By Cecilia Seppia

Sep 7 2022

Sant’Egidio, Slow Food International, and several Laudato si’ communities join forces to create a project to promote the cultivation and sale of organic produce, while offering assistance to HIV-positive patients who face both poverty and social stigma in Malawi. The Garden Manager says the project helps train people and give them tools, but that the land is what truly sets them free.

Many people in Malawi face a host of difficulties in their daily lives, even though their nation brims with natural resources. According to United Nations data, Malawi is the poorest country on the African continent.

Rain-reliant agriculture ranks among the main reasons for this situation, as farmers rely on seasonal rains that last only four months out of the year. Another issue is a fast-growing population, two-thirds of which are under the age of 30. The economy depends largely on sales of tobacco, tea, and sugarcane, which in recent years have slowed due to drought, caused by the strengthening of El Niño, a weather phenomenon partially linked to climate change and in particular the warming of the Pacific Ocean, the effects of which are increasingly extreme. Drought and pests have also greatly reduced the cultivation of corn, which is essential for the preparation of “nsima,” a kind of thick porridge that is Malawi’s staple food.

Other issues which greatly affect the severe economic crisis facing the country are the shortage of electricity, access to clean water, lack of infrastructure, and political uncertainty, even though there is a strong desire for democracy and change among Malawians.

All these elements have resulted in a drastic drop in purchasing power which has exponentially increased the number of Malawians living below the extreme poverty level.

Amid all these, there persists the scourge of AIDS, which continues to spread, as in the rest of the African continent, despite enormous strides in prevention education, thanks to the efforts of the Church, associations and NGOs.

Sant’Egidio on the front lines

Davide Brambilla, an Italian-born biologist, has long been involved in the Community of Sant’Egidio’s DREAM project, and oversees the international initiative’s labs and treatment centres for HIV infection and other diseases, such as Tuberculosis, Papilloma Virus, hepatitis, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease. His work and passion have taken him to the streets of Malawi, as well as Tanzania, Kenya, and the Central African Republic.

“It all started,” he says, “when I was a final-year student in the faculty of Biological Sciences at the Department of Virology at the University of Milan. I was about to start my internship year in order to graduate, but the desire to set out and explore the African Continent was stronger. The Community of Sant’Egidio, which had begun its work to treat HIV infection in Africa in 2001, called and invited me to depart. I did not think twice! I went to Mozambique in 2005 for a Pan-African training course organized by the DREAM project, and from there I moved to Malawi in 2006 to work on my dissertation concerning new diagnostic methodologies for HIV detection. The first airplane trip of my life was to Africa; I knew I was deeply connected to this land. I already knew that I would never stop boarding the planes that would take me around this Continent.”

Malawi Gardens Project

In Malawi, an initiative has been set up which is bearing unexpected fruit by putting lights at the end of numerous tunnels. The project consists of organic vegetable gardens maintained by HIV-positive patients who participate in the DREAM project.

“The idea was born in 2017,” Davide explains, “thanks to the initiative of Sant’Egidio and Slow Food International, along with the support of a fundraiser organized by the Laudato si’ Communities of Olgiate Olona, as part of a charity dinner entitled ‘9,000 meatballs for Malawi.’

The initial purpose was to start 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 center, also run by Sant’Egidio, which provides a daily meal to about 700 children in the area. Over time and with the support we have received, we have managed to create 60 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 are working further with these gardens and have set up Agricultural Support Communities, which bring together farmers and buyers, so as to ensure employment and an economic income for farm workers and also support and help from the buyers themselves who become participants in the decisions and strategies of cultivation, ensuring the consumption of healthy organic vegetables: a virtuous circle that I think over time will have wide follow-through. It may seem that this activity does not relate to my work as supervisor of molecular biology at the DREAM labs, but we must remember that the treatment of HIV infection also passes through the aspect of nutrition that strengthens the immune system and allows a better intake of antiretroviral drugs. In addition, these gardens offer a new opportunity to sick people who were initially plagued and afflicted by the disease and thought they no longer had a chance for rehabilitation and were left on the margins of society, having to carry on their shoulders the burden and stigma of the disease.”

Artisans of a Laudato si’ world

“Therapy that is free-of-charge,” 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 families independently. And what greater satisfaction for a father or mother than to bring 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 belonging to the DREAM project with food supplement parcels, but the global economic crisis since 2008 has greatly increased the price of raw materials. That’s why we came up with this idea of the gardens. So, this is a project that fits perfectly in the path marked 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 chemicals are used; moreover, we work to protect biodiversity in full respect of the environment, which, as hostile as it appears, can instead offer many resources. Once again there is this wonderful idea being realized: love and care for the earth benefits both the poor and nature. How will this continue? I know that with perseverance, presence, collaboration and unity among all, we will be able to do even better, to be artisans of a ‘Laudato si’ world! The important thing is to create healthy cycles which can turn the tide and win the game against disease, death, and hunger.”

The gardens are all organic, no chemicals are used for cultivation

Kondwani’s testimony

Speaking from Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, Kondwani Phiri, an agronomist and head of the Sant’Egidio gardens in the country, offers her testimony about the hard work and enormous satisfaction she feels when seeing poor people, moreover suffering from AIDS, as they 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 tall, facing even the disease in a different way.”

Kondwani also 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 resulting infections that come from pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In addition to polluting our environment, we have also seen that many species of our biodiversity are disappearing because of this kind 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 by this new method, until they become self-sufficient. Vegetables are both food and medicinal herbs, used to treat various diseases.

We have seen that in all DREAM centers 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. For example, we know the story of Sybil Bamba, who suffered violence and then, joining the DREAM project, had the chance to start over, to become independent, leaving her tormentor behind, and to support her family and 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 extending this project to other areas, so that others can benefit from it, because families in Malawi have a really low income. Because of poverty, they are encouraged to buy pesticides or other chemicals, but they don’t have the means, so the women are hungry and the children are malnourished. This project is an answer, an opportunity for Malawian families, especially families with HIV-positive members: you create extended family-type communities where different members can interact, share their stories and encourage each other. This project is a wonderful opportunity for the people of Malawi!” – Vatican News