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Stigma and survival: Community gardens in Africa

Stigmatization (stig″mah-tĭ-za´shun) is contingent on access to social, economic and political power that allows the identification of differentness, the construction of stereotypes, the separation of labeled persons into distinct categories and the full execution of disapproval, rejection, exclusion and discrimination.

In global news, we hear about the extreme cases where individuals are beaten and killed for their differentness or take their own lives because of stigma. These tragedies are a small sample of what it means to live with stigma and discrimination but there are many other hidden consequences that individual’s face on a daily basis.

With strong support from San Diego’s LGBT community, Development in Gardening (DIG) launched its first projects in 2006. Our work has continued to focus on the unique needs of people affected by HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. For these individuals, stigma carries a potentially deadly burden. It often means being exiled from family, losing a home, losing a job, ending a marriage, being refused health care, and living as an outcast from community and social support networks. Like stigma in the US, in Sub-Saharan Africa getting support and services to stigmatized individuals can literally mean the difference between life and death.

One of DIG’s participant’s, Absa was on the edge of death when we met her. At age 14, Absa mother sent her to the market to pick up rice for the evening meal. On her way home, she was pulled into an abandoned building and raped. Absa contracted HIV from this encounter and months later when her status was discovered, she was all but disowned by the most fundamental and important community she had, her family. Absa was left to pick up the pieces of her life on her own. She lived in servitude to her father who regularly ridiculed her for the shame she brought on the family. Years went by just like this, and by her early 20s, Absa found herself pregnant and in failing health.

Concerned, her doctors suggested she get involved in a new program being offered at the hospital, a DIG garden initiative. Reluctantly Absa joined the group of women. They were all living with HIV and most lived their reality in secret.

As she worked alongside these women, something important happened. She began sharing her story. She cried and laughed and listened with these otherwise private women, and as she learned new skills in agriculture and nutrition. Absa slowly realized she had become part of a transformative community. These women saw her as whole not the broken self she had grown to know. Absa slowly began to rebuild her life and her health. She quietly planted her home garden but once she began growing and selling her own produce, her family started paying attention. It was not long before Absa became a contributing member of her family, and with her contributions the family’s view of her also began to change. With the birth of a healthy baby girl, Absa was given new life and the cycle of stigma was broken.

This is only one example when a garden was more than a space to just grow fresh produce but also a space to grow community. Absa and others still gather behind that hospital in Senegal. In confidence and without judgment, they encourage each other to lay down their burdens and support one another’s journey forward. Safely behind the protective walls of a garden they laugh and carry on.

In most of the countries where DIG is working, strong national policies are lacking for stigmatized groups of people. LGBT rights are virtually non-existent and HIV is still far too often misunderstood. We have seen that the most effective way to address stigma in these places is do so on the local level.

In DIG’s Budondo project in Uganda, we have witnessed a group of HIV positive men and women literally move from being discarded individuals into a powerful collective voice that offers their neighbors incredible agricultural knowledge. They advocate for human rights and live as open proud and capable citizens. In four years they have become one of the most respected and revered organized groups in the region and have been recognized on a national level as an outstanding example of community.

For fighting stigma of any kind in Africa or in the US, the onus is on us. When a community fights stigma through education, it spreads faster than hate. What DIG does first at the local community level is find advocates, support their work, and build their capacity. This creates a space for fellowship and builds an inclusive community of pride and transformation.

Learn how you can be a part of a community transforming lives and land in Africa by attending San Diego’s Reap Life DIG Event on Saturday, March 23 from 3-5 pm on the patio of 1202, located at 1202 University Ave. in Hillcrest.