HomeDREAMEcological gardens in Malawi provide treatment for AIDS patients
21 - Sep - 2022

Article published by l‘osservatore romano

It is the poorest country in Africa according to United Nations data, and living in Malawi, which does have resources, often means an existence of hardship and difficulties where children have no childhood, no school, no home, no future. Among the main reasons for this situation are a rain-fed agriculture, i.e. based on seasonal rains that last only four months a year, and a fast-growing population, two-thirds of which, however, is under 30 years of age. The economy depends largely on sales of tobacco, tea and sugar cane, which in recent times have been slowed down by drought, caused by the strengthening of El Niño, a weather phenomenon due to climate change and in particular the warming of the Pacific Ocean. The drought and pests have also significantly reduced the cultivation of maize, which is essential for the preparation of ‘nsima’, a kind of thick porridge that is the country’s staple food. Also significantly affecting the severe economic crisis afflicting Malawi are the shortage of electricity, access to clean water, lack of infrastructure, political uncertainty and rampant corruption, even though there is a strong desire for democracy and change among the local population. All these elements have led to a drastic drop in purchasing power that has exponentially increased the number of Malawians living below the extreme poverty level. And then there is the scourge of Aids that continues to spread, as in the rest of the continent, despite the enormous steps forward in prevention education thanks to the efforts of the Church, associations and NGOs.

Sant’Egidio in the front line

Davide Brambilla, a biologist by profession, has been involved in the Community of Sant’Egidio’s DREAM programme for many years and supervises a number of laboratories and centres for the treatment of HIV infection and other diseases such as tuberculosis, Papilloma Virus, hepatitis, diabetes and chronic kidney diseases at an international level. His work and his passion have taken him to the streets of Malawi, but also of Tanzania, Kenya, and the Central African Republic: ‘It all started,’ he recounts, ‘when I was a final-year student in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the Department of Virology of the University of Milan. I was about to start my internship year in order to graduate but the desire to leave and explore the Dark Continent was stronger. The Community of Sant’Egidio, which had started its work for the treatment of HIV infection in Africa in 2001, called me and invited me to leave. So I did not think twice. I went to Mozambique in 2005 for a Pan-African training course organised by the Dream programme and from there I moved to Malawi in 2006 to work on my dissertation on new diagnostic methods for HIV detection. The first plane of my life was to Africa; I knew I was deeply attached to this land. I already knew that I would never stop boarding the planes that would take me around this continent.

The vegetable garden project

In this country, poor among the poor, there is, however, an initiative that is bearing unexpected fruit by switching on lights at the end of the many, too many tunnels: it is the project of organic vegetable gardens cultivated and maintained precisely by the HIV-positive patients belonging to the Dream programme. “The idea was born in 2017,” Davide explains, “thanks to the initiative of Sant’Egidio and Slow Food International, with the support of a fundraiser organised by the Laudato si’ Communities living in Olgiate Olona, as part of a charity dinner entitled ‘9000 meatballs for Malawi’. The initial aim was to set up three vegetable gardens in the area of Blantyre, a city in the central region of the country, to support some very poor patient families and also to produce fruit and vegetables for the ‘John Paul II’ nutritional centre, also run by Sant’Egidio, which provides a daily meal for about 700 children in the area. Over time and with the support we have received, we have managed to create 60 vegetable gardens throughout Malawi, which employ about 900 farmers, 15 more or less for each garden, and the fruits of the earth benefit more than 5,000 people. In recent months we have been working further with these gardens and have set up CSAs, Agricultural Support Communities, which bring together farmers with clients, so as to ensure work and an economic income for the farm workers as well as support and help from the buyers themselves who become participants in the decisions and cultivation strategies, ensuring the consumption of healthy organic vegetables: a virtuous circle that I think will be widely followed over time. It may seem that this activity is not related to my work as supervisor of molecular biology laboratories Dream, but one has to think that the treatment of HIV infection also passes through the aspect of nutrition that strengthens the immune system and allows a better intake of anti-retroviral drugs. In addition, these gardens give a new opportunity to these sick people who were initially plagued and afflicted by the disease and thought they had no chance of redemption and were left on the margins of society, having to carry the burden, the stigma of the disease on their shoulders’.

Artisans of a Laudato si’ world

“The free therapy,” Davide continues, “has given them a second life and the chance to regain the strength to work, get back into the game and take care of their family independently. And what greater satisfaction for a father or mother, bringing home bread for their children, ensuring them a more dignified existence? In addition, the training made them perfect farmers capable of producing excellent raw materials. For many years, the Community of Sant’Egidio has been providing the patients in the Dream programme with food supplement packages, but the global economic crisis since 2008 has greatly increased the price of raw materials, which is why we came up with the idea of the gardens. This is therefore a project that fits perfectly into the path traced out by Pope Francis in the encyclical Laudato si’ because it combines and brings together both social and environmental issues: the gardens are all organic and no chemical substances are used, and we also work to protect biodiversity in full respect of the environment which, however hostile it may appear, can instead offer many resources. Once again there is this wonderful idea being realised: love and care for the earth benefits both the poor and nature. How will this continue? I know that with perseverance, presence, cooperation and unity among all, we will succeed in doing even better, in being artisans of a ‘Laudato si’ world! What is important is to trigger good processes that can turn the tide and win the game against disease, death, hunger.

Kondwani’s testimony

Directly from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, we also receive the testimony of Kondwani Phiri, agronomist, responsible for the Sant’Egidio vegetable gardens in the country, who tells us about the fatigue but also the enormous satisfaction of seeing poor people, moreover suffering from AIDS, return to give a purpose to their lives: “They are here working in these gardens, several hours a day, under the sun and they are happy. Women, men, even younger boys, for each of them this is not ‘just’ a way to survive hunger, but a valuable resource to regain dignity, credibility and walk with their heads held high, facing even the disease in a different way’. Kondwani insists on the method and raw materials produced in the gardens: ‘We want to introduce a kind of organic farming, encouraging farmers to produce vegetables without chemicals, because we have found that there are so many side infections that come from pesticides and chemical fertilisers. In addition to polluting our environment, we have also seen that many species of our biodiversity are disappearing because of this type of agriculture that exploits the soil…We proceed in this way: first we train groups of people who are given plots of land; then we give them the practical and theoretical tools to produce vegetables with this new method, until they become autonomous. Vegetables are both food and medicinal herbs, used to treat various diseases.

Dignity also for abused women

We have seen that in all Dream centres this project has been well received, because it increases soil fertility and promotes biodiversity in our country. We also think that this project can help make women economically independent and thus prevent them from being abused in the family by their husbands. We know, for example, the story of Sybil Bamba who suffered violence and then finding herself in the Dream programme, had the chance to start again, to become independent, leaving her tormentor behind, to support her family and her children by selling the vegetables she had grown at the market, and also informing buyers that the vegetables had been produced without chemicals and pesticides. We want to propose to extend this project to other areas, so that others can benefit from it, because families in Malawi have a very low income. Because of poverty, they are encouraged to buy pesticides or other chemicals, but they do not have the means, so the women are hungry and the children are malnourished. This project is a response, an opportunity for Malawian families, especially families with members with HIV: extended family-type communities are created where the different members can interact, share their stories and encourage each other. This project is a wonderful opportunity for the people of Malawi!”.


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