For HIV-Positive S. Africans, Urban Gardens Change Lives

Emilie Iob | Johannesburg

March 15, 2012

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In South Africa, 18 percent of adults are estimated to be HIV positive or have AIDS. It is one of the highest infection rates in the world. In the large sprawling townships, poverty often prevents those with the virus from strengthening their immune systems with proper medication and diet. But this is changing - thanks to a new trend: city gardens.

Life changer

As she delicately digs out potatoes from the ground, Annah Mogoathe chats with the other women. It's 1:00 p.m. and the summer sun is shining at its peak over the township's community garden. Annah takes a pause. Just one year ago, she wouldn't have the energy to work like that. She's HIV positive.

"The garden has made a big change in my life. I was weak before, and now I'm strong," Mogoathe declares. "The food I grow and eat from the garden make me stronger and healthier."

We are in Ennerdale, a township 30 km south of Johannesburg. Here, about 50 people come every day to grow vegetables in the garden next to the community center. This is a relatively new idea here and most say a life-changer for residents who are HIV positive. It all started thanks to Lettie Ngubeni, the director of the Osizweni Community Center. She decided to transform the dumpster into a communal garden, and teach people how to grow vegetables.

We decided that we must encourage the beneficiaries to plant, to do gardens," Ngubeni explains, "because most of them are vulnerables, they don't have income to go and buy vegetables, always.

Healthy food

Portia Ncengwa comes twice a week to buy veggies at Osizweni community center. She hopes that when she gets better, she will also be able to come work at the communal garden. (VOA Photo - E. Iob)

A balanced diet is essential for people with HIV - a virus that attacks the immune system and causes AIDS. But when living in the city - although the access to clinics is relatively easy - finding a nearby market with affordable healthy food is difficult. So when Ngubeni came up with her idea of a city garden, it took her some time to convince people.

Its not our culture," she notes. "And it was difficult, first, when we started to change the mind-set of the people. You know in this place, the culture is that you buy, instead of doing the gardens."

But little by little, more people saw the value. Now, HIV- and non-HIV-positive people work side-by-side in the garden, and every day, on a table by the entrance, fresh veggies are being sold to the community. Portia Ncengwa lives nearby. She is HIV positive, and comes twice a week.

It's cheaper because maybe there, I can get potatoes for 3 Rands [$.39], then when I go to Shoprite, I get potatoes for 7 Rands or 8 Rands [$.92]," Ncengwa explains. "So it's much less transport for me, and much less: I can get potatoes, tomatoes, onions, beetroots for 10 or 11 Rands [$1.45].


Women gardeners working together at the communal garden. (VOA Photo - E. Iob)

With the help of the Ministry of Agriculture, the community center trains people to garden every Thursday. They are taught water management, rhythm of the season, and they can ask questions. About 250 people have already benefited from the program. They were given "starter packs", which included tools and seeds, to encourage them to start cultivating a little plot in their backyard. They say no backyard is too small for a garden.

Kneeling down in his garden, Moussa Pitso grows carrots, greens, beetroots, onions, spinach, and more. He was a pioneer, one of the first to have his own garden.

Thanks to the garden, I can now feed my family," Pitso says. "Before, I couldn't. It has completely changed my life, but the community at large also benefit from it. They took example from me and made their own garden.

Under the curious eyes of his seven children, Pitso intends to instill in them, over the years, all the benefits of gardening and prove to them that you don't need to be wealthy to eat healthy.