Handing out bags of food in Kenya (Photo by Hartley Wynberg)

East Africa Famine and HIV/AIDS

Voices from the Frontlines, Issue 1

This is the first issue of Voices from the Frontlines, an update from the Stephen Lewis Foundation profiling grassroots African expertise in response to the AIDS pandemic. Each month, we’ll use a mixture of stories, quotes and video to highlight the vital work of the community-based organizations we support.

“The support I get is crucial for me to live, because my existence is crucial for my grandchildren. The food support helped me get healthy and strong for my grandchildren. Through the support of the programme, my grandchildren are able to attend school regularly.”

— 75-year-old grandmother receiving food from an SLF-partner organization in Ethiopia

This summer, much of the world’s attention has, necessarily, been focused on East Africa, where the worst drought in 60 years has put more than 11.5 million people at risk of malnutrition, illness and death. Recently, our partners in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have informed us of the growing crisis in their communities. For example, a project in Kenya working with grandmothers and children orphaned by AIDS told of how they’ve received an influx of climate refugees seeking food and other necessities, which is draining their already-overstretched resources.

People living with HIV and AIDS, small children, and the elderly are especially vulnerable to drought and famine. For those living with the virus, lack of nutrition compromises their already-weakened immune systems, making it difficult for the body to fend off opportunistic infections and tolerate the strong side-effects of antiretroviral drugs. For babies and children, particularly those living with HIV, the effects of malnourishment can last a lifetime, leaving them susceptible to disease, stunting and developmental delays.

Although the current famine in the Horn of Africa has resulted largely from drought, rising costs and inflation, there is no question that AIDS is wreaking havoc with agricultural productivity. Many women, often the farmers and food producers in their communities, are struggling with illness, or have been forced to choose between tilling the fields and caring for the sick and orphaned.

In the midst of this crisis, SLF-partner organizations in East Africa have been responding urgently to the needs of the people they serve. They are providing a range of innovative and life-saving supports – from food baskets, nutritional supplements and community food banks to water-harvesting tanks, vocational farm schools and revolving livestock programmes – helping families and communities to keep hunger at bay and increase their ability to feed themselves, both now and in the future. These grassroots African experts are rooted in their communities and will continue to serve them long after the famine has faded from the headlines.

The organizations with whom we work understand the needs of their communities because they are their communities. Their holistic and highly effective approaches are vital to ensuring that people are able to cope with the shocks that bring about crises and address the underlying causes of food insecurity, including poverty, the need for sustainable livelihoods, environmental crises and climate change, conflict, gender inequality and HIV/AIDS. 

Here are a few examples of how the organizations we fund are currently sustaining their communities:

  • Action for a Bright Future (ABF) in Ethiopia is distributing food packages – containing maize, wheat and oil – to grandmother and orphan-headed households, as well as additional protein supplements (such as powdered milk and beans) for severely malnourished clients.
  • The Kenya Network of Women with AIDS (KENWA) is providing regular food assistance to their clients, including meals for children participating in counselling sessions. As food prices and inflation rates continue to rise, KENWA has increased their efforts to provide immediate food distribution to HIV-positive people who are not responding well to treatment because of poor nutrition. Since the start of the drought, many additional beneficiaries have come to KENWA seeking nutritional support.
  • In addition to providing their clients with regular food parcels, Pendeza Africa (PENAF) in Kenya has created an innovative ‘food bank’ initiative – where members of the community contribute cereal, grains, nuts and legumes – to provide a safety net of support for the most vulnerable people, including orphans, the elderly, and people living with HIV and AIDS.
  • In Tanzania, Kimara Peers provides daily breakfasts of maize porridge, milk and sugar to the school children they support. They also ensure that the children’s families receive monthly deliveries of staples such as maize flour, rice and beans.
  • Ripples International is starting a community-driven project to build a shallow-water dam to collect rainwater. Not only will the dam provide a steady source of clean water in an area that currently relies on (often dry) natural water springs, it will also be a source of employment for the community.

In addition to reallocating funds from their existing projects to provide urgent food support, many of our partner organizations have also requested further funding to sustain their communities during this difficult period. Some of their requests include:

  • Additional food parcels for children and people living with HIV and AIDS.
  • Access to materials, small grants and income-generating activities to give households an opportunity to sell their wares for a profit. Their income would allow them to purchase food for their families, and provide a continual source of revenue.
  • Funds for water harvesting tanks, emergency containers (such as jerrycans, buckets and basins) to collect and store rainwater, soap and other detergents to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
  • Nutritional supplements such as fortified peanut-butter-like pastes, which can be used to treat cases of malnutrition and promote rapid weight gain.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation will continue to work with these crucial grassroots organizations to be flexible and responsive as they meet the most pressing needs of their communities. In response to concerned requests from our supporters, we have set up an East Africa Food Security and HIV/AIDS Fund, which will provide additional funding to the most vulnerable. To contribute to the Fund, please donate online, by mail or by phone (1-888-203-9990, ext. 0) and request that your funds be allocated to the ‘East Africa Food Security and HIV/AIDS Fund.’

SLF-partner projects speak out on hunger and HIV/AIDS:

“We visited a granny who ... was struggling to manage the food insecurity in her home and take care of her [HIV-positive] orphaned granddaughter. This is just one of so many cases that are usually not heard. The current drought disaster has impacted those on [antiretroviral drugs] because they are on strong medication and yet have no food to keep them going.”

— Reach One Touch One Ministries (ROTOM), an SLF partner in Uganda

“Many women and children spend all day looking for water, where on the other hand, acute food shortages and skyrocketing food prices have further complicated the problem. Many families can barely afford a meal a day. ... [F]or the last two rain seasons, there has not been rainfall and as such, there has been little or no harvest in most parts of Meru north. The hunger in this area is of [a] magnitude that has not been experienced in a long time.”

— Ripples International, an SLF-supported organization in Kenya

“AIDS leads to hunger; hunger exacerbates AIDS. It’s a merciless interaction.”

— Stephen Lewis

Please stay tuned for our next issue of Voices from the Frontlines, profiling orphan care and education.


Press Release: Report of the African Grandmothers Tribunal released for World AIDS Day November 29, 2013


Overduin: Standing with the grandmothers September 18, 2013

Mia Overduin, Ottawa Citizen

Upcoming Events

Rideau Grandmothers Shepherd's Funraiser September 30, 2014

Ottawa, Ontario

Harambee Calendar 2014 October 1, 2014

Lethbridge, Alberta