Dordt College News

Ag major goes into the field

May 14, 2010

A friend asked Neal Vellema last year what he was passionate about.

When the ag-missions major told him he didn’t know, he said, “You should go do something with Dea Lieu.”

Lieu is a Dordt graduate in the Ivory Coast.

“I thought he was crazy, but the comment stayed in the back of my mind,” Vellema says. Gradually he came to the conclusion that he should go, in part to explore whether agricultural missions was really what he wanted to do. He raised some of the money he needed through family and his church and flew to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on June 4.

“It was a wild week for a native of Senior Agriculture Major Neal Vellema and Agriculture Alumnus Dea Lieu work together to set up a drip irrigation system in Lieu's farm in the Ivory Coast.Northwest Iowa. From police carrying AK-47s to the seeming chaos of traffic to slow-going travel, Vellema knew immediately that he was out of his comfort zone.

“I didn’t take advantage of a Partners Worldwide orientation offer, thinking it would save me a trip to Grand Rapids (Michigan) and make it more of an adventure,” he says. An adventure it was.

Dea Lieu met Vellema in the capital city of Abidjan, nearly 400 miles from his home. The trip back took a long day because of the condition of the roads. Lieu lives in an area still controlled by rebels from the civil war. Although the government officially has taken back control, the rebels still “police” the area. Checkpoints along the roads are manned by rebels carrying semi-automatic machine guns.

“I was told they weren’t much of an actual threat, but they were definitely intimidating.  Each time we reached a checkpoint with Dea’s pickup, we had to stop and talk to them, and each time, my heart was racing,” says Vellema.

Vellema lived with Lieu’s family. But Dea was the only person who spoke English.

“His kids were really fun, and we enjoyed playing soccer and card games, but most of our communication took a lot of effort,” Vellema says. They did use Google at times to type in sentences they wanted to say to each other and then read the translation.

The Lieu family lives in the rain forest. “The ‘bush’ is a monster that takes over the roads and everything in its path if it isn’t continually cut back,” Vellema says. To control its growth, the traditional way of doing agriculture is “slash and burn,” which sends the ground’s nutrients up in smoke and leaves the land vulnerable to being washed away.

Lieu is trying to show his people a different way to farm, but change does not come easily. Vellema hoped to help restore a demonstration farm that Lieu had helped set up before he was forced to flee the country during the civil war. The farm, whose purpose was to show more sustainable farming practices, had been destroyed in the war.

But the farm needed more than hard work. It needed money to rebuild—money that no one had. So Vellema spent most of his time working with Lieu on his own farm growing rice, peanuts, and chickens to support his family of seven.

For a North American dairy farm boy used to getting up early to get the work done every morning, the biggest challenge was cultural. Vellema wanted to accomplish as much as he could while he was there.

“Things take a long time to get done in Africa,” he says. “Some days people sleep longer, and then food needs to be made, and then someone may stop by and you need to spend time with them.…” he recalls with a smile. Lieu would talk with him about these differences, knowing from his four years in North America how they contrasted.

“He told me that for people to see I had come as a Christian to offer help was a witness in itself; what I did physically was not the only or even most important part of my stay,” Vellema says, although he still wanted to see results from his visit.

He’s pretty North American, he realizes, even though he thinks he may walk a little slower than he used to, and he tries not to worry as much about getting things done. He also realized how much he missed and loved farming in the Midwest.

Vellema will graduate in May, and although his plans aren’t firm, he wants to have his own farm, although not a dairy like he grew up on.

“In dairy farming you never get a day off,” he says, but not because he isn’t willing to work. “I’d like to be at the forefront of a move back to smaller, more diverse farms that raise a variety of animals and crops in a way that is very conscious of keeping the land healthy.”

“I’d love to go back to Ivory Coast someday to help with a specific project, but I think I can also have an impact here,” Vellema says. “There are lots of ways to serve.”


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