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Porto-Novo, capital of the Republic of Benin, an inlet in the Gulf of Guinea, between lagoons and coconut groves. Surrounded by a belt of lake dwellings among vast lakes, Porto-Novo is a deceptively tranquil city of unique, strange and ancient beauty, influenced by the memories of emancipated slave families returning from Brazil.
Lime-washed and clay walls, deep green foliage, an unreal cathedral and mosque dominate the high city, a red-ochre royal palace, mysterious worshipping in the streets at night, magnificent colours saturated in daylight - Porto Novo is a cradle of traditions and spirituality, balanced to the west by the city of Ouidah, capital of the Vodun religion.
Porto-Novo is simply one of Benin's several hearts. But no-one can deny it has the honour of being the ecological heart of the country - the Songhaï Centre NGO there is an experimental agro-biological centre created in 1985 by Nigerian-born Dominican father Godfrey Nzamujo and a few friends.
Outraged by the level of development on the continent, these men of faith set themselves the objective of "giving back Africa its dignity". In 2002, Father Nzamujo also consigned his ideas and experience to print in a book called "When Africa Lifts up its Head" (Published by éditions du Cerf).
Songhaï is dedicated to training, production and research in sustainable agriculture. It is also a residential and restaurant complex, where produce grown on the premises is served. It also processes foods and sells them.
Songhaï's residential centre strives to offer a pleasant and attractive living space with the aim of "developing a culture of beauty", and offering "a framework for fulfilment and inspiration" whilst at the same time "promoting farm produce".
The cooking at Songhaï is an expert blend of traditional specialities and produce that is new to this region of Africa - the diversity of the produce is the best argument in support of the benefits of multiple-cropping, at a time when it is severely threatened.
The Songhaï restaurant ranges from a "modern restaurant", where Western-style menus are made up of produce from the farm, to a "traditional restaurant", which is a veritable seminary of the culinary art of Benin - natural or femented cereals and pulses in pastry or in meal, white corn, yams, cassava, small local beans, leaf vegetables, chilli peppers, tomatoes, ginger, okra, extraordinary fruit that is unique to Benin, such as the sweet, white-fleshed "pain de sucre" pineapple, various varieties of banana, mangoes, soursop, papaya served with the aromatic juice of tiny limes, green-skinned oranges, and coconut with its refreshing milk...
As for protein, the Songhaï restaurants are famous for their excellent grilled pork. But they also serve delicious braised chicken and a variety of African sauces each more flavoursome than the last -fish gombo with red oil, beef trotter stew with tomato, sauté of goat thickened with wild apple, creamy and subtle sauces made from leaves or seeds, finished off with a touch of red palm oil for an unforgettable, distinctive flavour.
With the creation of additional sites in Benin and in Nigeria, the Songhaï Centre, recently distinguished by the United Nations as a "Centre of Excellence for Africa", has now spread throughout the Benin-Togo-Nigeria zone. More than 500 farms have been set up and are being run by youngsters trained in Benin, who have been divided up throughout the departments and grouped together in a network that includes local coordination. Since September 2010, all regions in Benin now have their Songhaï Centre.
The activities include: lodging, dining, the production and sale of foodstuffs, market-gardening, rice growing, oil production, fish farming, pig, agouti and poultry breeding, as well as the production of natural fuel and financial management (via micro-credits), and workshops on the design and manufacture of agricultural equipment. Self-sufficiency is key at Songhaï - nothing goes to waste, everything is recycled. Animal waste is fermented to produce, on the one hand bio-gas, and on the other, a dense population of flies, which, concentrated on this providential nourishment, provide - via their reproduction - the food supply for all the fish in the lakes. The wastewater passes through an elaborate system of canals, where aquatic plants purify it before it flows into the fish-farming and irrigation lakes. Everything else - the vegetal waste and manure - is used for compost. And the endless cycle starts over again.
The advantage of featuring Songhaï is that it directly illustrates the issue of "from the field to the fork" in the context of the economic development of one of the poorest countries in the world. As the feature unfolds, the viewer will discover that Songhaï's philosophy and methods - such as protecting nature, food self-sufficiency and short food circuits - tie in directly with what the other chefs are doing.
Episode from the collection
Director(s) : ALLANTE (PHILIPPE)
Producer(s) : ARTE FRANCE , PETIT DRAGON
Production Year : 2012
Language(s) : German, French
Rights : DVD, NON-THEATRICAL, TV, VOD
Territories : Worldwide.