Volunteer making a difference in Africa by cultivating sustainability

Jarlyn Johnson's daughter Syahn as they prepare to depart for Africa.

Thirteen years ago, Jarlyn Johnson noted her future goals as part of an essay assignment during her senior year of college: she hoped to help cultivate sustainable living conditions for the needy in Africa, to grow food and to serve people.

The St. Rose woman hasn’t veered away from her goal, and today, with her daughter by her side, is making her one time dream a reality.

Johnson and her 5-year-old daughter Syahn made their way to Cape Coast, Ghana, West Africa last month, where they remain visiting family and continuing the work Johnson began six years ago, when she began a composting initiative in the region — Johnson was working with a nonprofit at the time, the impetus for the trip.

Waste reduction, she says, is a major concern globally and particularly in Ghana, which she notes has an abundance of food waste to be recycled into soil. She hopes to have the project functioning by summer of this year.

Jarlyn Johnson and daughter Syahn.

“I spent almost a year (her last trip) in Ghana,” Johnson said. “The latter part of my trip to Cape Coast researching waste management and food preservation systems. I began composting and collecting food waste from market vendors and street sellers to transfer to a small farm site a few miles from the city’s center.

“The amount of market waste collected was astronomical and consistent. I was guaranteed 40 plus pounds of fruit and veggie scraps per day from only four or five merchants.”

She ultimately turned what she collected into nutrient-rich soil for farming. But there was still work to be done, and that’s why she’s there once again.

“I was just getting started in 2014,” she said. “I want to see the system really come to life … it’s a reliable solution to waste management and environmental protection in developing spaces. Or it’s a start.”

She said she’d ideally like to see the composting project reach across all sixteen regions of Ghana, and wherever else it would be beneficial.

Johnson is working with area youth, farming and operating a small bed and breakfast while there. Her devotion to service took a larger form in 2010, which she began working with and organization named Baba Blankets and Crafts based out of New Orleans. The group supported women’s entrepreneurship and girls’ education in Ghana. In 2011, the group hosted a “Women’s Journey to Ghana,” bringing 22 North American women to sponsor secondary school education in the upper northern region of Bolgatanga.

While the people of Ghana are the beneficiaries of the progress Johnson is making, she has a strong belief that reducing waste can go a very long way toward solving many of the world’s largest problems.

“We each have a responsibility in creating a greener space at home or abroad,” Johnson said. “Native Africans naturally conserve and live minimally. An efficient and reliable system of collection is what is needed … I hope to inspire people of Cape Coast to see the fruits of what they’d otherwise call scraps to invest within the community.”

She plans to stay into the summer and to return there once again before the end of the year. Especially rewarding this time around is the chance to be there along with Syahn, whose father, paternal grandmother and cousins are natives.

A birthday wish for Syahn from a young Gahna native.

“I’m especially excited for her. She finally gets to greet and touch her father, paternal grandmother, cousins …it’s a life-changing experience,” Johnson said. “She’ll surely benefit from connecting with her father and his native culture. There’s so much to learn.

“I wanted my daughter to know her roots and where she’s from, because it’s so important to her development and growth.”

To that end, Syahn had a traditional fifth birthday party a few days after the two arrived. She enjoyed a birthday meal called “Eto,” a mixture of mashed yams, onions, spices, palm oil and boiled eggs, and celebrated with what Johnson called their extended family, including youths Johnson fostered back in 2014.

“It’s been like a welcome home party that never ends,” she said, adding the two will travel over the next few months to meet members of their immediate family living across the country.

One day, Johnson hopes to see Syahn take the helm of the waste reduction project herself. The two practice composting back home in St. Rose, so she’s familiar with the process into channeling food waste into a cleaner and healthier environment.

“One day, she’ll be able to lead the movement,” Johnson said. “It’s been wonderful and super rewarding to be here with her.”


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