Christmas Appeal: When eating your greens really matters

In the latest in our series, Rob Crilly looks at the work of a charity that helps people live with Aids
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Ask Isabelle NamachaNa for her favourite vegetable and you receive an unusual answer for an 11-year-old. She screws her face into a grin and says: "Spinach - I like the taste."

In this part of western Kenya, where Aids has seriously affected the adult population, carrots, aubergines and spinach are the latest tools in tackling malnutrition among thousands of orphans and thousands more patients with HIV.

Isabelle's father died when she was too young to remember. She does not know why, but in the Kenyan villages that lie along the lorry route into Uganda, that usually means Aids. Her mother left home to remarry, leaving Isabelle in the care of her 51-year-old grandmother, Imelda Singolo, who also has HIV.

While Isabelle plays with the eight other orphans in her grandmother's care, Mrs Singolo explains the struggle she faces to keep them healthy.

"The vegetables have really helped," she says. "Before, I was often sick and had little energy. Now, with the food from the demonstration garden and the nutritious flour, I feel much better and am sick a lot less often."

She is interrupted by a shriek from the toddlers playing in front of her wattle-and-daub home. "Look at the children too," she says. "They look much stronger and are more noisy."

Mrs Singolo and her children are among the people to benefit from farming and nutrition advice, as well as counselling services introduced by the Kenyan agency Action in the Community Environment (Ace) which works in partnership with Children in Crisis, one of the charities supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

It is working around Bungoma, a dusty truck stop about 20 miles from the Ugandan border. Rising poverty rates combine with the high disposable income of the drivers to create a thriving sex industry. So while Kenya's official figures claim HIV rates have fallen from 14 to 7 per cent in the past year, Ace estimates that the real level around Bungoma is close to 40 per cent.

The charity helps six rural communities cope with the burden of some 11,000 orphans - that is about one in 10 of all children. Aids is shaking up social structures that have hitherto held firm for generations, says Ace's project manager, Anthony Okoti. Orphaned children are marrying earlier, girls are turning to prostitution to provide for their siblings and everyday tasks become a struggle.

People here should not be hungry. The land bursts with sunflowers, cattle are fat, and mango trees are heavy with leaves. But too many of the fields were planted with cash crops, such as sugar cane, and villagers had forgotten how to grow much else.

Now the handful of villages are criss-crossed with demonstration gardens, filled with leafy African vegetables such as cow peas and spider plants as well as aubergines and garlic - exotic varieties for a country whose staple is maize. The charity is teaching villagers how to produce the most nutritious crops from their small plots to feed orphans and HIV patients.

And women's groups have been shown how to produce what they call "nutritious flour" which combines milled soya, sorghum and millet with maize to make a vitamin-enriched mix that can be used to make uji porridge.

As well as improving nutrition, the new mix is helping generate income. Thanks to a loan of around 20,000 shillings (£150) from Ace, a co-operative of 12 women with HIV in one of the other communities, in the village of Huruma, has set up a business. "It helps us earn a little income which goes to the orphans," says Emily Nelima, the group's treasurer, "buying them clothes and food." The group has taken dozens of orphans into their care.

The income has also been used to kickstart other businesses. Jennifer Ngokho, 31, came to the group with nothing but a positive HIV result. Her husband had died of Aids and she had been cast out by her family - such is the stigma of the disease. She had three children to support, plus the two orphans that she had taken in.

A 550 shilling loan (£4.30) helped her to buy pots and pans to help run a small tearoom. The mandazis - doughnuts - that she sells from a simple concrete cubicle fetch about 50 shillings a day. It is not much, but it is a start, she explains with smile.

"I was depressed and stressed," she says, "but now I am OK thanks to the knowledge that I have gained from Ace counsellors and the help I got from other women with HIV."

All of Ace's work is directed towards helping the community cope with the huge numbers of orphans, explains Jo Waddington, its director. "It all comes together in the child-to-child groups we run," she says. "The games and songs are geared towards health education and we are developing a system where children themselves can help identify other vulnerable children." Next year the charity hopes also to pay the school fees of 30 children.

The aim is to improve the health of the children in every way - physically with improved nutrition, with better education and with the new methods in farming, but also emotionally through increased community support. For those whom the charity has the money to reach, the impact is life-transforming.

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