With A Few Seeds And A Little Water, HIV-Positive Women Are Transforming Their Lives

Through trainings in gardening and nutrition, Development in Gardening is cultivating a new future for women around the world.

With A Few Seeds And A Little Water, HIV-Positive Women Are Transforming Their Lives

Koumba, now 52, worked for many years with her local health center in southern Senegal as a HIV and AIDS educator. She became known in her community as someone who was knowledgeable and her work with the clinic defined her role in the town. But she also knew that she could only work for so long encouraging others to get tested for HIV before she would have to get tested herself. When her results came back positive, she no longer had claim to her place in the community. 

She lost her job as a community educator and returned home with no means to financially support her sick husband and her 10. children. Koumba was determined to keep her status secret in an effort to avoid the overwhelming stigma still associated with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. This secret was the first thing she planted in her garden. 



Each year, Development in Gardening (DIG) works with individuals like Koumba across sub-Saharan Africa and Central America to train them in gardening and nutrition. The nonprofit was born out of a project founder Steve Bolinger started while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. Bolinger, with support from a local doctor, was tasked to transform a deserted lot into a garden at the infectious disease ward of Senegal's National Hospital where many of which are HIV patients were too sick and too malnourished to even begin ART treatment. When he saw the impact, Bolinger convinced fellow volunteer Sarah Koch that this was a project worth pursuing after their service.

One of the biggest expenses, in terms of food, for a family in sub-Saharan Africa is vegetables, and a lack of diversity in a typical diet has led to high rates of anemia in places like Kenya and Uganda.  

While seeds for plants like kale and carrots are available, Noah Derman, deputy director at DIG, told A Plus that many people often don't know how to grow them. Almost all of the communities in which DIG works function on an agricultural-based economy already, but DIG works to differentiate between farming crops, often plants like maize and sugarcane, and growing vegetables at home for an individual family's use. Derman explained that one of the central issues DIG programs are hoping to solve is, "how we get people who are traditionally into agriculture understand a different concept of how to do it?"

via Development in Gardening
via Development in Gardening

The answer is through trainings and demonstrations. DIG's trainings typically last five months and cover gardening from picking seeds to harvesting. There is a special emphasis placed on the nutritional impacts of eating vegetables. The trainings are tailored to the group involved, whether it's a group of young mothers or for a garden that will be planted at an HIV-outreach clinic.

Eighty percent of participants in DIG's programs are women, which translates to a higher likelihood that the produce from a family's garden will go to the family first. Better nutrition for a child means less missed days of school, and better nutrition for the family as a whole means less money spent on future health issues.  

"We often talk about if women farmers around the world had the same access as men, [there'd] be better farming practices, and we'd have more food security around the world," Derman said.

Part of DIG's trainings include creating a plan for each individual that includes which crops would be best suited for a garden at their home, based on each family's nutritional needs and planting capacities. Derman said they've had participants who have grown their gardens and their businesses big enough to employ other people but there are those who just use the knowledge to build a better nutritional base for their families.

"Our projects are their projects," Derman said. "If we're building a garden, it's not our garden. It's their garden."

vid Development in Gardening
vid Development in Gardening

In a typical household, the men of the family are usually responsible for the large-scale agricultural crops, while wives and mothers hold domain over a family's at-home garden. However, when these home gardens start to flourish, Derman said it is not atypical to see men suddenly become interested in assisting with the family's garden.

"You talk about empowering women and having their own income, but also their value in the household," Derman said. "Their husband all of a sudden is looking to support the wife instead of always asking the wife to support them."

It's that one garden can lead to the flipping of generations of cultural roles that Derman said is the most surprising part of his work. He has seen the changes that a small patch of land can make not just in a family's home, but in the community at large. 

"It's always fascinating to me how much stuff you get compacted into this garden," he said. "You have this one garden and it has so many impacts. It impacts their family's health and how they eat. It impacts their income and what they can afford and not afford to buy. And then also socially, with someone who's HIV-positive can all of a sudden become a leader in the community because she has this new skill or the garden in front of the hospital all of a sudden makes the hospital become a place of learning as opposed to this place where they didn't want to come to."

via Development in Gardening
via Development in Gardening

After participating in a DIG training, Koumba began planning for her own home garden. She planted things like carrots and mustard and basil, and even occasionally was able to convince her kids to help with watering. As her garden began to flourish, her neighbors starting asking for advice on starting their own gardens. She started being known as an expert in subject in her village. 

For Koumba, through transforming her backyard that was previously ridden with trash into a lush garden, she transformed her place in her community. 

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