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Dordt cements a growing partnership with Northrise University in Zambia

August 12, 2009

If you google “Christian agriculture college” Dordt College pops up as the first listing.

That’s how the relationship between Dordt College and Northrise University in Zambia began. Northrise, a young Christ-centered university in Ndola, Zambia, began with a theology and business program in 2004, planning to add an agriculture program as soon as it could. Its  founders looked around to learn how agriculture programs were set up at other Christian institutions. Dordt’s website highlights its commitment to a Christian approach to agriculture.

The initial contact more than two years ago between Northrise President Moffat Zimba and Dordt Agriculture Professor Ron Vos has turned into a formal relationship between the two institutions. Zimba has visited Dordt three times, and this summer Vos again traveled to Zambia, offering the first course for the new agriculture program. Theology professor Tom Wolthuis also spent six weeks in Ndola teaching a theology course, and Dordt College President Carl Zylstra and Board Chair Randy Kroll visited Northrise in September to sign

an agreement of cooperation between the two institutions. Kroll also helped facilitate contact between Northrise and both non-government and government agencies in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia.

“The agreement is an affirmation of each other and the commonality we share as Christian institutions of higher education,” says Zylstra. It highlights three specific areas of cooperation:
• An exchange of faculty
• Consulting assistance on curriculum development for agriculture
• Cross cultural exchanges for students at both schools

Since English is the language of learning in Zambia, students will not need to learn a new language to participate in the exchange program, Zylstra notes. And because of the shortage of higher education institutions in the country, Northrise, the first private university in Zambia, draws good students.

In his introductory agriculture course, Vos introduced what he calls a theocentric, sustainable basis for agriculture. Part of his goal was to lay a foundation and part was to create excitement for the new program.

“What a joy,” says Vos about the opportunity. “It was so exciting to teach students from a wide variety of backgrounds in Zambia, students hungry to learn.” Vos gave them not only a context from which to think about working in agriculture but also concrete suggestions for ways to get better results from their planting and ways they could begin to determine what planting practices would work best to rebuild their soil.

The enthusiasm of the Northrise students was deeply rewarding to Vos, reinforcing his conviction that a consciously biblical perspective on agriculture is both exciting and a pressing need for people around the world.

Tom Wolthuis was also energized by his six weeks in Zambia. He taught a course in New Testament theology, exploring the themes of each book with his nine students, the majority of whom were older students already involved in ministry.

“Africans understand that education is a privilege, and they want to be there,” Wolthuis says, noting that they often extended their class time in discussion. “They have a gracious and giving culture that often shows itself in a strong sense of community,” he says, adding that he wishes some of his students in North America could experience that excitement and joy in learning.

After teaching for three hours each day, Wolthuis, who had done most of his course preparation ahead of time, explored the city of Ndola and the country around it.

“I was amazed at how God works in mysterious and wonderful ways,” he says. Even in poor areas, the sense of community was tangible, making his wanderings safe and pleasant. He says he experienced God’s leading and guiding in a new way. He saw joy and beauty in tough situations in a way he wasn’t used to; and he relished worshiping with Christians from another culture. You can read about his experiences and reflections on the blog he kept during his stay: http://twolthuis.wordpress.com

Zylstra and Kroll were warmly welcomed at Northrise and they left warmed by the interaction.

“We were privileged to get to know the leadership team of the University, and to listen to them tell about their hopes and dreams for this relatively new educational venture,” says Kroll.  He describes Dr. Zimba as a young, African duplicate of Rev. B.J. Haan, Dordt’s first president—someone with a big, comprehensive vision, and a magnetic personality that allows him to transmit that vision to all he comes into contact with.

“What we found in Northrise University was a kindred spirit—an educational institution that shares the mission of educating students for transformation that leads to vocational and personal service that impacts culture,” Kroll adds.

Northrise University’s vision can have an impact on the Zambian culture and economy through education and partnerships, believes Kroll, adding, “It is our privilege to walk alongside Northrise, supporting and encouraging its leadership as it develops….  We can thank God for placing us in a position to play this important role.  To God be the glory.”

May course offered

Vos will lead a two- to three-week service and learning course for Dordt students at Northrise in May. Zambia is an English-speaking country that is politically stable, making it a great place for Dordt students to visit, learn about other cultures, and experience service learning firsthand.

Vos will help Zambians find better ways to feed themselves

Africa is a paradox. It has abundant natural resources, yet it is plagued by suffering, poverty, and hunger. In Sub-saharan Africa more than forty-four percent of people live on less than one dollar (U.S.) a day. In some places more than thirty-five percent of the people, especially children, are undernourished.

Northrise’s goal is to train Christians to give leadership that can help solve some of its country’s problems.Zambian agriculture students are eagerly learning that their faith has practical implications for their livelihood as they study how to use the resources around them to feed themselves.

“Under colonialist rule in Africa, workers were trained only for specific tasks,” says Dr. Ronald Vos, adding that educating leaders could have jeopardized colonial control. In addition, many of the Christians who went into Africa were not as concerned about teaching people how to support themselves and give leadership in their communities as they were to evangelize.

“One of the things that excites me about Northrise is its goal to educate the whole person to live before the face of God,” says Vos. Such an approach fits African culture, which, even in animism, sees life as a whole, not separating faith and life.

When North American missionaries went to convert Africans to Christianity, they also brought with them New World practices. In agriculture, that meant introducing maize, ground nuts, and cassava, which replaced native crops like sorghum, millet, and rice. Agriculturalists now know that these crops may not be sustainable in Africa's soil. As a result, the land has been degraded and, in a country where eighty percent of people are farmers, millions go hungry.

On a visit to the National Children’s Hospital in Ndola this summer, Vos was told by the director, “If we could figure out agriculture in our country, we would halve the number of patients in this hospital.” The leaders of Northrise want to be a part of the agriculture solution in their country, training people to grow enough food, crops that are suited to the land and provide nutrients that are needed to keep people healthy.

Lured by television and pushed by low food production that is often the direct result of depleted soils and erosion, millions of people move to urban areas where there is no work and even less food.

“People have developed a low view of agriculture,” says Vos. Northrise can help Zambians see that agriculture is a noble calling—that they don’t have to move to the city to starve in shanty towns. “We’ve seen that aid doesn’t work long term. What is needed is a trickle-up economy,” says Vos. He and Northrise want to teach farmers how they can feed themselves and have a little left over to sell, to begin to get them out from under the weight of poverty.

Board President Randy Kroll supported this effort, taking time during his trip to Zambia to visit with people and organizations that could help Northrise realize its goals, especially through its agriculture program. Kroll talked with USAID personnel, U.S. and Zambian government representatives, and Christian Reformed World Relief Agency personnel, telling them about Northrise and its partnership with Dordt and learning more about U.S. priorities in the country.

“As a partner, Dordt College must be respectful of the life cycle of this relatively new institution.  Our western mentality would have us capitalize on these opportunities in big ways.  For the good of the institution, Northrise must take hold of opportunities based on its capacity to do so, all the while maintaining its focus on its mission.  As a partner, Dordt College must come alongside of Northrise where it can and where it should to support it in ways that do not take away from that focus,” says Kroll.


SALLY JONGSMA

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