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On a windy hilltop near her brown and dusty corn and sorghum fields, Consilia Nyuwani is engaged in an epic struggle: how to feed and clothe her family of 24 people, 16 of whom are children under 13.
It is a stark example of the impact of HIV and AIDS on rural Zimbabwe. In addition to her own 10 children, Mrs. Nyuwani, 48, and her recently disable husband took in another dozen children. "The 12 came here because their parents passed away and they were living as street children. So my husband I brought them here," she said. "Six are of my late sister, others are my brother-and sister-in-law's kids, and the grandchildren of my sister."
This would be a tremendous challenge for anyone. But Nyuwani has a thoughtful, peaceful air about her as she takes a deep breath and describes how the family copes: "At first it was disturbing, because I thought about where to get food for all these children," she said. "But now I am used to looking after them? I treat them all the same, and share the food equally."
Survival comes down to just that: food. Nyuwani has seven hectares (about 17 acres) of farmland at her disposal, and is an experienced farmer. "I manage all this by farming, and the older kids help in the fields," she said. "During the rainy season there is a lot of work to be done, because I have to tend to the crops and the children as well."
Lack of cash and time to look for farming supplies like seeds and fertilizer make it extremely difficult for Nyuwani to plant and harvest enough to sustain the family. These constraints and the number of AIDS orphans on the Nyuwani homestead made her a candidate for the seed distribution project implemented by the Single Parents and Widows Support Network, in partnership with Oxfam America. Single Parents gave Nyuwani some seeds in November 2005, and by the end of May 2006 she had a decent harvest: she estimated growing about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of groundnuts, 100 kilograms (440 pounds) of corn, and 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of sorghum.
This was an improvement over previous years when lack of seeds as well as rain diminished the agricultural yield for the Nyumanis. But the food won't last forever. "I got a better harvest this year, but it won't last until the next season since I have such a big family," Nyuwani said. "For us to survive, to the next [growing] season, two of my daughters will pan for gold in river beds near here. We will also cut back on our meals to one or two a day. We will eat sadza [corn meal] and okra—that's what we have here—no tea, no sugar, no bread. During this [rainy] season we also have some pumpkins and cow peas, but we don't usually eat them apart from the rainy season."
Oxfam America and the Single Parents and Widow Support Network are exploring possibilities for a winter garden project that would help families grow vegetables over the winter. This would help bridge the food deficit many families will be experiencing before the end of the next growing season, and improve nutrition for families taking care of chronically ill people.
For now, the food is sustaining the homestead. "I appreciate the seeds I got from Single Parents," Nyuwani said. "I was very happy with the sorghum and maize seeds I received. I am also happy with the groundnuts."
In addition to improving their diet, groundnuts are also an economic opportunity for a family low on cash with a lot of kids who need to go to school. "If you can grow more of these to sell some, you can get some money," Nyuwani said. "Some of the children were chased away from school due to lack of school fees, but I sold some groundnuts and paid for six who are now at school."