One of the good things about technology is that it enabled me to see Br. Paul Desmarais, SJ, and hear his laughter all the way from Zambia. Books on agriculture (academic or otherwise) were stacked from his desk to his bookcase and everywhere in between.
It was against this backdrop that he described how a young Jesuit from Ontario revolutionized agriculture in this African country by offering training in organic farming for nearly thirty years. Brother Desmarais was director of the Agricultural Training Center in Kasisi for fifty years.
Now “retired,” he is preparing to offer an agroecology training course, both online and on-site, next year, with the first forty students coming from the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture.
“I like agriculture very much, and as most Jesuits, I am also a teacher. So if we put these two together, I can say that I enjoy this work that allows me to help people become better farmers.“
How did you become a Jesuit?
I was born in Pointe-aux-Roches, near Windsor, Ontario. My family had been farmers for three generations. I enjoy working on the land. When I was in Grade 4, we went to Windsor to visit several religious communities to see their work. I picked up a couple of information brochures while I was there and was very happy to learn about the brothers. I wanted to be a religious brother from then on, even though I was quite young at the time! I had hoped to enter the novitiate after Grade 13, which I did in September 1964 in Guelph. Why with the Jesuits? Because they were the closest to home [laughs]! I was also very happy with them.
And why be a brother?
It is the Lord who calls us, and we answer the call. I have always thought that God was calling me to be a brother and not a priest. From time to time during my studies, my superiors would ask me if I wanted to be a priest, and I would say no,”no, I want to be a brother.”
What circumstances brought you to Zambia? Did you have a desire to go on mission?
During my novitiate, I was interested in going to India, to Darjeeling. After my novitiate, I studied agriculture at the University of Guelph. During that time, Father General in Rome asked our province to send men to Zambia. The provincial asked me if I was interested and I said yes. My first visit was in the summer of 1969 for only a few weeks, as I was still studying at the University of Guelph. In 1971, I returned to Zambia, where I have been ever since, always very happy to have come here.
This Jesuit province consists of Zambia and Malawi. When I arrived, there were only a few Zambian Jesuits and six Jesuits from Canada. Now there are 120 to 130 Jesuits in the province. Most of them are native Zambians (including the last provincials), and I am the only Canadian.
How did you integrate into a new culture?
I was 25 years old when I came to Zambia. I was young, so it wasn’t that difficult to adapt to another culture, and the Jesuit community was almost all white. The people in the villages accepted me easily; it was not a problem.
In the early years, I spent a lot of time in the villages and I knew almost everyone. During the last fifteen years, I was really busy with administrative work and wasn’t able to go to the villages.
Now that I have left my position as director, I hope to have time to go back and visit people again. I would really enjoy that.
What was your job at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre?
Sixty percent of Zambia’s population is rural, so we couldn’t work only in the cities. When I arrived here, the provincial asked me to work with the farmers around the Kasisi mission. I started to visit them in their villages, but I soon realized that it was not always possible to meet with them, given their busy day-to-day lives. So we started the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre in 1974, with two-year courses for families. In 1995, we began to offer five-day courses; families came on Sunday afternoon and left after dinner on Friday. More than 12,000 people from Zambia and the surrounding countries have participated in these courses.
This work is a source of consolation. For example, there is a gentleman who calls me almost every day. He did a course here on how to make agricultural fertilizer. He was very motivated, and now he teaches the people in his village, both young and not so young.
The center has five departments: the in-house five-day training program, the village training sessions given by people on our team, the cultivation of our 800-acre property, the research work on organic agriculture, and the development of high-value products, such as cheese or yogurt from the milk of our cows.
Every three years I return to Canada and stay with my brother and sister, who are also farmers. This gives me time to rest and also to see the type of farming that’s done in Canada. I bring back many of these ideas and adapt them to our conditions.
So you were the one to introduce organic agriculture in Zambia?
When I first arrived in 1971, I taught agriculture that relied on chemical fertilizers and pesticides since that’s what I learned in my studies in Guelph. But in the mid-1980s, Fr. David Shulist, SJ, asked, “Why not think about organic farming?” We started to explore the idea, and I found it very interesting. When I returned to Canada in 1988, I visited organic farms in Ontario.
In the 1990s, very few people were interested in organic farming. We thought it was a step backwards. Now it’s changed a lot. In October, we gave a training course to people from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Then we offered another course to people who were sent by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And now, because of COVID-19, the world realizes that we need to f ind different production methods. We have seen that organic agriculture can produce two to four times more than what is produced with chemical fertilizer.
You were ahead of your time!
Yes, there are many other training centers in the country, but we are the only ones that are 100 percent organic. It’s one of the things that makes us unique.
Also, in 2002, we were very concerned about GMOs. We were pretty much ahead of the game at that time as well, but now a lot of people see the problem with GMOs.
Our work is in line with Laudato Si’ and the Society of Jesus’s fourth universal apostolic preference, taking care of our common home. It’s a source of consolation to work within the vision of the Catholic Church.
“God has been very good to me.”
Many Canadians have provided financial support for the work of Brother Desmarais and the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre through Canadian Jesuits International.