It took leaving the country of his birth to make it possible for Ben Cabral Dos Santos to later return and make positive contributions to the way of life for the people of Guinea-Bissau, a small country on the western coast of Africa.
It was the instructors and classes at Napa Valley College (NVC) he says, that made him realize that “I could make an actionable difference in the world. Prior to this, I just had a desire, without direction.”
Ben was only 11 years old when he and his brother, Wotna, moved to the United States to be with their father, who had been in the country for five years. Their mother stayed behind to manage family properties in the small country, where more than two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line, and environmental problems, along with political and military unrest and drug trafficking, are rife. Although the family loved their country, their father did not want his sons to be part of a generation of young men who would potentially have little to no opportunity in a struggling developing nation. Ben and his brother would not reunite with their mother for 15 years, when Ben was 21.
As he came of age, Ben became interested in law enforcement, and began taking criminal justice classes at NVC. His interest waned, however, as he realized that his true passion lay in finding ways to give back to his home country and other underprivileged nations.
So in 2015, he shifted his focus to earth sciences classes, with an eye on sustainable agriculture. While he worked on his education, he was also working to support his brother and father, who had suffered a stroke.
It was in an ecology class with Professor Patricia Bohls, Ben says, that his worldview began to change, because of her teaching style, which made the subject come alive, and her willingness to bring her own experiences into her instruction.
“It’s always been the teachers, to me, who have proven the greatest asset of NVC,” Ben says now, years after his last class at NVC. “They answered my questions, even when they were not related solely to the subject matter,” he said. “They met with me when I requested, to help me understand certain things better. There were a number of teachers like this; for them I will be ever grateful. They helped mold my thinking, gave me a greater understanding of the world, and prepared me, ultimately, for the path I’ve chosen.”
As his passion became more focused, Ben decided to attend the agricultural studies program at UC Davis, a direct result, he says, of his desire to “build up my home country. I wanted to plant crops there that would flourish. A good amount of what comes into Africa comes via the United Nations or other like programs — this is a fascinating topic in itself, which holds great interest to me — however, I wanted to build companies that would assure sustainable, healthy food for the people of Guinea-Bissau.”
Ultimately, Ben says, he left UC Davis prior to graduation, to begin his work “back home” as soon as possible, which he has done, through many return trips since 2016.
Ben has been involved in a number of projects related to sustainable developing nation solutions. He is now working with a philanthropic business partner to build a hospital in his home country, as well as with a non-profit organization to bring filtered water, non-kerosene based light and medicated mosquito nets to many developing nations. He’s involved in building a non-profit corporation which will include teaching financial freedom to people in African countries. Most recently, he’s published his first book, “Growing Up African: Wotna’s Journey.”
Rather than focusing on the poverty, military uprising or political strife in his book, Ben says, he instead emphasizes the resilience of the children of Guinea-Bissau. They are the reason, he says, he is determined to change the world one step at a time, a journey that began partly with the NVC instructors who helped him to envision his dream.