The twin infants wrestle for their mother’s breasts as the young woman stops to catch her breath. Weak and exhausted she is standing in the shade of a large tree at the United Nations food distribution centre in rural Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest
For the fourth time in as many months Agata George has walked the five kilometre path to the centre from her village in Malawi’s southernmost Nsanje district — her daughters slung over both shoulders.
As one of an estimated 1,2-million Malawians registered for food aid with a UN World Food Programme relief effort, she has arrived to collect her family’s monthly ration of 50kg of maize.
Prolonged drought has brought hardship, uncertainty and fear to Malawi where subsistence farming is a way of life. Ordinary people in the parched rural districts of the landlocked nation have looked on helplessly as the maize harvest shrivels to the lowest levels in a decade.
Malawi has reached a dangerous point in its chronic food crisis with an estimated 2,9-million people expected to need food aid in the coming months. Most of them are in the south of the country.
”When the rain did not come in January, I realised that we were going to have a problem of hunger,” says George.
In the last 12 months her tiny field on the banks of the Shire river has produced only three 50kg bags of maize — a third of its output during the previous three harvests.
A modest profit from the sale of two bales of tobacco has long been spent on commercially available maize sold at incredibly high prices, leaving no money to buy seeds and fertilisers for the new planting season, she says.
Without urgent intervention the numbers of hungry people could soon climb to about five-million in a country of 11-million people, the UN has warned in persistent appeals to wealthy donor nations.
Against this grim outlook, however, UN officials stress that they are wary of warning about ”famine”. But they concede: early signs of a humanitarian disaster have became evident in Malawi.
Aid agencies are particularly concerned in light of an outpouring of international donor assistance to other parts of the world that has seen the plight of George and millions like her go virtually unnoticed for months.
”There’s Sudan and Niger and the tsunami in Asia and now the earthquake in Pakistan,” WFP public affairs officer for Africa, Peter Smerdon points out. Other NGO’s agree.
”We’ve known since February or March that the rainfall had not been normal and we knew this was going to be a difficult time,” confirms Oxfam regional humanitarian coordinator Neil Townsend.
Malnutrition among children in Malawi is on the rise. The latest nutritional survey shows a 29% increase in the south and a 40% increase in central parts of the country. A second survey due this month will indicate similar or even higher levels,
aid workers predict.
At the donor-funded Montford Mission nutritional rehabilitation unit in the Chikwawa district, 50km south of the commercial capital Blantyre, an emaciated one year old clings to his grandmother.
He has been in her care since his mother died of HIV/Aids, according to health workers. ”Most of the children that come here are severely malnourished and very sick because there is no food at home and they are from very poor families,” says resident nurse Getrude Mkwapu.
”We give them skimmed milk, corn porridge, vegetable oil, relish, eggs and chicken — the foods that keep the body strong. It takes about two months for the children to recover,” she says.
However: ”Some come when it is too late or don’t come and then they die.”
High malnutrition levels are just one of the factors indicating that people are running out of food earlier than in previous years, remarks Townsend. ”But some people aren’t able to find ways of coping. These early signs are worrying signs,” he says.
The price of commercially available maize has soared to levels beyond what most people can afford. Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture recently pointed to a 70% increase in the price of the staple crop.
Prostitution and crime are also seen to be on the rise while some subsistence farmers have long sold their assets in order to feed their families.
Back home in Ntolongo village near the country’s border with Mozambique, George and her husband Haroon Shuva explain that aside from their single daily meal of WFP maize, they have also come to rely on wild leaves and roots to survive.
Shuva says: ”Even our drought crops of cassava and sweet potatoes were not enough to help this year. We don’t have money for anything. We cannot buy clothes or materials like timber to complete our house,” he says pointing to the rudimentary clay and thatch structure he began building in 2001.
”We use all the money that we are paid when we work as casuals in other people’s fields for food. I can not make my life better in any other way,” he explains, and stresses: ”In Malawi we have always been poor but now we feel that we really can say we have nothing.”
Townsend agrees that high levels of poverty in Malawi leave its people ”inherently very vulnerable”.
Under prevailing conditions this vulnerability is seen to be generally increasing.
”We’ll see more of it in future. What we need is to find better ways of addressing poverty and the problem of HIV/Aids,” he suggests.
High levels of HIV/Aids infection — officially declared at around 14% of the population in 2003 — is one of the leading factors that has plunged life expectancy in Malawi to 39 years.
Describing the crisis in an impoverished society like Malawi, Smerdon highlights the logistical challenges and the time — usually four months — that it will take to get donor funding and food.
The WFP is expanding its operation — funded largely so far by Malawi’s former colonial power Britain and the European Union — with a view to providing for at least 2,9-million people in the coming months.
The number of people currently receiving food aid in the hard-hit southern districts nearly equals the number of people countrywide that relied on WFP donations during chronic food shortages in 2002.
Oxfam remains hopeful that the world will come to the assistance of Malawi as it stands at a ”crossroads”, says Townsend: ”There is still a big question mark over the number of people in Malawi who will need food in the next year and whether there is enough money.” – Sapa-DPA