Xmas on empty stomachs in Malawi


Lilongwe – As millions around the world cerebrated Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ- on Sunday, thousands of Malawians wringed with starvation while many more suffered from cholera contracted from eating wild plants as about ten districts of the southern African country face food shortages with Mwanza and Chikwawa reaching crisis points. In Lower Shire Valley district of Chikwawa families have resorted to foraging wild roots – water lilies that look like Irish potatoes. The roots are fetched from the heavily crocodile infested leaving the lives of the gathers in danger of ending in the jaws of the vicious predators. The situation has reached crisis points especially during this lean period which stems from December to February. According to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee, (MVAC) about 201,854 people are at risk of food insecurity. Estimates released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) projects a total production of 3,895,181 metric tonnes of maize for 2010/11 growing season. This year’s maize production estimate is higher and above the national food requirement estimated at 2,687,242 metric tonnes resulting in a maize production surplus of 1,200,461 metric tonnes.

However, the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) in its annual vulnerability assessment and analysis conducted in May 2011, it has found out that despite high production of maize at national level, there are localized food deficit areas, mostly in the southern parts of Malawi. The MVAC projects that a total of 201, 854 people, in the affected areas, will not meet their annual food requirements during the 2011/2012 consumption year. Vulnerable households are those that will not be able to meet their annual minimum food requirements after exhausting own stocks and employing several coping strategies. The most affected districs in the southern region are Nsanje, Chikwawa, Balaka, Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Mwanza, Neno ,Phalombe, Zomba, and Ntcheu where food deficiet range from 16% to 35% because of prolonged dry spells..The dry spells occurred at critical phases of crop development and maturity. Late planted crops and local varieties were severely affected thereby reducing yields and consequently production. The dry spells caused premature drying up of most crops especially maize and some cash crops like tobacco, flowering in cotton and pegging in groundnuts. Dry tolerant crops like cassava and sweet potatoes could not be planted during February and March due to moisture stress.

Meanwhile the government’s social service parastatal – the Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) – has raised the prices of maize from US$12 to US$18 making it far from the reach of average Malawians whose majority subsists on agriculture and survives on less that one dollar a day. Officials from Admarc say they have decided to raise the price of the staple diet to starve off private traders who buy the commodity at a cheaper price and resale in at a very high price. It is reported that the private traders are also buying the grain to smuggle it out to the horn of Africa where acute food hunger has registered claiming thousands of human and livestock lives. Agriculture is the foundation of Malawi’s economy, contributing 38 per cent of the GDP and 80 per cent of the total export earnings. It employs 80 per cent of the country’s workforce. Maize as a dominant staple food takes 85 per cent of production land for smallholder farmers. With the grain in short supply due to dry spells, many villagers in Malawi struggle to find money with which to purchase it or find their next meals.

59 cases of cholera have already been reported in the Shire Valley districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje, most of whom are a result of eating food unfit for consumption. In Mwanza district, people are eating termites, bamboo seeds, and wild yams to keep the hunger at bay. “Due to the country’s economic downturn people have no money to buy maize”, says Village Headman Mbenje, a traditional leader in Chikwawa. “But even for those who have the money there is no maize to buy so we are living on the wild water bulbs commonly called nyika.” The Malawi VAC says the food deficit has been experienced as a result of erratic rainfall pattern and prolonged dry spells ranging from three to six weeks affecting crops at critical development stages. It recommends cash transfers or public works in the affected areas to improve food access of the vulnerable groups through markets. Further MVAC also recommends ADMARC and private traders to stock enough maize in the affected areas to stabilize supplies and cushion against abnormal price fluctuations. “As a long term measure, the Malawi VAC recommends a need to start re-thinking on how to approach vulnerability issues in the affected areas because the problems are recurrent and beyond the traditional interventions which have been used to address the situations year in year out,” says a MVAC report.

According to non governmental organization, Mitundu Youth Organisation, many children are dropping out of school to help their families find food despite some international aid agencies such as World Food Programme (WFP) introducing school feeding programmes to promote children to go to school. Unfortunately, the programme can not reach out to all the needy communities. “Many hunger children do not want to go to school on empty stomachs since they say they can not concentrate on lessons”, says Sibongile Nkosi Programmes Officer for Mitundu Youth Organisation. “So they withdraw to help their families look for food. Nkosi further notes that climate change in Malawi is pushing people further into poverty and women and children are suffering most, as they engage in multiple roles as farmers, child cares, providers of food, water and firewood. “Women’s weak position in Malawian society also means that, generally, they have less access to income and credit and no voice in decision-making, making it difficult for them to find other sources of income or influence action on climate change in Malawi,” she says adding in the absence of food, some vulnerable women may be forced to resort to selling sex for food, which could lead to an increased vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. “The spread of HIV/AIDS in turn weakens people’s ability to respond to the changing climate,” points out Nkosi.

Malawi is an already severely poor country facing an AIDS pandemic, chronic malnutrition, declining soil fertility, shortages of land and inadequate agricultural policies. About 6.3 million Malawians live below the poverty line, the majority in rural areas, with more than 90% relying on rain-fed subsistence farming to survive. Nkosi observes that evidence strongly suggests that increased droughts and floods may be exacerbating poverty levels, leaving many rural farmers trapped in a cycle of poverty and vulnerability. “The situation in Malawi illustrates the drastic increases in hunger and food insecurity being caused by global warming worldwide”. According to available statistics about 1·4 million Malawian children are being forced into labour, mainly in the agriculture sector. “Most families are too poor to fend for their children so they end up forcing young children to accompany them to estates to do hard work so they can earn a living”, she says adding that the food crisis is forcing more children do hard work for their age.

Meanwhile president Bingu wa Mutharika’s administration is having difficulties to haul the grain to affected areas because of fuel shortages that has been compounded by lack of foreign exchange to purchase the liquid. The administration last year chased some of the country’s major tobacco buyers who cart in foreign exchange. Earlier this year the country has been in bad books with its major donor partners who have with held their aid supply demanding good economic and political governance.


© 2011, Charles Mkula. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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