Release date
November 01, 2007

Starting Again: A New Chance at Life

November 01, 2007, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe —

By David Snyder

Moddie Jakachira takes a seat on a small, plaid-covered couch, pulls her daughter close, and lights up the tiny space of the room with the broad smile of a survivor. At 41, Moddie has joined that rare group of HIV-positive Africans who, sliding toward the mind-boggling mortality statistics of the AIDS pandemic, stepped back literally from the edge.

Through an innovative pilot program, Catholic Relief Services is offering a nutritional boost to nearly 3,000 people like Moddie who are living with HIV in southwest Zimbabwe. With support from the World Food Program, CRS provides participants with a monthly ration of nutritious food for their entire household. Meanwhile, the international agency Doctors without Borders supplies patients with powerful antiretroviral medications. The potent combination of medication and nutritional support is having a profound, positive effect on many people's lives. Moddie Jakachira is one of them.

Moddie (center), her daughter Shylet (right) and her friend Sikhalekile (left).

Moddie, center, daughter Shylet, right, and friend Sikhalekile, left, display a portion of monthly food rations that they receive from CRS. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"Before I started [antiretroviral medication], I was very, very sick," Moddie says. "I was losing weight, sweating. I cannot even explain."

Moddie receives her medication at Mpilo Opportunistic Infection Clinic in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. When she began treatment, the clinic staff taught her that good nutrition maximizes the impact of the medicine and reduces the potential for side effects. But in Zimbabwe, where the average resident earns less than $1 a day, many of the foods Jakachira needed to purchase were simply out of reach.

"I am a widow with four children, so when I was sick, life was tough for me," Moddie relates. "I was suffering trying to have some food."

It is a common problem, says Sister B.N. Dube, who supervises the clinic. Many in this impoverished suburb of Bulawayo are struggling.

"We counsel people on what nutrition they should pursue," Dube says. "But it was a big problem for them to get those foods."

'You Can See the Changes'

One month after she began receiving antiretroviral medications, Moddie learned that CRS was offering nutritional support. She met CRS' criteria for entering the program, and soon began receiving cornmeal, cooking oil and a highly nutritious powder of corn-soy blend each month. It is enough to sustain her and her four children. Before receiving the rations, Moddie and her family subsisted on only one or two meals a day. Now they enjoy three meals a day, and Moddie says the change has made an immediate impact.

"The children are getting healthy, and gaining weight," she observes. "If you are a mother, you can see the changes."

Infused with the promise of a future she thought she might never have, Moddie is now sharing her experiences and telling others in the community to get tested for HIV, to talk to the clinic about medications and to eat nutritious foods. One of the people she spoke to is her friend and neighbor Sikhalekile Ndlovu who, thanks to Moddie's encouragement, is also now on antiretrovirals. Sikhalekile receives food from CRS, too, and her now-healthy diet has enabled her to recover from a year of on-again, off-again hospitalization. Side by side on the small couch, the two women share an easy joviality, punctuating even the painful memories of their shared past with spirited bursts of laughter.

'Hoping to Survive'

"I was seriously ill for a whole year," Sikhalekile recalls to the accompanying nods of Moddie.

Despite the dramatic turns in her fortune, life for Moddie remains difficult. She was once a trader, ferrying goods across the border from nearby South Africa and selling them for a profit in Zimbabwe. Moddie had to give up that job when she fell ill. Although she is now healthy enough to work again, Moddie's long bouts of illness left her without any money to restart her business. By renting part of her small house to two other families, she earns barely enough to pay the school fees for her children. Every day, she says, is a new challenge.

But even in the crowded, blue-painted room, you cannot help feeling that both Moddie and Sikhalekile will somehow rise above the struggles they face. From a room next door, the bouncy tones of South African kwaito music spill through the door and fill the air around the women — a fitting soundtrack to two lives that might have ended amid the vast anonymity of AIDS statistics.

"I am hoping to survive," Moddie says. "When you are sick you are feeling that 'Maybe I am going to die.' But now that I have started [antiretrovirals], and I am getting food, I have started a new life."

David Snyder is a photojournalist who has traveled to more than 30 countries with CRS. Most recently, David visited country programs in Southern Africa and East Africa, including Zimbabwe.