Malawi: the country that has learned to expect nothing

When the UN asked the world to give $88m to avert famine in Malawi, not one penny was forthcoming. How hungry does a nation have to be before help is at hand? Meera Selva reports from Chikwawa
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In the bare fields around Chikwawa in the southern highlands of Malawi, people are still willing to stop for a chat. They are still smiling as they forage in the dried-up grasses to find wild roots to chew on. The women scrabbling to buy a handful of sweet potatoes in the marketplace bicker amicably as they count their tiny sums of money. But ask them about what they are eating and their smiles fade.

"We are living off air, all our crops have gone," said Lighton Kampira. "We planted at the right time, we waited for them to germinate and grow, but they wilted at knee high when the rains failed. Maize, sorghum, millet, it is all gone." Malawi is in the grip a food crisis.

The clarion call has gone out from the United Nations. Malawi urgently needs $88m (£48m) in food aid. Jan Egeland, the UN's point man, last week revealed that he had not received one penny of the money needed. The problem, it seems, is that the people of Malawi are not hungry enough. Neil Townsend, of Oxfam, says that the parallels with Niger are frightening. "Niger was forecast six months in advance, yet rich countries did almost nothing until the 11th hour," said the charity's regional co-ordinator.

"People died as a direct result and now there is an impending crisis in southern Africa ... if rich countries wait, once again, until television crews arrive before giving enough money, people in southern Africa will pay the price of their neglect." The people of Malawi are still waiting.

The children suffer the most as they cannot digest the wild food. Their parents swap crude recipes for boiling or mashing the roots to make a more digestible porridge, but they have little effect. In the village of Mangulenje, three -year-old Sankhulani is chewing on a green mango. Normally, an adult would snatch it away from him, worried that the unripe fruit would upset his young stomach but his belly is already distended with hunger and no one has the heart to take his snack away. His friend Mponya, who is also dressed in rags with distended belly, watches him hungrily. Instead of running and shrieking like most three-year-olds, these children move slowly and wearily as they seek some shade from the midday sun.

The rains failed in January, destroying the harvest that should have been gathered in April. Farmers also face a two-pronged financial crisis. Cotton, the main cash crop grown in this area, has plummeted in value on the world markets, so small-scale cotton farmers have lost a crucial source of income. To make things worse, a moisture problem stopped the cotton plants ripening properly, and growers had to write off large sections of their crops.

Last year, an election year, the government promised to provide fertiliser and seed to everyone who needed it, but the supplies never arrived.

Now, the price of maize has shot up - a five kilogram basket that cost 50 kwacha (30p) last year now costs 120 kwacha. Villagers say they expect it to reach 180 kwacha by October. All households are feeling the pinch - the middle-scale farmers can no longer afford to hire ganyo, or casual labour, to bring in the harvest, so the levels of disposable income in the poorest households has also vanished. Aid agencies estimate that 4.5 million people are now hungry, and are receiving only 30 per cent of the food they need.

People are now living off what they can find. They chew on the roots of palm trees, gnaw at sour bwenbwa fruits and celebrate when they gather a handful of masavo, a type of tamarind fruit. Most of the food has no nutritional value and leaves them with stomach pains and indigestion.

Parents throughout the region are in despair. "My children still have a little food, but they are always hungry and their laughter has gone," said Kennedy Navaya, 35. "They are always asking me for more to eat. I go now for weeks to work in Mozambique to buy them food, but I can't bear not making them happy."

The famine, if there is one, is expected to hit between November and February, before next year's harvest but after people begin to fall sick from months of too little food, and existing reserves run out. But by then, it will be too late.

Jennifer Nkhuya, nursing her one-year-old son, said: "My baby is not getting enough milk from me, and the milk he does get is bitter from the wild roots I eat. He is not growing as he should - I know it. My four-year-old was so much bigger than him at this age, because we had more food to eat then."

As in Niger, the problems in Malawi have not gone unnoticed.

In July, the American Famine Early Warning Systems Network observed that "maize prices are rising more rapidly than normal in some of the local markets, a development that is likely to limit the food access of most poor households". The network warned that urgent action was needed "to avoid the currently serious situation deteriorating into a food crisis".

In Niger, similar warnings about food shortages were issued late last year when it became clear that millions of people did not have access to sufficient food. The UN's pleas for help were ignored until children began to die of malnutrition.

Malawi is different - the government is more organised than that of Niger, and has already implemented an export ban on maize and fertiliser to stop prices rising further. Local officials are also meeting rural communities to judge the extent of the problem. The World Food Programme and Oxfam have started food distribution in some of the worst-hit areas, and they are working with local agencies to try and stem the crisis.

But many people in Malawi are at breaking point and fear they will not live long enough for aid to arrive. Already, many rivers and streams have run dry, and boreholes yield little water to drink. The country has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and at least 16 per cent of the population is living with the virus. Life expectancy was 45.2 years in 1985, when the first case of HIV/Aids was diagnosed in the country - it has now gone down to 39 years.

"Aids makes every problem in Malawi worse," said James Bwirani, a field officer at Oxfam Malawi. "If the head of a household is sick, the family loses its main source of income, the wife has to stay at home to care for the patient and the children have to drop out of school and find work. In this time of food shortages, the man, if he is the one with Aids, cannot work to buy food."

In Mangulenje, the villagers fear that the food problems are already killing off the Aids victims there.

"My neighbour Jeffrey Simoka was only 45 but he died two weeks ago. He had Aids and he got some illness related to HIV and his family had no food to give him," said Langison Cement. "We tried to help him but we didn't have any food ourselves to share. His wife died many years ago and now his two children have gone to live with his sister. She has no food either so they are all going to struggle a lot." His friends tell similar stories - of children abandoned and patients dying for want of food in their villages.

In the meantime, the marketplace has gone haywire. Ephraim Singano, 83, was so hungry he sold his precious goat for 500 kwacha to buy maize. When he heard a rumour that it was being sold in town, he ran down there but dropped his money on the way. With no money, no livestock and no food, Mr Singano and his wife are just huddled in the doorway of their house, waiting. "There is nothing. We are hungry. There is nothing," he said.

Elsewhere, Sisilia Patrick is elbowing her way through a crowd to get to a pile of sweet potatoes a farmer has brought from a nearby town.

Sweet potatoes are cheaper than maize so the battle to get them is fierce. "I need this food, there is nothing else," she said.

She added: "This is hopeless, we are totally stuck. My crops won't grow, I can't find any ganyo to earn money to buy food. My four children are already hungry and I don't know when they will eat. Will you all only come back to help us when some of them are dead?"

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