By Shawn Hayward
Beaded jewelry and African-style clothing are for sale everywhere in the capital of Ghana, Accra. They're put on display in street-side stalls and hawked by vendors slinking between cars stuck in midday traffic.
Items for sale at the Almond Tree Shop in Accra don't stand out from the rest in style or quality; it's who makes them and why they make them that set these beads and clothes apart.
The Almond Tree Shop is just outside the doors of the International Health Care Centre, a clinic run by the West Africa AIDS Foundation that serves mainly women with HIV/AIDS living in the Accra area.
The shop gets its name from a giant almond tree on the lawn of the clinic, where patients would string beads and sew while waiting to see the doctor. Eventually they set up a table on which they could sell their wares.
It was a way to make a few cedis to pay for their drugs and living expenses. Anti-retroviral drugs—medications used to combat the affects of HIV—cost five cedis per month (about $3.50 CAD), but even that is too much for some in Ghana, where HIV/AIDS prevelance is 1.9 per cent, according to UNICEF.
Staff at the clinic saw an opportunity and together with Canadian NGO Crossroads International, they began training the women on how to make higher quality crafts and market their products.
"We thought, 'Why don't we engage them in something small so they could afford the five cedis and some food for their kids,'" said Dr. Naa-Ashiley Vanderpuje, the clinic's head doctor.
Ama, who wishes to be anonymous, was one of the original women involved in the project. Today, she is a health assistant at the same clinic where she gets her treatment. She learned she had HIV three years ago after she started getting skin problems.
Ama lost most of her family when her husband heard the news and disappeared with her two daughters. She later lost her job because no one wanted to be near her. With no job and no family support, she couldn't afford to pay for her medication.
The Almond Tree helped Ama pay for the drugs until she got a job doing lab tests and giving injections at the clinic, tasks many HIV-free nurses wouldn't do because of the perceived risk of infection.
HIV is still a highly stigmatized disease in Ghana and Ama has to cope with a lot of shame.
"Some [people] don't want to approach me,” she says. “Some don't want you in their office. It makes me feel very sad."
Making crafts not only helps her financially but mentally as well; Ama says the work is a distraction from her health condition and the stigma that goes along with it.
The number of women participating in the Almond Tree has climbed from 15 to 50 since it began six years ago. Many of the original women have gone on to employ themselves raising chickens, running their own shops and selling yams.
Things have improved for Ama as well. Her daughters have grown up and are talking to her again because they think she has survived too long to possibly be infected. Ama is letting them believe it for now. She's just happy to have her daughters back.