An initiative of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Slow Food International and Laudato Si’ Communities

Organic gardens ensure care and dignity for AIDS patients in Malawi

 Care and dignity for aids patients in Malawi  ING-048
02 December 2022

Malawi is the poorest country in Africa according to United Nations data, and to live there, although it has resources, often means a life of hardship and difficulty. In fact, in Malawi the children are deprived. They have no childhood, no schooling, no home, and no future. Among the principle causes of this situation is that the agricultural system is based on rain fall. The rainy season only lasts for four months a year and there is a rapidly growing population, two thirds of which is under the age of thirty. The economy depends largely on the sale of crops of tobacco, tea and sugar-cane, all of which have diminished recently due to drought caused by the stronger El Niño wind. This meteorological phenomenon is due to climate change and in particular to the warming of the Pacific Ocean, with increasingly extreme effects. Furthermore, drought and parasites have significantly reduced the production of corn, an essential crop for the preparation of “nsima”, a kind of thick porridge, which is the staple food of the country. The serious economic crisis in Malawi is exacerbated further by the shortage of electricity, access to potable water, lack of infrastructures, political uncertainty and spreading corruption, even though the local population earnestly wants democracy and change. These factors have all led to a drastic reduction in purchasing power, which has exponentially increased the number of people in Malawi living in extreme poverty, below the poverty-line. Furthermore, the scourge of aids continues to spread, as in the rest of the continent, despite the enormous progress in prevention education thanks to the commitment of the Church, Associations and ngos.

Davide Brambilla, a biologist by profession, has been involved in the Dream Program of the Community of Sant’Egidio for years. He is in charge of the supervision of some laboratories and centres, at the international level, for the treatment of hiv infection and other diseases such as tuberculosis, papilloma virus, hepatitis, diabetes, chronic kidney conditions. His work and his passion led him to travel the roads of Malawi, but also of Tanzania, Kenya, Central African Republic: “It all started”, he says, “when I was a student in my final year at the Faculty of Sciences at the Department of Virology of the University of Milan. I was about to start my internship year before graduation but the desire to leave and explore the African Continent was stronger. The Community of Sant’Egidio, which had started its activity for the treatment of hiv infection in Africa in 2001, contacted me and invited me to join. So I didn't think twice. I went to Mozambique in 2005 for a Pan-African Training Course organized by the Dream Program. Then I moved to Malawi in 2006 to work on my degree thesis concerning new methods to diagnose the presence of the hiv virus. The first flight of my lifetime was to Africa, I knew I was deeply attached to this land. I already knew that I would never stop boarding planes that would fly me around this continent”.

However in this country, poorest among the poor, an initiative has been started that is bearing unexpected results. It has shed light in the many, too many, dark tunnels. This is the organic gardens project cultivated and maintained by hiv -positive patients who adhere to the Dream Program. “The idea was born in 2017”, Davide explains —“thanks to the initiative of Sant’Egidio and Slow Food International, with the support of fund-raising organized by the Laudato Si’ Communities located in Olgiate Olona, as part of a Charity Dinner called ‘9,000 meatballs for Malawi’. Initially the aim was to set up three market gardens in the area of Blantyre, a city in the central region of the country, in order to assist some patients’ very poor families as well as to grow fruit and vegetables for the “Giovanni Paolo ii” Nutrition Centre, likewise managed by Sant’Egidio, which serves around 700 children in the area with a free daily meal. With time and the support received, we have managed to create 60 market gardens throughout Malawi, which employ about 900 rural farmers, more or less 15 per garden. The produce of the earth benefits more than 5,000 people. In recent months we have been doing further work on these market gardens and have set up csa , Agricultural Support Communities, which put farmers and customers in contact. This provides work and an income for the farmers, as well as the support and help of customers, who then share in the decision and cultivation policies, which ensure the consumption of healthy organic vegetables. It is a virtuous cycle that I think will attract people over time. It may seem that this does not concern my work as supervisor of the Dream molecular biology laboratories, but one should think that the treatment of hiv infection also involves the nutritional aspect that strengthens the immune system and the better assimilation of the antiretroviral medicine. Furthermore, these market gardens give the patients a new opportunity. These people, initially burdened and afflicted by the disease, feared that they no longer had any chance of a cure, of being left on the margins of society, besides having to shoulder the stigma of the disease”.

“The free therapy”, Davide adds, “has given them a second lease of life and the possibility to regain the strength to work, be valid individuals able to take care of the family autonomously. And what greater satisfaction for a father or a mother is there than to bring bread home for their children, ensuring them a more dignified life? Furthermore the training has made them perfect farmers able to produce excellent fresh vegetables. For many years, Sant’Egidio Community has provided patients adhering to the Dream Program with supplementary nutrition packs, but since 2008, the global economic crisis has greatly increased the price of raw materials, and this explains why we came up with the market garden idea. Therefore, this project fits perfectly into the path Pope Francis traced in the Encyclical Laudato Si’, because it combines social and environmental issues. The market gardens are all organic and no chemicals are used, moreover they serve to protect biodiversity in full respect of the environment which, however hostile it may appear to be, can nevertheless offer many resources. Once again this wonderful idea is being realized: love and care of the earth benefits both the poor and nature. How can this continue? I know that with perseverance, interest, co-operation and unity among all, we will be able to do even better, as artisans of a Laudato Si’ world’! The important thing is to implement good procedures that can bring change and defeat the odds against disease, death, and hunger”.

Directly from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, we have received the testimony of Kondwani Phiri, agronomist, responsible for Sant’Egidio’s market gardens throughout the country. He tells us about the fatigue but also the enormous satisfaction of seeing poor people, also sick with aids , who are once again able to have a purpose in life: “They are here working in these market gardens, several hours a day, under the sun and they are happy. Women, men, even young people, for each of whom this is not ‘only’ a way to survive hunger, but a precious resource for recovering dignity, credibility and walking with one’s head held high, also confronting the disease in a different way”. Kondwani dwells on the method and the fresh produce grown in the market gardens: “We want to introduce a sort of organic agriculture, encouraging farmers to grow vegetables without chemicals, because we have found that many collateral infections derive from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In addition to polluting our environment, we have also seen that many species of our biodiversity are disappearing due to this type of agriculture that exploits the earth.... We proceed in this way: first of all we form groups of people who are assigned plots of land; then we give them the practical and theoretical tools to grow vegetables using this new method, until they become autonomous. Vegetables provide both food and the medicinal herbs used to treat various diseases”.

“We have seen that all the Dream Centres have welcomed this project, because it increases soil fertility and promotes biodiversity in our country. We also think that this project can contribute to making women economically independent and therefore helps to prevent them from being abused in the home by their husbands. For example, let us take Sybil Bamba’s case. She had suffered violence, and then through the Dream Program had the opportunity to start over again, become independent, leave her tormentor, and support her family and her children by selling the vegetables she had grown at the local market. At the same time Sybil told the customers that the vegetables were produced without chemicals and without pesticides.

We are planning to extend this project to other areas, so that more people can benefit from it, because in Malawi families have a very low income. Due to poverty, they are encouraged to buy pesticides or other chemicals, but they don’t have the means and therefore the women go hungry and the children are undernourished. This project represents an opportunity, a chance for the families of Malawi, especially for families with members who have contracted hiv : so, extended family-type communities are being opened, in which the various patients can interact, share their stories and encourage each other. This project is a wonderful opportunity for the people of Malawi!”.

Cecilia Seppia