Thursday, August 22, 2013

Gardening for Health

Over the past couple of weeks, we traversed many miles of roads and dirt tracks on the backs of boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) and on foot as we visited families and support groups who have started kitchen gardens in the past year. The purpose of our visits was to meet the beneficiaries of the kitchen garden program and hear about their successes and challenges. After listening to their stories, and then writing a report on the kitchen garden initiative, I wanted to reflect on the big picture, rather than all the small details and logistics I’ve been learning about bit by bit.
            It might not immediately be clear why an organization such as WOPLAH, which is dedicated to supporting people infected and affected by HIV, is focusing on a project such as kitchen gardens. The jump between growing kale and managing HIV might seem like a stretch. However, with a little thought, the connection becomes very clear. It’s so basic and simple that it can be easily overlooked. Without consistent access to nutritious food, any other health interventions are just band-aids. The administration of antiretroviral drugs to control HIV/AIDS is a case-in-point example. When taken without food, the drugs often have debilitating side-effects, such as nausea and dizziness. Dealing with these type of side effects on a daily basis can discourage people from taking their drugs, rendering the entire treatment process futile. In this case, the solution is not more expensive drugs or complicated initiatives. The solution can be as simple as turning over a small plot of land in a backyard and planting some seeds. A drug targets and treats a very specific problem. A kitchen garden addresses a wide variety of problems at their very roots.
            When a community, family, or individual gains the tools to grow a kitchen garden, they gain the ability to provide one of the most basic human necessities for themselves and those around them. The act of planting a seed, tending a plant, and finally preparing and sharing a meal that is the product solely of one’s own hard work can instill a vital sense of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-respect. In a place where people living positively with HIV are often ostracized and viewed as a burden, the independence that comes from being able to provide for one’s self and one’s family can play a powerful role in reducing stigma. When people see a HIV+ community member growing a verdant garden full of kale, cowpeas, pumpkins, maize, spinach, and tomatoes, they are forced to reconsider all their preconceptions about HIV/AIDS.
            Food is the greatest equalizer: it is a need we all have in common. When we sit down to share a meal with other people, we recognize our shared humanity. The barriers of race, age, socioeconomic status, and HIV status disappear as we fulfill the same basic needs at the same table. Eating is a simple act, one that many of us don’t give much thought to, but its power cannot be underestimated. A few weeks ago, we visited a health center where a children’s club for kids who are living positively or who have been impacted in some way by HIV meet once a month. It is a place where the children come to play, eat, learn, and be carefree. When we met up with Edwin that morning, he informed us of our plan for the day. We would spend the morning at the children’s club before moving on to another house for lunch. He said that even though we were going straight from the children’s club to a big lunch that was being prepared for us, we must be sure to eat some food with the children. He stressed that if we didn’t, the children would think we didn’t want to share food with them because of their HIV status. Eating with them, on the other hand, would send a message of equality and solidarity.
            The connection between global health work and kitchen gardens might be difficult to discern at first, but our human need for food cannot be separated from any aspect of life, especially basic health. Good nutrition is the keystone of good health, so it is important to consider the consistent provision of healthy food as a pillar of health care.  Kitchen gardens can be a great source of healthy food, as well as help generate income, and give people hope and self-respect.
            Of course, there are challenges associated with kitchen gardens, as we have learned from talking to many of the beneficiaries of WOPLAH’s garden project over the past few weeks. They struggle with pests that eat crops, unhealthy soil, water sources that are difficult to access, and changes in the climate that are making it increasingly difficult to get good yields. However, the beauty in planting a garden is that there is always hope. Each seed is placed in the ground with the promise that the future will bring a green sprout, a growing plant, a good harvest, and increased health.

Members of a support group in front of their kitchen garden.

Rory and Alexis helping plant tomatoes in a kitchen garden near the beginning of our internship. 

Sarah planting tomatoes in the same garden. 

The same garden and same tomato plants four weeks later! 

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