This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

At ‘Big House’ in Benin, no one’s called an orphan

ALLADA, Benin — Despite the presence of more than 200 children within the walls of a spacious compound, the ochre-colored-brick buildings and lush greenery exude peace and harmony.

Annoncia concentrates on her assignment at La Casa Grande’s school, Les Leaders. — Photo by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen/Mennonite Mission Network
Annoncia concentrates on her assignment at La Casa Grande’s school, Les Leaders. — Photo by Lynda Hollinger-Janzen/Mennonite Mission Network

It lives up to the name painted above the entrance gate: Village d’enfants Fifatin (Place of Peace Children’s Village).

In 2000, La Casa Grande (The Big House) opened its doors to a handful of children. The name reflected a hope, rather than the reality of the modest single-family dwelling in Benin’s largest city, Cotonou, two hours south of the current location in Allada.

Today, the ministry has the capacity to be family to 40 children. The population increases exponentially during school hours when students from the surrounding area arrive for classes.

Bienvenu Kadja, La Casa Grande’s assistant coordinator and director of finances, said they never refer to the children as orphans.

“All have a father, God, who loves them very much,” he said.

“Rather, we talk about children in difficult situations.”

International network

La Casa Grande began as a partnership between the 125-member Burgos Mennonite Church in Spain and the Christian community in Benin, with Mennonite Mission Network walking alongside from the project’s conception.

“The Burgos church provides [much] of our revenue,” Kadja said. “This is amazing when you think of how small the church is and how severe the economic crisis is in Spain.”

Steve Wiebe-Johnson, MMN’s director for Africa, referred to the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” when he said, “It has taken a few cities, a few congregations in Spain, Canada, the United States and France, plus lots of volunteers to make La Casa Grande. Mennonite Mission Network, as one of many contributors, has provided key pieces along the way.”

Beyond the walls

Placide Hounsokpo, a staff social worker, emphasized that the best place for children is in their biological families. In response, La Casa Grande invests resources to help extended families care for the children of relatives who have died. This new insight is leading La Casa Grande into community development.

Because land is becoming impoverished from years of improper farming methods, those who live off the land are becoming ever poorer, Kadja said.

“Many people here in Allada don’t have enough to eat, but we have learned that if we can help the families, they will be able to take care of their children,” he said. “It is not good for us to be comfortable here in our little nest when the people around us are suffering.”

Hope in life’s rubble

Education is one aspect of the organization’s growing vision. La Casa Grande’s school, Les Leaders (Leaders), has 197 students in grades 1-6.

Impressed by the witness of the Mennonites in their midst, the municipality of Burgos, Spain, donated funds for building the school. Last year, three years after opening its doors, the school was able to pay teachers’ salaries and materials with the income from student fees.

La Casa Grande facilitates apprenticeships where young people learn trades by working with business owners such as electricians, seamstresses and welders.

Another gift from Spain was a sawmill, which permits youth to develop carpentry skills. Desks, benches and tables for the school were built with lumber from the sawmill. A cooperative of Christian woodworkers gives leadership to this aspect of the ministry, which also provides income from the furniture they craft.

La Casa Grande also contributes to the physical and spiritual well-being of their community through Saturday Good News Clubs for children and weeklong summer camps.

Every day at La Casa Grande starts with Bible study and worship. Kadja frequently draws inspiration from Nehemiah in the Old Testament. He loves how the community, led by Nehemiah, pulled the stones of the devastated city of Jerusa­lem out of the dust and rebuilt the walls.

“There is hope even in the rubble of our lives,” Kadja said. “We are not only working for the future of our children, but for the salvation of our nation and the whole world.”

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