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Comfort Zones

Sitting in the modern and clean Paris airport, I have suddenly become very aware of how I define “my comfort zone.” I have lived a pretty¬†sheltered life, which I am grateful for, but unfortunately it can cause some unnecessary judgments on my behalf. Judgements about places I don’t necessarily feel completely comfort in, people I don’t feel completely comfortable around, even smells that make me feel uncomfortable.

Being in Benin, I was pushed out of my comfort zone frequently, actually every day. Looking back on it now I remember feeling uneasy when we would first arrive at a location, but by the time we were leaving I felt comfortable. Reflecting on why this is, I realize it is because of the people. For example, one day we went to a drum village. Walking to the village was a long walk, pretty far off the main road and it was a little frightening. At the end of our time there we had all laughed, danced, and made music with the villagers. We all bonded in way that made us all feel like a family. I had gone from feeling uneasy and scared, to feeling welcomed and loved in the span of a few hours.

Feeling comfortable in a situation is about more than being around people you are familiar with, being in a clean location, or even in a place you feel totally safe. It is much more than luxurious airport chairs and clean bathrooms. My comfort zone is when I am around people that make me happy.

Thankful for the Challenges


Bonsoir! I can’t believe today was our final full day in Benin and that in less than 24 hours we’ll be taking off out of this beautiful country. During our 13 days here I’ve experienced so much, and after retreating from social media for nearly 2 weeks I’ve felt the urge to take some time to reflect upon my visit and share a few special moments on this blog with the many who made this trip possible.

In America, we often like to use the words “Awesome”, “Wow”, “Spectacular”, and “Special” almost daily. At the least, I hear and some times say these words around GU weekly. Well, one of the things I’ve realized on this trip is that words such as these should be reserved for truly unique experiences like what we’ve had. I especially feel this way because while looking back I’m starting to believe this journey has turned out to be one of the biggest (if not the biggest) formative experiences of my life. “Authentic” is a word I believe captures much of the feel this trip has conveyed. Nevertheless, despite all the priceless moments and memories I hope to carry with me the rest of my life, it is fair to say my time in Benin has contained its share of challenges.

Thus far in my life, I’ve had the privilege to travel many places across the globe. Yet, I’d never been to a “3rd World or Developing Country.” Also, prior to this adventure no one in my family, including myself, had stepped foot on the continent of Africa. Just deciding to go on this trip involved an element of risk taking for my family and I. However, once we finally arrived in Benin (at night) things didn’t look so bad and check in at the marvelous Songhai Center was simple and smooth easing any tension I felt. Sure, the hot water in the shower wasn’t the best, and my room did not have a seat on our toilet, but I was confident these were small obstacles we could overcome and my roommate Brain and I have done fine (Brian’s been great!). However, on day 1 when we went outside the Songhai walls for the first time is when it first hit me- POVERTY. Once outside the paradise that is Songhai I found what I had signed up for. In the local Porto-Novo market I felt uncomfortable; I felt in it! We were in all the action occurring on the muddy streets, right in the chaos! While this situation was alarming at first, such circumstances during our journey became consoling overtime when the poorest of the poor would smile at us, or the most hungry of children would offer us an enthusiastic wave. Once I had been through the Porto-Novo market, I KNEW I WAS IN AFRICA, and I truly felt for the first time in my life that I WAS IN A DIFFERENT WORLD.

In this new world we were forced to adjust to, additional challenges included the foreign food and language barrier. Also, there were some cultural norms that the locals and us just sometimes didn’t know how to go about. For instance, some of the locals were so intrigued and excited to see young Americans they would share their personal contact information and expect the same in return. They seemed like the kindest of people saying they just wanted to practice their English (via email or Facebook) in hopes of one day coming to America, yet it was still difficult, uncomfortable, and odd in my eyes to exchange personal information with a stranger. Figuring out a positive and polite response to these situations was hard, but humbling at the same time. While I’m not sure how much I’ll actually be talking and keeping up with some of the folks I’ve met here in Benin, they certainly will be in my prayers as I continue to engage with my faith at GU.

So again, here in Benin I learned how even the most simple of things can be challenging. For example, before this trip I’d never had to ration snacks and water with friends, and it had been a while since I’d been forced to simplify my English. What I mean by this is that most English speaking Beninese didn’t always pick up phrases like “what’s up?” or “what’s going on?”. Simplifying, and improving my communication across cultural barriers is certainly a skill I improved while here.

Furthermore, other fears I’ve positively dealt with while here relate to health and possible violence. Not to be negative, but I think one would be lying if they came to today’s modern Africa stating they had absolutely no worries about possible diseases, viruses, or cruel terrorist groups. Every day I’ve been praying for our safety, and I know so many have been at home too, and so far we’ve been safe and healthy and we obviously hope this continues for the next 24 hours as we’re not out of the jungle yet (Literally!). The past 13 days have helped me become more comfortable in less “organized” and more remote environments and as a result my faith and trust in others and God has gracefully increased. It’s quite a blessing and something that needed to happen for me!

In retrospect, while I’ve spoken about these challenges I’ve faced in Benin, in reality they don’t even compare to or touch the surface of the struggles most of the¬†Beninese face every day. By being here I’ve noticed how every meal, every CFA (money), and frankly every moment of life is appreciated even in the smallest, most remote of villages. In Benin, life is lived on the margins, LIFE IS FRAGILE. On day two we drove by a man who had been hit by some type of vehicle. Driving by we vividly saw him bleeding in multiple places and it pains to know the quality of healthcare, or lack thereof, offered in response to such a life threatening accident. Again, it’s challenging- difficult to accept and understand. The traveler is forced to struggle and question as we’re left figuring out HOW TO RESPOND!

At the end of the day, no matter what one says, we’re called to be ZAGS because of these challenges! As college students, we’re in a great position to experience and investigate life’s questions, and it’s our duty to offer compassion and healing for those who need it most. While in the 13 days we’ve been here we haven’t elevated Benin’s economy, we’ve left our mark in the smallest of ways, and in ways that cannot be measured materialistically. After all, aren’t some of the best and most important parts of life those that cannot be valued monetarily? That’s something I’ve learned on this journey as I haven’t received one materialistic gift from anyone here, but rather I leave with a bounty of personal, heart-felt fulfillment I couldn’t find at home in the US. It is for this I’m extremely grateful, and humbled I was able to make this life changing journey.

In the end, it would not be fair to celebrate this experience without acknowledging all those who made it possible. First, I would like to thank those in Spokane who made this trip feasible – THANK YOU Richard & Katuska for all your time and thorough organization. Next, I must thank Father Nzamujo and the Songhai Center for hosting us and preparing all our meals. It was truly a privilege to stay here, and the work being done at Songhai is absolutely inspiring. Emile, and the rest of the Songhai team have without doubt gone above and beyond- for that, THANK YOU!

Then, back in the US, I must salute all the parents who made sacrifices so all of us could be here! I wouldn’t want to do this trip again with any other group than your marvelous sons and daughters. It was quite a team we had here full of talented individuals, and for that I’m grateful! Also, thank you to all loved ones across the world who sent thoughts and prayers in whatever form! That contribution in particular, and all well wishes cannot be discounted in any regard, and I apologize to those who I may be missing…

But, ultimately, we’ve gotten to the point where we all must thank our fearless leaders! Mark & Torunn, it was a pleasure. Thank you for guiding me under your wings and helping me authentically experience the world like I never had before. The countless work both of you put into this trip cannot be measured, and without doubt it paid of! Freedom is a feeling I believe we all should be experiencing because together we’ve come to so many new understandings about a variety of things, and now we have the honor of sharing newfound experiences and understanding with those back in Spokane and our loved ones at home. Again, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

Finally, I must take a moment to thank my parents! ūüôā
Mom and Dad, in a few hours you’re gonna get a new Robert and I hope you’re okay with that. I’m confident things will work out like always (haha) and I can’t wait to embrace you two and tell you all about this experience of a life time….LOVE YOU BOTH and see you in Paris shortly….

Now, again, IT’S TIME TO ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE! We’re ZAGS, and we’re ready to continue “setting the world on fire” helping make the world a better place! Please pray we have a safe journey home, and GO ZAGS!!

Robert Anthony Ercoli, Class of 2016





Songhai Health Fair 2014

Katie & Sam (again)

Today a group of 6 students put on a health fair for the local community that addressed some health concerns that the Beninoise people face on a daily basis. Some of the topics included: sprains, cuts, burns, diarrhea and how to make a first aid kit. The health fair took place right after mass in the day care room, which is a small open room with a roof made from dried palm leaves.  As we asked the staff how many people we should expect to attend, the number varied anywhere from 20-400. Looking at the small room, it was hard to imagine 400 people crammed into such a small space. The health fair group made flyers that Torunn translated into French for people to have. As the fair went on, we roughly 100 people attend. A good number considering this is the first year the fair has taken place.

Sam and I were in change of sprains. We taught people the R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compress, elevate) acronym but it did not translate very well. We brought ACE wraps from Gonzaga, but also taught people how to make ones out of cut up t-shirts. As the health fair went on, we received a lot of questions not related to sprains. Such as, how to preform CPR, what to do if someone is unconscious, and how to take care of a nose bleed. We answered the questions to the best of our abilities, but we felt uncomfortable giving medical advice.

For me personally (Katie), teaching at the health fair made me very excited to pursue my dream of becoming a nurse. Being able to help the Benin community, in any way possible, gives me motivation to work hard through nursing school over the next two years.

As for me (Sam), I’m pleasently surprised what I learned in nursing school has been retained! I’m just kidding but like Katie, it motivates me to study harder in school. It’s a different type of environment than nursing clinicals in the U.S. but I am reminded that my role as a nurse is still the same.

Tomorrow we are putting on two different health fairs for the Songhai administers and interns. We will update you on what happens next! Pictures to come!

Moments from Abomey

Once the capital of the Dahomey kingdom – the ancient regime of today’s Benin that lasted from the mid-1600s to the French colonialization well two centuries later – Abomey invited us to¬†Royal palaces¬†of historic value and sacred significance ¬†as well as the very well kept¬†archeological sites of the Parc Archeologique d’Agongointo.


For reasons not specified, some of us opted out of the visit to the King’s¬†temple.


Besides century-old underground dwellings and remains of cultural interest, the¬†archeological museum also¬†offered escapism in the form of enchantingly¬†green areas and …


… ¬†amusement.

The Universal Language

After we woke up on a rainy Monday morning we soon arrived at Zoungbomey Village, where we were greeted quite literally right off the bus. The excitement and happiness of the young children clearly came across through their positive and energized body language. Although body language was easily understood, the language barrier created a problem when trying to communicate and connect with the children on a verbal level. Soon enough one item quickly solved this problem. A soccer ball. We brought a few soccer balls for the children along with several other items. A soccer ball so clearly reminded me of the true beauty of sports. You do not need to speak the same language to play sports; sports are a language in and of themselves. Sports break down language barriers and allow all people, not just athletes, to connect, teach, learn, compete, and work together. Although my soccer skills are minimal to say the least, I was able to truly connect and form bonds with the children in Zoungbomey. Language barriers exist all around when you are abroad, but sports are an effective and secular solution that allow people to connect and make memories together without ever saying a word.IMG_1501

The Soton Sisters’ Farm

Judith Soton and her sister, Aude de Gr√Ęce, graduated from Songhai in 2013 and used family money and a loan from Songhai to start their farm near Porto Novo. ¬†Their story shows both the promise and challenges of putting their Songhai training to work.

They began with chickens for egg production and rabbits.  After constructing animal enclosures and raising the animals, they are just now at the point where they can expect some revenue from these efforts.  They  also raise catfish in two small tarp-lined tanks on the front porch of their house.  At this point they  buy feed or make feed by hand because they do not yet own the equipment to mix and make feel pellets more efficiently.

Their father bought 1 hectare of land near to their home where they have begun crop cultivation.  With revenue from eggs, rabbit, and fish production they can hire farm laborers and increase crop production.  The promise of intensive farming is that revenue from one part of the enterprise can help to develop other forms of production.  All of this takes time, which is one of the big challenges of putting their Songhai training to work.

Below: The Soton sisters, with our camera team, who interviewed them at their farm.




Return To Elive’s Farm

Two years ago we visited the farm of two Songhai graduates, Elvie and Abeguedo.  Elvie had received a $2500 grant from the US non-profit Eliminate Poverty Now and she and her husband had used the start up money to raise chickens, rabbits, and to plant the first 1/2 hectare of land of their new farm.   You can read the first report on their farm from the Eliminate Poverty blog at:

<a href=”″ title=”First report on Elive’s farm” target=”_blank”></a>

On this visit we had a chance to see the extraordinary progress they have made with their enterprise.  Their cultivated crops and fish ponds are far more extensive, they have added pigs and ducks to their animal agriculture.  They have one full time worker now and are starting to build a house on the property.  Their story shows the power of the intensive sustainable farming techniques of the Songhai Training Program, especially when practices by entreprenurial and hard working graduates with a little support from friends in the U.S.!

Below: Some images from the expanded farm.  Elvie near new pig pens and a view of the first tier of planted crops.  From here we walked past several fish ponds to a field planted in sugar cane.





August 1 – Independence Day

Today we got up bright and early to head for Cotonou where the Beninoise celebrated their 54th Independence Day. To get a view of the elaborated military parade proved, however, to be more complicated than expected: festivities seemed never to take start and we had in either case an impenetrable crowd in front of us. After a breakfast picnic and a few hours waiting, we opted therefore for an endless, almost deserted beach that suited both moods and weather.

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No one could certainly question our good intentions in¬†getting ready for the parade …


… but the beach was just so much¬†more tempting and enjoyable …


… and smiling Beninoise¬†the children were, ¬†as always, ready to great us.

Pepe Pima and The Good Food of Songhai

Plenty of french bread, omlettes, beans, rice, chicken, in the Songhai diet. ¬†And with almost every meal outstanding pineapple and fresh juices. ¬†A new discovery this year is “pepe pima,” a very spicy pepper mixture that is now accompanies many of our meals.

Below: A¬†typical “light” lunch at Songhai and some “pepe pima”