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Community gardens flourish to feed the vulnerable

03 March 2007, IRIN

MBABANE:  NGOs in Swaziland are shifting the emphasis of their operations from handouts of donated foodstuffs to training households and communities to set up projects that produce food and generate income, to find a lasting solution to perennial food shortages.

"Year after year the food crisis continues, with no end in sight. Before donor fatigue sets in, we need to encourage people to take control of their own food security," said Chris Dlamini, public relations officer for the Baphalali Red Cross Society.

Abdoulaye Balde, Swaziland Country Representative for the World Food Programme outlined the new approach. "People must take charge of their food needs. Food relief will continue in emergency situations, but we need to teach people about drought-resistant crops and encourage home cultivation."


In Manzini Region in the west of the country, Nomcibelo Dlamini arrived at a Red Cross food security centre carrying her prized exhibit: a full, lush head of lettuce. "This is from the community garden," she beamed.

To harvest such ample, pest-free lettuce is an accomplishment in an area hard hit by dry spells since the beginning of the year. "Many of our home and community gardens are failing because of the hot weather," said Ncane Kunene, a Red Cross official in charge of food security in northern Manzini.

"We have installed drip irrigation equipment in some gardens, but even these won't work without a minimum of moisture. We don't know if it is global warming, but the Manzini Region did not see such dry spells like these in the past," Kunene added.

Manzini is regarded as the breadbasket of Swaziland and has been largely spared the persistent drought that has made parts of the eastern Lubombo and southern Shiselweni regions unable to support agriculture for the past 15 years. About one-quarter of the country's approximately one million people depend on some form of food assistance. Many beneficiaries are vulnerable children, or elderly people who used to be supported by their adult children.

"AIDS has made food security more difficult to achieve. You cannot separate food from health. People living with HIV/AIDS require food to boost their strength: antiretroviral drugs must be taken after nourishment," said Sibongile Hlope, Director of the Baphalali Red Cross Society.

"We do give food assistance to children: a 50kg bag of maizemeal, 10kg of corn-soya blend that is rich in protein, five kg of beans and three bottles cooking oil every month," said food coordinator Kunene.


"More people require food assistance; that is why we are also doing community gardens," said Kunene, who supervises six community gardens around the Sigumbeni settlement, about one hour's drive southeast of the capital, Mbabane.

"There is a problem with irrigation affordability, especially with our communal gardens. They all depend on rain - but even with proper watering, the hot weather harms the crops. The heat brings pests, but we discourage [these by] using pesticides - we don't want people consuming chemicals."

Besides food production and income generation the gardens are also social gathering spots for HIV-positive people and AIDS-affected families, who comprise the bulk of the volunteers who till, weed, water and harvest.

Until recently, HIV-positive people were stigmatised in their villages, and support organisations for HIV-positive people were located in some towns but rarely in rural areas.

"The communal gardens allow HIV-positive people to discuss matters important to them, and be with other HIV-positive people. They get out of the house, and they take charge of one part of their lives," Kunene said.

Volunteers working in the gardens divide the food amongst themselves and the orphans and vulnerable children in the area. Some fields are even large enough to generate food surpluses, which are sold and the profits divided among the workers.

In Zandondo, a settlement in the northern Hhohho Region, one community donated a 28.5ha field for this purpose. "Last year one field provided school uniforms and basic school supplies to area orphans. We expect other fields to follow suit when this year's harvests come in, starting in May," said Kunene.


Red Cross director Hlope said the garden concept had yielded ideas that that could not be sabotaged by bad weather and were being used in other community-based projects to raise money for food and assisting vulnerable children.

"With R500,000 (US$68,500) funding in 2005 from the International Red Cross, we bought a tractor, seeds, cement and brick-making dies. Brick-making has taken off in some communities where sand is plentiful," Hlope added.

Another innovation in Hhohho is the first community-based fishpond, dug by hand in a field and filled by runoff from a nearby river.

"This is the same community that purchased a cow with the 2005 donor funding," said Hlope. "She is pregnant now, and giving milk. The milk is going to the area's AIDS orphans."

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