Help needed for famine-stricken Malawi

There's just nothing growing. Looking around, the entire landscape is dry and barren. We only have enough food for the most severely affected people, but when we deliver the rations, we look at the rest of the population and think, 'How many more are going to die until we have enough to feed you all?'"
So said Paul McKee, American Red Cross logistics advisor working with the Malawi Red Cross Society in the battle against one of the most dire famines in the nation's history. Although he's worked on food distributions in countries around the world, including Kosovo, Albania and Bangladesh, the conditions in Malawi are some of the worst McKee has ever seen.

"I do not think he will make it," says Ludia, of her 3-year-old son Zione in the Malawian village Phwetekera. Zione is just one of millions of African children whose lives are threatened by the severe food shortage.

"Nothing can describe the situation here - I've never seen such poverty and desperation, or help needed so urgently," McKee said.

While several factors have contributed to the crisis, one of the primary reasons is a prolonged drought that has withered harvests, creating vast food shortages. The situation is echoed throughout Southern Africa, where nearly 14.6 million people are going hungry in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Not only does rampant hunger threaten the lives of thousands, chronic malnutrition can cause blindness, deformities and brain damage.

Famine Fueled by HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Meanwhile, the HIV/AIDS pandemic ravaging Southern Africa continues to fuel the famine. In Southern Africa, HIV/AIDS prevalence rates are the highest in the world, and, in some countries, more than 30 percent of the adult population is infected.

HIV/AIDS impacts food security and nutrition in many ways. Formerly young, strong people fall ill and are unable to farm or earn wages. At the same time, family members are pulled away from income generating and farming activities as they care for loved ones with the disease. Parents die leaving orphans to be supported by extended families, often grandparents, creating a situation where there are many more mouths to feed and fewer wage earners. "I went to a village of about 150 people and asked 'How many of you have lost a family member to HIV/AIDS?' Every single person raised a hand. I was stunned," said McKee. "Even if the rainy season produces crops, it doesn't do much good if there's no one to harvest them."

At the current rate, the outlook for Malawi is bleak, despite the fact that the rainy season, which typically runs from the end of November through mid-February, has just begun. Residents have been forced to sell everything they own, including precious livestock, to buy food as prices soar in the strapped market, leaving them little economic ground to stand on in the coming years.

What the American Red Cross is Doing to Help

The American Red Cross is assisting the Malawi Red Cross Society to mitigate the devastating effects of both the famine and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The joint effort has delivered food to 129,000 of the country's most vulnerable, including children, women and the elderly. The organization also distributed agricultural tools, seeds and fertilizers so that affected residents can grow crops when nature permits.

Other measures the Red Cross is taking include:

  • Improving water and sanitation facilities in poor, rural areas so that people have safe drinking water and the threat of widespread disease such as cholera is reduced.

  • Implementing a supplementary feeding program in five districts for the severely malnourished and families supporting chronically-ill individuals or orphans.

  • Implementing a supplementary feeding program in health facilities benefiting close to 50,000 children under five years and pregnant or lactating women.

  • Supporting the $61.9 million appeal of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Federation).

At the same time, the American Red Cross is continuing its Malawi HIV/AIDS project, through which the organization supports the efforts of the Malawi Red Cross to develop programs on HIV prevention, home-based care, and support to orphans in the four districts of Ntchisi, Nkhotakota, Mzimba, and Nkhata Bay.

This project focuses on improving the knowledge and practices about HIV prevention among the general population and youth; improving the quality of life of those affected and infected; and increasing organizational effectiveness of the Malawi Red Cross Society to provide HIV prevention, care, support and advocacy. Through the program 56,000 youth in 4 districts are being trained through peer education in healthy living and HIV/AIDS prevention.

"Our HIV/AIDS program is incredibly effective," said McKee. "We go door-to-door, telling everyone who will listen how to protect themselves from the disease. If we don't have volunteers in a particularl village, we recruit them. I've seen so many lives and behaviors change, it's remarkable."

What You Can Do to Help

To continue assisting the people of Southern Africa, however, the American Red Cross needs additional financial assistance to expand its emergency food distributions and long-term recovery program.

"You cannot imagine the sad faces of the people that we have to turn away, when we go to the villages to register beneficiaries for our food distributions. They all need help desperately, but we can only give out what is donated to us," said Mathew Nyirenda of Malawi Red Cross' branch in Nkhotakota.

American Red Cross financial assistance will concentrate on building the capacity of Red Cross societies and branches to help local people to get the food and safe water they need to survive and assist them in finding lasting solutions to the problems of hunger and poverty.

Donations to the International Response Fund can be mailed to your local Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Secure online credit card donations can be made by visiting


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