In the hills above Addis Ababa, among the tracts of eucalyptus, lies a community garden that attracts devoted gardeners to its top soil. The garden is the product of a joint program between US AID Urban Gardens Program (USAID UGP), local non-profit Progress Integrated Community Development Organization (PICDO) and the municipality of Addis Ababa. A total of fifteen women, all diagnosed with HIV-AIDS, come to the garden to grow vegetables and release their daily anguish by creating a productive patch of life in the earth.
PICDO gained access to the land after pitching a native species nursery program to city officials in 2009. Once they had rights to the fertile ground, they began to develop other ways to benefit poverty stricken families suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Soon after, PICDO designated a large strip of land for USAID UGP and the 15 women working on the tree seedlings. The urban garden grew into a chance for the women working at the nursery to create a second source of income. Thus, the city supports the tree seedling program with water and land, and indirectly provides a way for these 15 women to improve their health with organically grown vegetables.
In the long term, the nursery will benefit the city and its residents by battling erosion and climate change through the planting of trees yet the garden provides the women with immediate results.
“The garden is much better than the nursery for these women. They get immediate income and they can eat their vegetables. They can’t eat the seedlings,” PICDO extension officer, Tashoma, says.
In the densely forested area around the garden, young girls comb the forest ground for leaves and twigs that have fallen from the boughs of the eucalyptus trees. All day long, these forest sweepers stream down from the hills carrying bundles of biomass to sell the makeshift fuel to city residents. Many of the women working in the garden used to rely on this same forest. Nowadays, few actually pay attention to the gardeners, bent over rows of luscious leafy greens.
Meaza Kazahun and company began gardening in mid-2009, watching Swiss chard pop up through the coffee colored soil softened by the summer rains. In addition to the chard, these Gardeners harvest lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and beat root to feed their families and sell the excess in the city for a profit.
At the garden, the women discuss the health problems they share and make collective decisions on how to spend the money. “When I’m sad, I rush here. When there is a problem at home, I find the solution at the garden. Plus, now I bring home food and save money from the sales,” Meaza says proudly.
Meaza grew up on the fringes of the Merkato, Addis Ababa’s bustling marketplace. Her family could pay school fees to afford her only a third grade education, enabling her to at least learn to read and write Amharic. It was around this time, at a mere 12 years old, when she was raped for the first time by her cousin.
“I was very young and mentally tortured by this,” she says quietly.
The trauma changed the 28 year old. She wondered why people she knew would do this to her. Abuse continued throughout her adolescence and Kazahun never understood how or why she contracted the virus. Nonetheless, she believes her parents’ separation was the catalyst that enabled these men to abuse her.
“When my parents separated, there was no longer a family system in place, and suddenly nobody cared about me,” she says.
She learned that she was HIV positive ten years ago and she wasn’t alone. Her 12 year old son is also HIV positive. Trying to get a grip on the reality of carrying the virus, she turned to PICDO, one of many non-profits around Addis Ababa that strive to assist people with HIV in making life as normal as possible. The garden soon became Meaza’s second source of income, complementing the money she earned from selling her hand-knit scarves and table clothes.
Meaza now cares for carrots and weeds her vegetable beds weekly in order to gain a foothold in a society where 75% of the people live on less than $2 per day. The efforts in the garden have brought her closer to her plan to start her own sewing enterprise.
Being HIV positive is no longer an obstacle. In Ethiopia, HIV stigma continues to haunt the rural areas, but Addis Ababa has become more accepting of people like Meaza. In the 90’s, discrimination was rampant, and refusal to allow HIV positive people access to public spaces was common.
“Now people have changed and they want to help us and support us. Finally we see this change,” she exclaims.
THE ECONOMY OF TALENT
Mulu Hunde works side by side with Meaza in the garden. Sometimes the two stand together among the vegetable beds and make plans to harvest the cabbage or decide to wait a few more days for the lettuce. Sometimes they talk about reactions to ARV medication, and sometimes they talk about new recipes to include their vegetables.
Mulu is Oromo, one of Ethiopia’s many ethnicities, and she grew up in the fertile highlands around Addis Ababa. Nobody knows when Mulu was born, not even Mulu herself. As is common in rural areas of Ethiopia, when a baby is born, the year is rarely noted. To be sure, she can tell you the saint corresponding to her birth date.
Her life changed in 2008 when she learned she was HIV positive. Working at a gravel pit on the outskirts of town, she made a decision to take better care of her health and quit the back breaking activity.
“I learned I was HIV positive and was counseled by a health clinic. I joined the garden and started resting more and taking better care of myself. Now I feel healthier and economically better off than I was before,” she says.
Indeed Mulu plays an important role in the economy of the group’s garden. Every two weeks she and the women load 20-30 kilograms of vegetables on a donkey they borrow from a local farmer. Mulu then leads a few of the women down the hillside into the city to sell the organic crops to distributors. These vegetables are 100% organic, and their buyers recognize the quality. Instead of using chemical pesticides, the women use organic tobacco plants to fend off pests. After a day in the market, the women return.
Encouraged by USAID UGP and PICDO to start a savings and loan fund, every two weeks each woman contributes 10 birr to the group’s savings.
The women use a portion of the fund to buy more seeds, but the majority of the money is invested into a small business shared by all. Thus, instead of spending the profit, the entrepreneurs invest their money in vegetable oil, which they buy directly from a manufacturer at a low price, then turn around and sell for a profit to distributors in the city.
TAKING THE GARDEN HOME
Mesrak Hyana started a container garden over five years ago. She learned micro-gardening techniques from USAID UGP and has since expanded her garden that now sits within the walls of her little cement house.
“I started the container garden assuming that it was not possible to make a garden here on such a small plot of land,” Mesrak says. “After the container garden, I realized I could make a garden on any size of land.”
Mesrek’s husband worked as as soldier and brought the family from the Northern Ethiopian city of Gonder to Addis Ababa years ago. He died of HIV over fifteen years ago, and she was finally tested in 2004. Thanks to PICDO’s services, she learned to live with the virus. And from a garden that measures 2 x 5 meters she makes 60 birr every month and saves 10 birr.
Her garden’s virtue is variety. Besides vegetables, she grows medicinal plants, roses, has an avocado tree and grows hops to make tela, or Ethiopia’s homebrewed beer. Every year for New Year’s and Christmas, she sells tela to neighbors looking for some cheer on New Years.
Thanks to USAID UGP’s support, Mesrek has received a water drip kit to help her garden in the dry months. “I am thankful because they picked me off the ground,” she says.
ABOUT USAID Urban Garden Program
Started in 2008 with funding from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), USAID Urban Gardens Program (USAID UGP) is implemented by DAI and designed to improve the nutrition and income of women and orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) affected by HIV/AIDS through urban and peri-urban agriculture, which includes gardening and raising livestock.
The Gardeners participating in USAID UGP often do not have the means to purchase and consume nutritionally adequate, safe and quality foods such as vegetables. Providing nutritional support to people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) is critical for making ARV’s more effective. In addition, excess production from urban gardens can provide income for PLWHA to address other needs.
Between September 2008 and September 2011, the USAID Urban Gardens Program reached 34,200 households and over 118,000 direct and indirect orphan and vulnerable children beneficiaries through micro, household, school and community gardens in Ethiopia. In addition, the program has provided agriculture-related education and training, tools and input. In Ethiopia, USAID UGP has created over 330 group and school gardens operating in 23 cities with the aim of improving both the income and nutrition of its Gardeners.
Learn more about the Urban Gardens Program and Urban Agriculture in Ethiopia here.