Innovation of the Week: Healing Hunger

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This is the second blog in a two-part series about GardenAfrica, a UK-based non-profit organization that helps families and communities in Southern Africa establish organic gardens to improve livelihoods and nutrition. To read the first post, see: Cultivating Health, Community and Solidarity.

Working with SAHIV staff, GardenAfrica selected patients from seven different clinics to participate in trainings and to help maintain the one hectare training garden. (Photo credit: GardenAfrica)

In Southern Africa, there’s a stigma associated with HIV. Many people hide the disease from their friends and family and feel isolated from their communities. And, in addition to an array of health problems that go along with HIV, such as thrush and other chronic infections, many people with HIV in Southern Africa are not getting enough to eat.

“Often the connection between healthcare and nutrition is not made , even by health professionals” says GardenAfrica co-founder and Programmes Director, George McAllister. GardenAfrica is a UK-based non-profit organization that forges partnerships with like-minded African NGOs and CBOs.  Together they develop appropriate training to assist families and communities to manage their resources more sustainably and establish organic gardens in  homesteads, smallholdings, schools, hospitals and other public areas. “In the case of those families affected by HIV/Aids, you can’t get better and become active members of your family and community if you aren’t getting enough to eat and the right vitamins and nutrients.”

In 2006, GardenAfrica partnered with HIVSA (HIV South Africa), an organization that provides treatment, education, and support for people living with HIV, to create a 1 hectare training garden at the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. The garden, the two organizations hoped, would provide a source of inspiration for the hundreds of patients that passed through the hospital gates every day to take back to their homes, improving the health of their families and their communities.

“Hospitals and community clinics,” says McAllister, “lend themselves to strong garden projects. They have high walls and guards to protect the plants, and hundreds of people are coming and going every day. It’s also a unique opportunity to help people to make the connection between what they eat and their own health, creating sustainable approaches to healthcare and wellbeing.”

Working with HIVSA staff, and developing training courses with Permaculture organisation Ukuvuna, GardenAfrica selected patients from seven different clinics to participate in trainings and to help maintain the one hectare training garden. “We selected people from clinic support groups and then we developed gardening groups around each clinic. Each gardening group then selected two members to attend the regular trainings,” explained McAllister. The training participants were then responsible for taking the weekly lessons back to their clinics to share newly learned information about Permaculture, irrigation and water conservation, food, nutrition and indigenous medicinal plants with the rest of the group.

The patients participating in the project take home the tomatoes, spinach, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, fruits, and herbs they are able to cultivate and harvest, and, in exchange, pass along their new skills to the daily stream of patients coming to the hospital for treatment.  They also provide starter packets full of seeds and gardening instructions.

And while McAllister emphasizes that improved nutrition is critical for improving health only in addition to standard medical treatment, she also says that many useful remedies can be found in the garden. “One man was growing beautiful produce but still he was getting thinner and thinner,” says McAllister.  “It turned out he had oral thrush.”  Oral thrush is a secondary  infection in the mouth that sometimes occurs in patients with HIV, causing the development of sores that are painful, making it difficult to eat. “We were able to introduce him to a plant that helped combat his symptoms and eventually they subsided, allowing him to eat again,” says McAllister. “He immediately began growing the plant (Bulbine frutuscens) in his project garden, and introduced it to other patients, teaching them how they can manage their own opportunistic infections, using plants as a readily available complement to anti-retroviral treatment.”

Many of the clinics have feeding programs, daily meals for patients and anyone in need. But ‘feeding’, while essential, can be disempowering for many people.  GardenAfrica project participants used the meals as an opportunity to give cooking demonstrations and introduce locally produced and prepared food.  “These cooking lessons create a more positive feeding process, where people can learn about cultivation, harvesting and nutrition which they can apply at home” says McAllister. “This way people living with HIV are able to come together to learn, share stories and forge solutions to their own particular challenges.  Skills are transferred by the garden team – but importantly, so knowledge and information is shared at many levels – generating confidence to address stigma & discrimination.”

To read more about how improved nutrition can improve health and livelihoods, see: Cultivating Health, Community and Solidarity, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Wildlife Conservation, Malawi’s Real Miracle, Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops, Finding ‘Abundance’ in What is Local, Honoring the Farmers that Nourish their Communities and the Planet, and Investing in Projects that Protect Both Agriculture and Wildlife.

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