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Knowledge is dying

In Swaziland, farming know-how is passed on from parent to child. But for many children whose parents die of AIDS the expertise dies with them, leaving hunger and destitution.

Delisile digs her fingers into the dusty soil. At four years old she is learning to separate weeds from the soil and to plant seeds. Her father Amos Ndlela smiles as he watches from nearby. Like most people in Swaziland's rural areas the 41-year-old relies on farming to feed his family of four.

Amos Ndlela uses traditional farming methods and produces a high yield each year. His rich fields are admired by many in Zombodze. "My father passed on his knowledge to me when I was 12 years old", he explains, "I follow his example. I take my children to the fields every day to teach them what I know, so that one day when I am old, sick or no more, they will be able to use this knowledge and continue to live."

Many parents don't pass on their farming techniques to children at such an early stage. Most children learn farming later on through observation and working with elder family members. But a high rate of AIDS-related deaths means many children lose their parents while they are still very young. If it has not been passed on, a wealth of local knowledge is lost with their death.

This is one of the problems highlighted in a study sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO. The Swaziland-based researchers found evidence that AIDS-related deaths have significantly reduced traditional knowledge of farming and coping strategies in Swaziland and Mozambique. They warned that young orphans are particularly at risk because their parents die when they are still too young to learn.

The research team led by Zakhe Hlanze discovered that spouses also suffer after a partner's death if farming knowledge is not shared. Men and women, they found, possessed knowledge about different aspects of food production, the marketing of crops or issues related to livestock. They concluded that AIDS deaths deprive families of their ability to farm and crucially to feed themselves unless steps are taken to share these skills.

Swaziland is facing an enormous challenge in preventing and controlling HIV and AIDS. In 2004 the kingdom declared a state of emergency because of drought, HIV and AIDS and poverty. HIV and AIDS have affected all aspects of life: labour, production, education, health. According to the country's National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), the number of orphans is expected to rise from 70,000 today to 120,000 by 2010 in a population of just over one million people.

A member of the organisation "Youth United Against HIV and AIDS", who asked to be anonymous, has seen the impact of the pandemic first hand. "It is sad to see orphaned children sitting outside dilapidated houses and when we go to these areas they rush to greet us because they think we have come with food. Some of them have open fields and water. But because they do not know what to do with the land, all this goes to waste," he says.

In an effort to support orphans and other vulnerable children, NERCHA supports the cultivation of community fields in over 40 chiefdoms. Members of the community help to plough these fields that feed the orphans. The organisation works closely with the Ministry of Agriculture. "We work hard to ensure that these orphans get a nutritious diet in their communities", says the Ministry's Principal Secretary, Noah Nkambule.

The village of Mahlangatsha lies in an outlying rural area. Here, the organisation Swaziland Positive Living helps HIV-positive families. The organisation offers counselling for grieving families, care for the terminally ill and advice on nutrition. It also assists farmers. Esau Kunene, head of the organisation's agriculture project says: "We now understand more about the necessity to pass on knowledge at an early stage. It is something that most of us here simply don't consider. But I can see some excitement now amongst the families to pass on their knowledge."

Sarah*, a 59-year-old widow who is HIV positive, still remembers most of what she was taught as a girl. "My father taught me to place the maize near the kitchen roof so that the rats could not reach it," she recalls. I was not aware I had to pass this knowledge on but now I feel proud that I have something that can be of value to my children."

The Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives is well aware of the threats posed by the HIV and AIDS pandemic for the country's farmers. "We conducted a study with UNAIDS", explains the Ministry's Principal Secretary, Noah Nkambule, "it shed more light on the threat HIV and AIDS poses to the agricultural sector. We strongly encourage farmers to pass on knowledge to other farmers just as we encourage parents to pass their knowledge on to their children. One hears it better in one's own area."

There are many local beliefs and practices about all aspects of farming, livestock and natural resources, aimed at increasing yields and conserving resources. The Food and Agricultural Organization researchers strongly recommended knowledge is shared within families at an early stage and also within communities. In addition, the researchers recommended that both men and women should be given the same skills training: men should learn how to make clay pots, cook, or hand plough; women how to use carpentry tools or tractors, to prevent the death of one partner leaving the other destitute.

"We would love to formally record the traditional knowledge", Noah Nkambule says, "but it is a difficult task". Such projects are seen to be very expensive and donor funding would be needed.

In the meantime, a vicious circle continues, made worse by frequent droughts. In some areas, the FAO team found, farmers had already lost the local knowledge about sorghum production and in other areas farmers had stopped using local seeds. "Some youth", the FAO team warns, "will probably never know the local varieties of crops in their communities."

[Some names have been changed]

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01/24/2007

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