COTONOU, Benin (Mennonite Mission Network) — Under the leadership of Raphael Edou and a 30-member council of churches in Benin, West Africa, the clinic that began as a single rented room has become an internationally recognized organization.
“For Bethesda, the key is the small beginning,” Edou said.
At an awards dinner on January 15 at the Global Development Network conference in Beijing, China, the Japanese government awarded Bethesda Health Centre a $50,000 grant for the “Most Innovative Development Project.” Before nearly 600 individuals representing more than 93 countries, Edou shared about the mission and work of Bethesda.
“[Our] small beginning helped us to grow step by step,” he said. “Bethesda’s staff fears God and avoids corruption. We don’t merely do something for our salary. We want to reach people who are in need.”
The World Bank sponsored the eighth annual Global Development Network conference to create learning forums in which original and imaginative approaches to development can be explored. Edou said Bethesda will use the grant to conduct surveys and develop their current programming as well as to be more directly involved in the United Nations “Millennium Campaign” to cut the number of Africans living beneath the poverty line in half by 2015.
Winning this award was a victory not only for Edou but for Bethesda’s partners across Benin and friends around the world. In February 1990, a partnership-seeking coalition of 30 Beninese Christian churches invited Mennonite mission workers to begin public-health work in the impoverished Sainte Rita neighborhood of Cotonou.
This neighborhood was previously a swamp that had been backfilled with truckloads of garbage to create a stable surface for building homes. Because of this, Edou said, many Sainte Rita residents suffered from common gastro-intestinal problems, malaria, and pneumonia, which the clinic treated on a regular basis.
Lynda Hollinger-Janzen, then serving with her husband, Rod, through Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network, said public health care was almost nonexistent due to the fall of the Marxist government in 1989, the attempted implementation of democracy and civil servants on strike. This small health clinic, begun in a simple, rented room, filled a crucial need for neighborhood residents. It quickly grew to encompass the entire house, then another house nearby.
But the clinic staff began to notice that they were repeatedly treating people for the same illnesses. The clinic needed a branch to address not only the treatment of illness, but their prevention. The idea for an environmental health organization began to take shape.
During this time, college graduates were having difficulties securing well-paying jobs due to governmental instability. Instead of becoming bitter, Edou, an agricultural student, had started growing tomatoes to sell at the local market.
Bethesda’s board of directors noticed this tall young man’s quiet determination, intelligence and strong faith in Christ and elected him to work with Hollinger-Janzen to start a community development and environmental health program in 1993.
“We began with a $40 budget, a fan, and a ream of paper,” Hollinger-Janzen said with a twinkle in her eye.
Under Edou’s careful direction, the clinic grew from a bare office into an organization that offers mosquito net distribution, public health education, garbage collection and a sorting/recycling center for 15 Cotonou neighborhoods.
“[We had] to encourage local people to realize that the future and sustainability of the program lay in their hands,” Edou said. “They had the innate skills that just needed to be awakened … so that the communities could make an effective contribution.” The garbage disposal program earned Bethesda’s first large international award at the 2002 United Nations convention in Dubai.
During the first few years of the program, Edou and Hollinger-Janzen traveled about the city on their little blue motolette (moped) raising public awareness about health care, first aid and basic nutrition. Under the slogan “Knowledge is power,” they held community meetings in and around Cotonou. In one particular village, they held an “oral exam” for a group of women after two years of basic health training. They called in five locals to serve as judges and spent the day asking questions about the things the women had learned.
At the end of the festivities, they awarded first prize to a woman with the highest score and drove back into Cotonou. Two weeks later, Edou heard that this woman’s child had died of malnutrition. Edou was devastated.
Edou said he learned “people need more than knowledge to survive.” The woman knew the kind of food her child needed but could not afford it.
Edou decided to start a new department devoted to community banking and offering small loans to women beginning their own businesses. This section eventually united with the health clinic and environmental program under the name Bethesda and Edou was elected to lead this organization in November 2004.
Today, Bethesda Health Centre welcomes more than 80,000 people each year to a multi-level health clinic with a separate eye-care center and maternity hospital. A community bank, located in a newly-renovated building with staff offices and shining wood teller windows on the main floor, serves more than 7,000 clients each year. And, in the center of the Saint Rita neighborhood is the environmental office where sacks of chopped plastic ready for sale or recycling are stacked nearly to the ceiling and experimental recycling projects line the walls.
When asked why Bethesda remains active in Cotonou where similar organizations have disappeared, Hollinger-Janzen pointed to its origins with Africans and not outsiders. “It has really met a need because it came out of North Americans responding to the express needs of the African churches,” she said.
Bethesda currently has partners across Europe and North America, however most of Bethesda’s activities are self-funded and sustained through the leadership of the Beninese churches and a blanket of prayer. As both Edou and Hollinger-Janzen assert, Bethesda is only here today because of la grace de Dieu – the grace of God.