Lesotho: keyhole gardens equal hope

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As climate change, food crises and the HIV pandemic continue to hit hard in Africa, Lesotho has found one small but successful solution to some of its big problems – keyhole gardens.

Lesotho is a southern African country barely the size of Belgium, where food and HIV are inextricably linked. Its economy, which is heavily reliant on agriculture, faces many challenges – including severe droughts, a short growing season, and soil stripped of nutrients by intensive agricultural practices.

With a population of just 2.2 million, Lesotho also struggles with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV, at 23.6 per cent, compounding its challenge to grow food, with its workforce severely weakened.

Diane Moody, British Red Cross programme manager, explains: “The HIV pandemic is linked with chronic food shortages and for households affected by HIV it can be a vicious circle. It is essential for people to have access to healthy food when taking the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs, but it also becomes increasingly difficult for them to grow their own food or afford to buy it.”

Struggling to eat

For families affected by HIV and struggling to get food, the obstacles can seem overwhelming. However over the last few years, organisations in Lesotho, including the Lesotho Red Cross, have pioneered a new approach to help people grow enough food.

Majoele Nkobloane, 66, from Macha-feela village was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. She says: “We used to have to travel long distances to find vegetables and sometimes the herd boys would beat us. It was difficult because of taking the medication and not having enough food, which made me vomit.

“But in 2010, the Red Cross started teaching us about keyhole gardens. I’ve learned about manure, compost and other techniques, which help us grow lots of spinach and other vegetables. Now my weight and health has improved.”

Keyhole gardens

Keyhole gardens – so-called because of their shape from above – are a great way for people to grow their own food, especially for those who don’t have access to a large plot of land or the energy to maintain it.

The gardens are built to waist height and arm span – making it easy for people to tend them and grow nutritious, healthy food almost all year round.

The Red Cross trains ‘lead gardeners’ in each community to share knowledge on how to make the gardens as productive as possible. It also teaches methods of food preservation to help sustain people between harvests. Excess food can be sold at market, helping families gain a small income.

Orphans and vulnerable children

Majoele says: “The Red Cross has made a huge difference, especially for the orphans who sometimes go without food for some days.”

Nomayeza Rabatho, Lesotho Red Cross orphans and vulnerable children officer, says: “As well as practical support we are trying to address children’s emotional pain. Some children aged nine are already the head of a household and they have a big burden to bear.

“We encourage children to make their own ‘hero book’, where they can write their story. If the children aren’t ready to talk, writing or drawing about things can be a good start.”

Ambassador of hope

Mabonang Sethathi, 48, who is living with HIV, also recognises the importance of emotional support for adults, especially when tackling the stigma associated with the disease.

A few years ago, a Red Cross worker who visited Mabonang regularly to ensure she took her medication recommended her for a new Red Cross role as an ‘ambassador of hope’.

Mabonang says: “At first I thought: who me? And then I thought: why not give it a go. Now I inform people about how to prevent HIV and the importance of getting tested. We use role plays and songs to get the message across.

“I cannot stop smiling. I am in good health and living my dream of helping people. Yes, I used to face stigma and some people would call me names. But now I do not care. I am proud of my status and want to ensure people who have HIV are not discriminated against.”

What the Red Cross is doing in Lesotho

Lesotho has around 270,000 people living with HIV, including 28,000 children. The disease has also left around 130,000 children orphaned (UNAIDS 2009).

The British Red Cross supports the Lesotho Red Cross:

helping 2,400 people living with HIV supporting 2,800 orphans and vulnerable children reaching 80,000 people with information about how to prevent HIV.