"What I have seen here, I will tell the world in words and in songs," Myriam Makeba promised women with smallholdings on the banks of the Congo, then threw aside her cane for a spontaneous song in the sand.
"Mama Africa!" responded an enthralled audience, joining the South African diva in her barefoot dance for a group of women who grow crops a few kilometres (miles) outside the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa.
AdvertisementMakeba, 76, and clad in a smart black gown with a gold and garnet shoulder scarf, was visiting the women in her role as an ambassador of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which supports the Congolese charity Alpi in its stated aim of working "to free people living with HIV-AIDS".
Since 2003, FAO assistance with implements and fertilisers has enabled the local non-governmental organisation to provide food security and help for the social reintegration of hundreds of women, explained Aline Okongo, the chairwoman of Alpi.
The 11 smallholdings between the Congo and the Makelele river are among a range of projects backed by Alpi, which is currently caring for 2,430 people living with the virus.
The vegetables and fruit grown in fields here are partly used to balance the diet of people with the virus, while the surplus is sold in the markets of the capital.
"This has changed everything for me," said Albertine Masuka, a 56-year-old widow bringing up six children by herself. "My children all go to school now and I can save a little to buy clothes and for the future."
Each family working in the often stifling tropical heat can cultivate up to 15 plots of land each sized two by four metres (10 square feet) and manages to earn up to 250 dollars (160 euros) a month when the harvest is good, according to Alpi.
However, Okongo said this is insufficient to pay for anti-retroviral drugs that are still expensive and hard to obtain, while the work can sometimes be "very difficult (because people) have to walk a lot in sandy soil" to reach fields far from any roads.
On AIDS itself, Okongo called the disease an enemy of development and said that "in a few decades, the pandemic has claimed more victims in Africa than the slave trade. In the DRC, the official prevalence rate is 4.5 percent."
"Eighty percent of the sick are between 15 and 45, an economically productive age group," she said, calling for more investment by both the government and the international community.
"Let us all be soldiers, not soldiers to kill one another, but to kill everything which is against humanity. We are all in this together," declared Makeba, who paid for her own commitment to fight apartheid white minority rule in South Africa with 31 years in exile.
She did not come empty-handed either.
"I am an African. I am a Congolese," she told the farmer women, and there was a distribution of dozens of barrows, hoses, machetes, spades and rakes to help them with a new project due to be launched during the month.
In answer, the farmer women broke into a labour song that urged the "mamas" themselves to get on with the job because "here the men don't do any work."
"If you follow a man, you risk finding yourself stitching up your skirts again," they warned Makeba. That time, it was she who applauded them.
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