole night keeping watch over the very youngest chicks.

Duwa is a second-year student at Ambassador International University (AIU) in Zambia, where that kind of schedule is typical. All students take theology and agricultural classes while working at the farm and poultry houses. The unique blend of theological and agricultural training prepares students to be pastors who can support themselves and their families.

Founded in 2009, AIU sits on 320 acres of hilly land between two mountains. The Chongwe River runs for a mile and a half just outside the fence line. In the school’s largest field—the college garden—students grow Chinese cabbage, eggplants, and okra. Maize fields and banana trees patch the campus.

Since its founding by Gospelink, a Virginia-based ministry that supports local pastors in other countries, AIU’s enrollment has grown to 150 students, including some from Malawi and Mozambique. It also offers a master’s program for working pastors. Through Gospelink, sponsors fund most student expenses, and students pay the rest by working 18 hours each week in the college kitchen, clinic, workshop, and farm.

AIU has a typical 10-course theology curriculum—with courses in discipleship, anthropology, and eschatology—but first-year students also take agronomy and animal science, courses that combine theory and practical, hands-on instruction.

At the poultry house, students like Duwa monitor chicks’ growth and chart vaccinations. In the garden, students lay irrigation pipes across untilled land and later plant tomatoes. In the process, they apply conservation farming techniques to retain moisture and protect the land.

Chifundo Khaneni grew up on his family’s farm in southern Malawi. At AIU he completed agronomy classes and tended crops for his work scholarship. His family plows the soil and grows crops on ridges, but the new techniques Khaneni has learned require less work—“and the produce is very good.”

Agricultural manager Jim Evans initially scrambled for information on appropriate farming techniques for the region. Most resources on tropical agriculture were self-published by local farmers, writing from their personal experiences. Through an online search, he found the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, a Colombia-based group that carries out research to improve agricultural techniques in developing countries.

He found answers to questions about optimal planting seasons, vaccination schedules, and pest management. Evans sees agricultural training as a form of discipleship training: “We’re trying to produce resources so that when they go into the community, they’ll have a wide range of knowledge to really help people live their lives.”

Onize Ohikere

Isaac Duwa changes the chicks’ water dispensers. (Onize Ohikere)

Students learn from Evans’ research and also develop their own expertise. Pesticides are expensive for many rural farmers, Khaneni said, so at his family farm they instead grind certain plants and use the liquid to kill pests: just as effective.

The school uses its crops to feed the students. For dinner one evening, they ate chicken and nshima, a meal made from corn. The university also sells produce to neighboring villagers—a pound of green beans goes for about 40 cents—and sells to the Tree of Life orphanage near Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. One day Evans hauled 880 pounds of green beans and 220 pounds of sweet potatoes to the orphanage. He said it’s the university’s way of supporting the ministry: He sells the produce for a little bit below the market price.

Plans are underway to develop a goat farm and add avocado, orange, and apple trees to the campus garden. On a wider scale, AIU plans to add nursing and education degrees to its curriculum.

Onize Ohikere

AIU students in class. (Onize Ohikere)

Khaneni graduated in January. He accepted a two-year position as campus field crop supervisor. When he returns to his village in two years, he plans to set up a center that will teach people about “farming God’s way” while ministering to them.

Godfrey Mwale, a graduate who now teaches some first-year classes and manages on-campus construction, said the university’s approach to ministry helps to combat unflattering stereotypes of pastors. People often view pastors as “lazy people who depend on offerings in the church,” Mwale said, so agricultural training prepares students to become self-sufficient in the communities they hope to serve.

Isaac Duwa, planning to be a youth minister, looks for ways to keep young people engaged in the church. As he chatted after class, he said his work in the poultry house has given him an unexpected perspective: He now understands ministry can take place outside of a church. And he sees that the hard work will help him gain the discipline he needs to sustain himself as a minister.