Basic Needs—Not So 'Basic'

For young children in rural Rupise ward, in Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani district, the community vegetable garden is more than a verdant outpost in this often dry and dusty land. The garden is a lifeline. Its beans, kale, carrots, tomatoes, and other vegetables supplement the children’s diets, helping protect them from malnutrition and disease.

Started by community volunteers with support from Firelight grantee Family-In-Need Trust (FIN), the garden provides food for orphans and other vulnerable children who attend the local preschool.

“Many children were suffering from malnutrition because of food deprivation,” explains Mary Machiwana, a leader among the Rupise community volunteers.

A widowed mother of six in her 60s, she is caring for her two sons and her three grandchildren following her daughter’s death. She supports herself and the children by selling vegetables and crafts.

The Rupise community garden is just one of dozens of FIN-supported, community-led efforts aimed at meeting the basic needs of families affected by HIV/AIDS throughout the Chimanimani district in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands.

Key to the success of these life-sustaining grassroots initiatives is the involvement of volunteers like Mrs. Machiwana, whose nickname is “Mbozha,” meaning “richness and generosity.”

FIN was begun in 2003 after a census revealed that 55,000 children—nearly three-quarters of all children and half the total population in the district—were made vulnerable by HIV/ AIDS and poverty. The census also found that there were more than 700 households headed by children in the district.

Sobered by these numbers and motivated by his own experience as an orphan, Jack Mukulu Bbabbie, then in his early 20s, founded FIN to help the children improve their situations and ultimately, to lead better lives.

One of the first things that he learned as he started to set up FIN’s programs was that children living with terminally ill parents or who had lost parents to AIDS faced a host of wide-ranging problems, including malnutrition, low school attendance and high drop-out rates, and elevated mental, psychological, and emotional stress related to a lack of parental care and nurturing.

Bbabbie involved traditional leaders and community members like Mrs. Machiwana in a community-planning process. Firelight recognized the strength and sustainability of this grassroots approach, and began supporting FIN in 2005.

The communities identified and prioritized needs of local children and matched those needs with the material and human resources available.

It was heartening to see “a notable increase in the mobilization of local resources in every ward,” and in the number of volunteers who wanted to help the community’s orphans and vulnerable children, he says.

Community committees identified hunger—the result of food insecurity—as the most pressing local concern. Most families in the community struggle to grow the food they need.

Erratic rainfall makes yields unpredictable. Zimbabwe’s economic crisis—all too apparent in the multi-million percent inflation rate—leads to frequent shortages of the supplies farmers need as well as difficulty purchasing them.

FIN began by helping community volunteers grow vegetable gardens throughout the district.

“These gardens have improved the supply of food available year round to families affected by HIV/AIDS,” says Bbabbie.

Some community gardens even produce a surplus now, which the committees sell to buy medicine and pay the fees needed to keep orphans and vulnerable children in school.

Lasting Improvements in Child Health

FIN’s involvement in community agriculture has broadened in recent years to include training in sustainable agriculture practices that make lasting improvements in the nutrition and health of local children:

• With help from FIN, 150 HIV/AIDS-affected families are now using drip irrigation to save water and labor as well as to boost yields in their household gardens.

• FIN introduced more than 1,600 family farmers to new bean seed varieties that can be produced locally, freeing them from the expense of purchasing seeds and the uncertainty of supply.

• More than 80 farm families received training on soil and water conservation targeted for drier parts of the district to improve rain-fed agriculture. Farmers in some villages have already put in place in-field water harvesting structures.

Small livestock projects are now part of FIN’s programs as well.

In Rupise, Mrs. Machiwana’s local committee worked with FIN to distribute chickens to a number of the community’s most vulnerable families. Each family was given two chickens from an indigenous variety that breeds monthly.

Families agreed to give the first two offspring to another family affected by HIV/AIDS.

“Family-In-Need Trust made a big difference to our work by giving us the cash we needed to get started,” she says. “Families are now selling the chickens and eggs to raise money for medication, school fees, and food.”

Mrs. Machiwana’s committee is now considering launching a goat-rearing effort and will look to FIN for the necessary training once they are ready.

Committees in other communities have requested and received training and start-up funds from FIN in the following “livelihood” areas: soap making, candle making, tie-dying, bee keeping, goat keeping, and mushroom production.

Although the activities are diverse, the goal is the same: empowering caregivers by helping them develop a self-sustaining income source so they can better support the children in their households. “In only a few years, Family-in-Need Trust has mobilized community resources and strengthened volunteer networks to support the district’s vulnerable children and those who care for them through these ‘community-driven livelihood initiatives’,” says Aili Langseth, Firelight’s Zimbabwe program officer.

Community reviews held for all of the participating wards in Chimanimani district indicate that FIN’s activities are significantly contributing to improvements in health, nutrition, and the emotional and general well-being of orphans, she reports.

Bhabbie estimates that Firelight’s support over the years has improved “the lives of more than 10,000 children and helped their immediate family members survive” in the midst Zimbabwe’s economical chaos.

And FIN’s impact is poised to reach even further.

FIN’s training approach, which prepares community representatives to be trainers of peer groups, is proving to be an effective and cost-efficient model for skills development that other organizations and communities are looking at with interest, Langseth notes.

Targeting the Needs of Households Headed by Children

Over time, FIN has developed a holistic and community-based response to the special needs of households headed by children. In 2008, Firelight supported FIN’s efforts to begin providing food packs, blankets, clothes, and medication to the district’s child-headed households. FIN’s trainers in livelihood initiatives pay special attention to these youth to ensure they learn the skills they need to support themselves and the siblings in their care.

In Rupise, that special attention comes from Mrs. Machiwana and her committee of church-going women. On Wednesday afternoons, they meet to manage their activities and discuss future plans. On the weekends they meet with the children “to discuss problems affecting them and find solutions and a way forward,” she says.

And supporting them in their work is FIN, which helps meet the basic needs of the district’s most vulnerable children to give them the necessary foundation to go to school, learn critical life skills, and build better futures for themselves.

By using a community-based approach, FIN has also managed to unify and mobilize an entire community around a pressing problem, ensuring that its members can continue to sustain their efforts and help the many other children in search of better lives.

First published in Firelight’s Annual Report 2008, and updated for this posting.