Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Botswana Civic Leaders Visit Toronto Community Gardens

By Wayne Roberts
Project Coordinator
Toronto Food Policy Council
277 Victoria St., Ste. 203
Toronto, Ontario M5B 1W2
Tel: 416-338-7937
Fax: 416-392-1107

The AIDS epidemic in southern Africa is of such scale and scope that it tests the immune system of society itself, the ability of the body social to generate community economic development to provide food and other necessities, and to imbed healing in community, rather than medical, institutions.

Which is what brought civic leaders from Botswana, the country most heavily hit by the AIDS crisis despite the pro-active stance of its government, to Toronto last month.

Confident, well-briefed and conservatively-dressed, considering that we were going to spend the day tramping around community gardens and institutional kitchens, District Chairman Fologang and his three female senior staff from South East Council reflect the stable and modern style of Botswana's government.

No European colonizers of the 19th century suspected that the land of the Kalahari Desert was a diamond in the rough, so the country was spared the heritage of full-blown imperial domination. Diamonds weren't discovered until 1966, the year after Botswana became independent; the mines were thereafter used as the cashcow for social and health programs that gave Botswana's 1.7 million people the highest standard of living and best healthcare system in sub-Saharan Africa. "It's the most stable government with the strongest currency on the continent," says Parkie Mbozi, a doctoral student specializing in AIDS education in Durban, South Africa. "It even lends money to the IMF."

Over the last decade, when more than 29 million Africans died of AIDS, life expectancy in Botswana dropped from 70 to 30 years. In the area around the capital city of Gaborone where Council chair Fologang comes from, the HIV infection rate is about 40 per cent among people aged 15 to 40. Women suffer higher rates of the disease than men, which means that subsistence agriculture, mostly women's work, has almost ground to a halt. With all savings going into sick care and funeral expenses, half the population lives below the poverty line. There are 731 orphans in a population of 58,000, and the fastest-growing demographic group is child-led families.

Hospitals can't cope with the numbers of sick, so the government promotes community-based homecare, explains nursing coordinator Gamodimo Thonkana, head of the program in South East District and a member of the delegation to Toronto. The government provides a food box for every household providing home-based care and pays a token honorarium (about $16 Canadian a month) to volunteers who help with patient care. The government also takes responsibility for the care of orphans, few of whom can be absorbed in extended families also ravaged by AIDS.

Toronto's master gardener, Solomon Boye, and gardening youth co-ordinator Julian Hasford lead the delegation on a tour of the community gardens, nestled in parks across the city and stewarded by community groups that take responsibility for them. We start in High Park. The three of us are nervous that our guests will see our garden tour as an insulting diversion from the epic challenges they face.

It's a way to provide fresh organic food to people who may have a negative reaction to pesticides, I begin. Polite nods. And it's a gentle form of exercize that's suitable for children and people who can't do heavier work. More polite nods. And a way to avoid a balance of payments problem from having to import food for the homecare food boxes. Still nodding. And many people see gardening as a form of therapy and healing. Still polite.

Solomon Boye, originally trained in his native Ghana, takes over. Gardens are wonderful for young people who are feeling lost and angry, he says. "We tell them that nature's laws are relentless; if you don't seed, you won't harvest, if you don't care for the plants, they will die. It is not adults who are demanding obedience. It is nature demanding cooperation." They are hanging on his every word. "And we would like to help them so they can sell the produce in local markets." Boitumelo Kgaodi, the economic developer from South East Council, breaks into a grin. Solomon offers them some yellow plum tomatoes sticking through the garden fence. "These are heritage or heirloom varieties; the Community Gardening Network encourages them by having days when seeds are swapped," he says. "We have to find a way to bring him back with us," I hear one of the delegates whisper.

At the site of the old Queen Street Psychiatric Hospital, Community Gardening Network coordinator Laura Berman shows how an old greenhouse is being used to grow sprouts for a food box sold at cost by FoodShare, mainly to people on limited income. The sprouts are packed with nutrients and require no cooking, Berman says. And the people who grow them, mainly former patients at the Hospital, are as proud as punch at their ability to earn their own money, she says.

Over at Stop Community Food Centre on Davenport, Rhonda Teitel-Payne takes the delegation on a tour of the community dining room and kitchen, where the chef works with volunteers to cook up whatever's been donated that day or picked from the Stop's community garden. It helps people feel creative," he says.

Then Teitel-Payne leads us out back to view the communal baking oven, and another example of how food can be the start of informal community development.

The delegation is soaking it all in, but taking it calmly.

I don't get to sense the impact until we stop at FoodShare's Field To Table warehouse, where street youth and others pack the Good Food Box for FoodShare's 4000 customers in return for a free box to take home. While we're lined up for the free lunch given to foodbox packers, Field To Table manager Mary Lou Morgan explains that some of the youth found their way to her warehouse after their parents, afraid they would be hunted down and executed for their role as political dissidents in the former Yugoslavia, saved their kids' lives by getting them a one-way ticket to Toronto.

I cannot believe this, homecare nurse Gamodimo said to her colleague, Boitumelo. Boitumelo was choking up. "They take in people they don't even know," she said. "This city is so full of love."

Their next day on tour, which I didn't take part in, was tougher on them. They visited Casey House to learn about their model of palliative care that supports People With AIDS so they can live and die in dignity. Healthy food and emotional support are crucial.

So is pain management, treatment that Botswana's volunteer caregivers don't presently have access to. Pain management is increasingly understood there, where the well-being of surviving children is a top priority, as a way of providing dying parents with the peace of mind to prepare for their children's future, to write wills that can protect their children's property and to prepare memory boxes that their children can remember them by. It's hoped that Casey House will continue to share their expertise with caregivers in Botswana.

Barbara Emanuel, assistant to Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, organized the Botswana tour and spearheaded the City's and Federation of Canadian Municipalities' decision to partner with South East Council.

There's a special "municipal niche" that cities can help with, she says. Cities are where public health departments are located, and where communicable diseases, health promotion and community partnerships are specialties. And cities are closer to the ground than other levels of government, have closer ties to community groups, and are more able to broker informal deals.

Her own kids are crazy about soccer and she's something of a soccer mom. When she noticed Botswana orphans at Shining Star, a community garden and recreation centre, playing soccer and "kicking away, literally at a piece of rubber," she decided to bring over a proper ball and set of team uniforms, donated by a Toronto soccer league. This gift has since morphed into two projects, one through the Canadian branch of the Commonwealth Games, to send interns to Botswana to organize soccer leagues that includeAIDS-prevention as part of their morale building. The youth, both male and female, will get league equipment and uniforms in return for a stint at community service, possibly helping with the heavy work of establishing community gardens or helping to promote safe sex.

It's kind of an exciting expression of globalization," Emanuel says.

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Revised Friday, December 27, 2002

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture