East Africa: HIV-positive people turn to kitchen gardens during food price rises and drought (IRIN)

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The small garden behind Agnes Oroma’s house is much more than a hobby. Mrs. Oroma, from northern Uganda’s Gulu district, is HIV positive. She believes her garden is one of the main reasons she remains in good health. She says, “Do not ignore that little space behind your house, it can do a lot to feed you cheaply and lessen your financial burden.”

Mrs. Oroma’s garden is ten metres by fifteen metres. Here she grows indigenous vegetables and tomatoes. She also proudly shows off a sisal sack in which she grows onions. This produce supplements her daily diet of beans, maize meal, and fish. Mrs. Oroma advises how money saved by growing your own vegetables can be put to good use.  She says, “that would enable you [to] spend on other essentials to keep you healthy on your daily ARV [antiretroviral] treatment.”

More than 11.6 million people face starvation in the Horn of Africa. Millions more in the region are affected by rising food prices. Experts warn that people living with HIV are especially at risk.

According to the UN World Health Organization, HIV-positive people need to consume at least 10 per cent more energy from food. Lack of food is a barrier to successful antiretroviral, or ARV, therapy. Many patients abandon their antiretroviral medicine or delay starting them until they can afford a more nutritious diet.

Francesca Achieng is a nutritionist at the hospital in Gulu. She confirms that nutrition affects HIV care. She notes, ” [Without adequate food] a patient cannot withstand the strength of ARV drugs because of its side-effects, the drugs … can destroy your body while they fight to reduce multiplication of the virus in your body.” When hospital staff began assessing nutrition levels, they realized that the patients were undergoing difficult times.

Mrs. Oroma and other HIV-positive people in Gulu have formed a group. Their goal is to become more self-reliant in food. This helps them to maintain a healthy diet and stay on their antiretroviral medication. Mrs. Oroma’s group of backyard farmers has grown to 30 in the past few months.

Maurine Kilama has also begun growing vegetables. She says, “Food was my biggest worry for my treatment; I had become weaker because my body didn’t have the strength to withstand the potency of the ARV drugs.” Mrs. Kilama lost 6 kilogrammes in weight. But since she started her garden, she has regained 4 kilogrammes. She says, “Since I started growing these vegetables … I feel a lot of improvement and I have the strength to do other things.” She continues, “I now take my medication without worries because I know the food I grow can keep me going for another day.”

However, for many HIV-positive people, already weakened by lack of food, working in a garden is not an option. They may find the work too tiring. Or they may be too weak to walk long distances to collect and carry water for the garden.

The limited health services in eastern Africa are often stretched to capacity. People living with HIV may not get the attention they need from overburdened health workers. Many people living with HIV rely on social or home-based care networks for support. Food and water shortages can present a challenge to the continuation of these support networks.  Some break up as a result.

But Mrs. Kilama is still in a position to help herself. She has not suffered the worst effects of the drought. She planted onions and vegetables between November and January. She says, “Growing them is easy provided you water them early morning and evening.” She harvested vegetables in March and even had some extra to sell.  The money helped her to buy food and pay school fees.