Her health was fast deteriorating when Ida Chapuma decided to go for an HIV test at a hospital in Lilongwe. The test came out positive, with her CD4 count being as low as 185. That was in October 2010.
“I needed help quickly,” says Chapuma.
It took her time to accept her status.
“I felt like my life had come to an end,” she says.
Chapuma, a resident at Mbedza Village, Traditional Authority Chadza in Lilongwe is a subsistence farmer and a single mother to three children. She felt she owed it to her children to live a healthy life. As such, she joined hands with her colleagues and formed Titukulane Club to share knowledge and skills in how to survive the tough economic situation in her condition.
However, her poor diet, coupled with daily hard work, only made Chapuma’s health worse. Little did she know that a solution to her health was right under her nose. The secret solution lay in an indigenous leafy vegetable called bonongwe. The same leaf that is grows just about anywhere.
“I was shocked to hear my CD4 count was 185. I was immediately put on the antiretroviral therapy (ART) treatment. But I was lucky. A few months later, I met associate professor Weston Mwase of Bunda College. He invited me and some of my friends to the college campus for a talk on the wonders of bonongwe,” says Chapuma.
“Quickly, we grew the crops and I started eating it intensively. I don’t add cooking oil, only tomatoes, salt and groundnuts. I ate the bonongwe for three months and went back for a medical check-up. I was happy to learn my CD4 had risen to 350. I kept on eating the vegetable and in few months, it went up to 500. Right now it is at 1 100,” added Chapuma, who still takes the ARVs.
She says although she takes ARVs, she believes the bonongwe has contributed a lot to the improvement of her health.
“I am sure the improvement in my CD4 count is due to this vegetable, because I know people who take ARVs, but have not improved like this. I think it is because they do not eat the bonongwe that I am taking,” she added.
Mwase, of the Department of Forestry at the college, says he came up with this variety of bonongwe following years of research done at the college.
“It started by asking people their opinion on indigenous vegetables such as luni, mwamunaaligone, chisoso, bonongwe, thove and denje. Generally, they dismissed them as food for villagers. But I am glad to say that they now realise that these traditional vegetables are very nutritious,” says Mwase.
The college, he says, is interested in promoting the indigenous crops because of their nutrition content. The bonongwe is a cross breed of the local variety and another one from Kenya, which then produces a breed high in protein, calcium and vitamin C.
“This bonongwe is highly nutritious. No wonder, Chapuma’s CD4 count is improving,” said Mwase.
News of the new bonongwe variety has spread to nearby townships and people are now flocking to Mbedza Village to buy this bonongwe. Vendors buy in bulk and sell in town.
Group Village Head Mbedza says this is the reason most elderly people in his village are still going strong.
“These people have lived on these traditional vegetables that our ancestors were eating and did no harm to their bodies. I, therefore, encourage my subjects to eat more of the indigenous vegetables,” he added.
Apart from nutrition value, people of Mbedza have found gold in selling the vegetable.
“Although this is a traditional bonongwe vegetable, the research done at Bunda helped to make it tastier,” said the village head.
Chapuma says their club’s challenge is to meet the ever-rising demand.
“In the past six months, we managed to sell bonongwe valued close to K1 million. As of this now, we have about K125 000 at the bank.”
An international financing institution called GEF Small Grants Programme was impressed by the work of Titukule Club and its national coordinator, Alex Damaliphetsa, has since offered Chapuma and her colleagues possible support.
“It is interesting to realise that more and more people are now going back to eating the indigenous vegetables,” said Damaliphetsa.
Nutritionist Modester Mlia-Tembo of Farmers Union of Malawi says bonongwe is one of the nutritious foods, like all vegetables that belong to the dark-green group.
According to a booklet called National Nutrition Guideline for Malawi, bonongwe is among the essential vegetables that provide vitamins, minerals and water, and also contains fibre necessary for aiding food digestion.