State FFA officers expand horizons in South Africa

Virginia state FFA officers are shown on a recent visit to South Africa. From left are Garrett Coffey, Morgan Smith, Alice Cox, Ryan Williams, Brittany Bowman, Zach Jacobs and Daniel Black. Photo courtesy Brittany Bowman

One of the main ideas that stuck with 19-year-old Daniel Black after a recent trip to South Africa was something his tour guide said.

“Do not pity those that have less than you. Love them for the potential they have.”

The tour guide, Thulani Madondo, was talking about the people of Kliptown, where he built a school called the Kliptown Youth Program for about 400 to 500 children.

A poor area near Johannesburg, Kliptown is especially noticeable because of its stark contrast to more luxurious areas nearby.

Yet everyone Black met in the southern African nation seemed genuinely glad for what little they had.

It reminded the Virginia Tech sophomore of how he would complain about homework at Sherando High School in Stephens City.

Children in South Africa are just thankful to go to school, he said. “Homework is like icing on the cake for them.”

“I think for me it helps to reaffirm that I want to be a part of making someone else’s life better,” he said. “Because when you see things like that, you want to make things more positive. You want to create a better situation.”

Black traveled to Africa Jan. 5 with Brittany Bowman, 20, of Mount Jackson, and Garrett Coffey, 18, of Woodstock — all three of them Virginia officers in the National FFA Organization. Part of an international excursion to learn about the agriculture business of a foreign country, the tour came halfway through a year they’ve spent traveling the United States speaking on agriculture education.

National FFA Week runs through Saturday, and Black, Bowman and Coffey — respectively treasurer, secretary and sentinel of the Virginia FFA office — plan to visit 35 schools, lead workshops for students and meet with community members.

It’s an opportunity to publicize what FFA does and give individual chapters a chance to advertise their own community presence, Coffey said. Three of seven state officers, they plan to educate on FFA and how students can benefit from it.

Planning on pursuing agriculture-related career paths, Black and Bowman are sophomores at Virginia Tech, while Coffey has deferred his freshman year until after serving as state sentinel.

“It keeps you on your toes,” Bowman said of the responsibility she’s accepted.

But it’s also a year of invaluable experience.

Coffey and Black said they would both return to Africa if given the chance, and both were struck by how nice everyone is there.

Of all the memories he has from their trip, Coffey said, “Just the fact that it was so friendly has to be the biggest thing.”

Black agreed: “Don’t miss out on a chance to talk to someone and get to know them.”

Virginia FFA’s theme this year is “make your mark,” he said. “We think in life we should use the opportunities we have to make a positive impact on someone else.”

Observing the culture was part of their reason for going, but their main purpose was learning from South Africa’s agriculture industry.

“I liked seeing how much of a contrast there was,” Bowman said.

Some farms they visited were 40,000 acres, and others only an acre or two. Next to one small plot of crops, she remembered, was a multi-million dollar house.

A feed lot they toured housed 26,000 head of cattle, which interested Coffey, who wants to run his family’s farm in Woodstock one day, alongside his brother and father.

They also learned about grain production, which Bowman found interesting since it’s similar to how America does it. South Africa grows many of the same crops the U.S. does.

But Black saw differences, too.

“The land is very arid, so only about 13 percent of the land is used for crop production,” he said. Some parts of the country receive less than 6 inches of rain a year.

South Africans handpick their carrots, earning about $10.60 in a 10-hour day, he said.

Their most prized crop is maize, similar to corn, but they have trouble growing it in drought-prone conditions and with destruction from insects.

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa partnership coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation seeks to develop drought-tolerant and insect-tolerant seeds for growing maize.

A South African customer of American agriculture company Monsanto grows maize and potatoes on 46,000 acres, tended by 250 full-time workers and 200 part-time. He built a school on the grounds so employees can live nearby. He also employs mercenaries to protect his farm equipment from theft.

The group also visited the Fair Deal Education and Training Center, started by Johannesburg entrepreneur Sabina Khoza, who Black said started in the late 1980s with 10 chickens and now has 150,000.

Government is less involved there, Black said. “It’s more of a free market.”

Their tour guide Madondo moved away from Kliptown but returns every day to work at the school he built for area children.

Again the man’s words repeated in Black’s memory, when the Frederick County resident thought of South Africa:

“You may be born in Kliptown, but you don’t have to die there.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com