Planting Maize, Promoting Health


Photo Courtesy of Gardens for Health

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There's something about planting maize that lends itself to a particular teamwork. It is early morning, and we are just outside Kigali, Rwanda, observing one of the community garden cooperatives we support at Gardens for Health, a non-profit that helps Rwandans living with HIV/AIDS grow nutritious food in a sustainable manner. One group outlines the planting area with string, another digs the planting holes with a hoe, the next follows with organic manure, the next with two maize seeds, and the last folds the soil back over the seeds. The team members comprise many ages: young mothers, orphans, grandmothers. What brought them together in the past was their shared vulnerability to AIDS, and what brings them together today is their effort to grow their own food so they can become nutritionally self-sufficient.

While this scene of seamless cooperation is impressive, it is not purely pastoral. The work is hard, the day is hot, and many of the members are weak. After they plant a hectare of maize, they take a break and eat bananas and sugar cane from a nearby field. Donatille, elected vice president of her cooperative, records in her book the names of everyone participating that day. She is a widow, HIV positive, and takes care of seven children. She was born and raised in this part of Rwanda, but this is the first year she has had access to so much farmland, especially rich, fertile soil at the base of a valley.

To hear Donatille speak of their progress and plans is exciting; she talks about eating better, feeling better, taking her medication, and her newfound love for beets.

We've been working with Donatille's cooperative over the last year, first assisting them in gaining access to land, then awarding them a loan for their community garden. We provided technical assistance, while they provided the innovation and commitment. From a few hectares of uncultivated land, they're creating a productive farming system: they dug two fish ponds, over which they built rabbit houses. They constructed a fruit tree nursery and a hut to grow mushrooms and planted a maze of vegetable beds.

They will share the harvests among all members, even those too sick to work on the field, and they will sell their surplus. This year they will sell their maize to a local food aid manufacturer, especially significant because many of them have been recipients of food aid in the past. To hear Donatille speak of their progress and plans is exciting; she talks about eating better, feeling better, taking her medication, and her newfound love for beets.

Later on, our agronomists distribute seeds and seedlings for home gardens. Hawa chooses a papaya tree, a moringa tree and a package of soy beans, cow peas, amaranth, beets, tomatoes, Swiss chard, onions, garlic, and sunflower seeds. The colorful harvest will supplement the sorghum, potatoes, and cassava that form the staple of her diet. She has twin babies, one HIV positive, the other negative. To see her with her twins is to see in the immediate how the virus manifests itself. Her HIV positive son is sick, recently hospitalized with malnutrition, and cries often, while his healthier sister is even starting to walk.


Photo Courtesy of Gardens for Health

Hawa came to Kigali city on her own a couple years ago for opportunity, and soon ended up in the hospital TB ward for six months. She is now out of the hospital and on antiretroviral treatment, but hunger is a nagging companion. While her medication makes her feel nauseous if she doesn't take it with food, her greater worry each night is what she will feed her children the next day. If her children have food to eat, she says she is less likely to pursue risky survival strategies to provide food for them, strategies that transmitted the virus to her in the first place. What the home garden brings her, she says, is a small sense of security about tomorrow.

"Food security" is a phrase thrown around a lot these days. The World Food Summit just ended in Rome amidst reports that global hunger is the worst it has been in recent history--in Africa, and even in America. There is emerging political commitment from global leaders to address food insecurity, resulting in debate on grand scale. What we are finding on the ground, inspired by Rwandans like Donatille and Hawa, is that one solution to the food crisis is communities creating their own solutions. Such strategies celebrate collaboration and initiative; they also strengthen bonds where communal support is especially important--in our case, the chronically ill. Whether it is gardens in Rwanda, or neighborhood farms cropping up in vacant lots across America, communities cooperatively and collectively growing their own nutritious food are setting powerful examples for all of us.

For more about Gardens for Health, click here.