Women living with HIV cultivate leaders and food, in Uganda’s slums

In the Katwe slum in Kampala, a group of women living with HIV are cultivating food, cleaning up the community and raising awareness of the right to sanitation and adequate housing.


“When I wake up and get my spade, the neighbour gets her broom, and we happily clean our area!” says an enthusiastic Consolata Zavuga. Her smile and sense of humour are well known in the community. 

Unclogging the drains; the Galima women conduct a community cleanup campaign
Unclogging the drains; the Galima women conduct a community cleanup campaign. Photo: Shelter & Settlements Alternatives: Uganda Human Settlements Network (SSA:UHSNET)

The 58-year-old Ugandan activist founded the “Galima Fights HIV/AIDS Initiative” after attending the 11th International Conference for People Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda in October 2003. The initiative unites a group of 65 women living with HIV in informal settlements located in the Makindye Division of the Katwe II Base Zone, one of the most notorious slums of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

These slums are characterized by poor housing conditions, lack of basic sanitation, including insufficient access to clean water and toilet facilities, poor physical structures, insecure tenure and evictions. The women earn their living from small informal businesses. However, many of them do not own titles to their homes and are thus easy targets for being rendered homeless in unorthodox ways, like being thrown out of their homes in the middle of the night, with no provision of alternative housing. They also face barriers to developing and sustaining their businesses to support their livelihoods or sustain their families.

Zavuga’s initial goal in creating the group was to encourage fellow women accessing Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to cultivate food in order to improve their nutrition, a necessity for HIV care. “Galima” comes from the Luganda word “amanyi agalima,” meaning energy to cultivate food crops. These include bananas, maize, sweet potatoes, beans, yams, tomatoes, eggplant and carrots.

“I am joyful every time I see many more people affected by HIV/AIDS joining our group or discovering their potential and shunning the bad spirit of the virus,” says Zavuga, whose popularity stems from her hard work and commitment to her community. Today, her group is composed of women, both youth and adults, and men have also joined. “With an active membership of 65 people, I am happy but still count it as a journey not complete.”

In addition to cultivating food, the group makes arts and crafts such as necklaces, bangles from beans, mats and bags, among other materials, to earn an income. They’ve received training from the national Ugandan NGO Shelter and Settlements Alternatives: Uganda Human Settlements Network, also known as SSA: UHSNET. The Network believes that women’s access to productive assets like land and decent housing will give way to long-term opportunities for economic development. A grantee of UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality,  the Network engages with partners in the housing sector to support and create opportunities for urban poor women’s groups to access land and housing, particularly those affected by HIV/AIDS.

As a result of this training and their craft-making, Zavuga’s group has managed to start saving towards decent and affordable housing.

Cleaning up the community

Study circle training: helping the women identify and discuss their community challenges
Study circle training: helping the women identify and discuss their community challenges. Photo: Shelter & Settlements Alternatives: Uganda Human Settlements Network (SSA:UHSNET)

Another priority has been the need to make their community more habitable and clean, by undertaking clean-up efforts, which also greatly reduces the chance of infections that could affect the women.

In Kampala, 1,200 to 1,500 tonnes of garbage are estimated to be generated per day, but only 400 to 500 tonnes 35 per cent are collected, according to a 2010 report by Uganda’s Auditor General. While Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) garbage-collection trucks as well as privately owned trucks are available, most people cannot afford them and the process of garbage collection is too lengthy, so garbage piles up in drainage systems and other open places within residential areas.

“We started the Keep Katwe Clean exercise after a study circle training in Mulago,” Zavuga explains. The study circle training which allowed participants to identify issues in their communities and develop ways to address them, was conducted by the SSA: UHSNET NGO.

The study circle training helped and the women understand their collective community needs and spearhead solutions. They identified sanitation as the most important, and initiated a campaign of community clean-ups on every second Saturday of the month to raise awareness of the right to sanitation and adequate housing.

Under Zavuga’s leadership, the Galima Fights HIV/AIDS Initiative collective was able to lobby the Chairperson of their local council and councillors to ask Kampala City authorities for support with garbage collection.

“Since June 2013, KCCA sends us vehicles free-of-charge and provides the [labour] to load collected waste from our zone. Thanks to the cleaning circle, a simple phone call makes the KCCA officials politely send their garbage vehicle to collect the garbage,” she says, proudly. 

Because of these activities, residences of Katwe have now recognized the need for their own proactive efforts and commitment to clean up their community, along with local authorities.

“We had no motivation to clean our areas,” explained community member Namitala Regina, during a clean-up. “Zavuga has trained us because she was trained... I am eager to learn what else these people have for us!”

The resulted has been an immediate change in mindsets. Residents have taken ownership of the urgent need to ensure that their environment is kept clean, with leaders coming on board to support the initiative.

“Tetudda mabega,” says Zavuga, meaning “we shall not move backward.”