“Surviving day by day” with hunger and HIV

Published: 1 March 2014 17:05 CET

Hansika Bhagani, IFRC

For Sibongile Dube, surviving on just one meal a day was tough. The mother of four was getting abdominal pains from the scarcity of food but it was not just because she was hungry.

When Sibongile’s HIV status was confirmed two years ago she was put on anti-retro viral medication which needs to be taken with food to be effective.

In Gwanda, in southwest Zimbabwe, accessing adequate food so Sibongile could stay healthy was a challenge. The area has suffered from drought for the last few years and crops have routinely failed.

According to the 2013 Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee report, 2.2 million people in Zimbabwe are food insecure. Gwanda falls in Matabeleland South province which has highest proportion of food insecure households in the country at 32 per cent.

When families cannot take part in the annual harvest in April because of a poor crop season they face a year of hunger unless they are able to find other solutions. Sibongile managed to feed her family of five by investing in buying vegetables from other villages and selling them back in her own. “During the drought, I was given money, 20 dollars to start a business to go and buy vegetables from another village to sell here,” she explains. “I would buy green vegetables from another village in another ward which are not available here and I would sell them. Then I use the profits to buy the little food that we survive on.”

Sibongile was encouraged to keep taking her HIV medication even though it was making her sick when taken with little food. “When I was taking one meal per day I had some complications from taking the medication, stomach problems. But during the counselling sessions, the health workers stressed that I had to take food first before I take the medicine, so I did.”

There are a lot of people in Sibongile’s position. The Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey 2010 – 2011 puts the rate of HIV in Zimbabwe at 14.7 per cent. In Gwanda, it is 21 per cent. Unlike Sibongile however, many HIV-positive people stop taking their medication when they are running out of food. They do not like getting sick. It is a difficult decision to make: to get sick from taking anti-retroviral medication on empty stomach, or to get sick from not taking it at all.

In January, the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society began distributing cash to families hard hit by recurring poor harvests. The activity is part of an emergency appeal for food security, launched by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It gives vulnerable families 50 US dollars to purchase enough food from local shops for one month, and return to healthier eating patterns.

“Now the situation has improved,” says Sibongile. “We have returned to eating three meals a day, but I am noticing that the food is fast finishing.”

Sibongile, along with other vulnerable people, will receive three cash transfers over three months until she can try to harvest her tiny maize crop in April. Heavy rains in early February, however, are reducing the chances of her having a successful crop. Some of the crop is rotting. “There is not much that I am going to harvest, but I am hoping that others will harvest and I will continue selling vegetables and then trade the vegetables for other important things,” says Sibongile.

“There isn’t really much hope to look at because with the droughts that come some days and you don’t have food some other days, so it’s just about surviving day by day, whatever that day brings.”

The Zimbabwe Food Security Emergency Appeal of 805,279 Swiss francs was launched in December 2013 to assist the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society in supporting 10,500 vulnerable people. The cash transfer element provides each household with 50 US dollars per month, for three months, to purchase a suggested food package of 50 kilograms of cereal, 10 kilograms of pulses, and four litres of oil.

Next week on www.ifrc.org/africa, we visit Ainna, a 62 year old grandmother who is caring for four grandchildren by herself, with very little help from the family. Ainna, who was born a dwarf, has difficulty moving around her maize crops, and relies heavily on her grandchildren for support.

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