How AIDS brings famine nearer

from Christian Science Monitor
Published on 15 Nov 2002
This is not the same old story of drought equals famine in Africa. This time, there is hunger in the huts for reasons that have little to do with the weather.

Christian Science Monitor staff writer Danna Harman and staff photographer Andy Nelson spent three weeks traveling in Southern Africa, delving into the causes of the growing food crisis. Amid the desperation, they found a determination to address the primarily manmade problems. This is the last in a four-part series.

By Danna Harman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Capt. John Codispoti's wife is expecting him back in New Hampshire by Thanksgiving. They last saw each other in August before he set sail on the Liberty Grace with a hold full of US corn to help Southern Africa's massive food crisis.

"Sometimes, this seems like rather a never-ending journey," sighs Mr. Codispoti, as he looks down at the corn being offloaded into giant silos in Maputo, Mozambique.

As the Liberty Grace makes its way home - after stops in Durban, South Africa; Maputo; and Dar as Salaam, Tanzania - the Liberty Sun, another ship filled with precious cargo, reached the eastern coast of Africa on Wednesday. In the months to come, aid organizations will work overtime to help keep the food flowing.

But sadly, much of it will come too late. AIDS has ravaged families all over Southern Africa, and many of the young men who would work the fields have died or are to weak too sow and reap. Either the AIDS pandemic or the food crisis alone would put tremendous pressure on a population struggling to subsist. Together, they are almost too much to bear.

The boy and the man

He likes puzzles, his father says. And so he does.

Nine years old and thin as a rail, Ambosio Phiri spends his days putting together a 22-piece puzzle of a little girl and a bunny. He sits cross-legged on the rickety hospital bed in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, his extra-small T-shirt too big for him, his spindly arms moving slowly, by rote, as he picks up and fits in one piece after another.

Across the border and hundreds of miles away, in the sleepy Zambian town of Mongu, Mwambwa Mwambwa passes his days in a little shack, reading passages from a worn Bible, or writing letters to his sons. A dirty soda bottle, transformed into a vase holding one fake yellow flower, is all that adorns this home.

The boy and the man do not know each other, but they have much in common. Both are living in countries facing famine, both are suffering from malnutrition and receiving food aid, and both have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

"I miss my cousins," says Ambosio in a tiny voice as he takes a sip of porridge. "I would like to go home with my dad."

In Malawi, an estimated 19 percent of the population is HIV-positive. In Zambia, the figure is 22 percent. Life expectancy has slid to 39 years. In both countries, each with populations of 11 million to 12 million, there are as many as 2 million AIDS orphans.

Thousands of teachers and doctors die each year of AIDS, hurting the education and health prospects of these and other children. The statistics are similar all over Southern Africa.

In choosing who will receive the food aid pouring into Southern Africa, the UN World Food Program (WFP) and its implementing partners carry out assessments in various regions, examining the overall needs. Local communities set up committees to identify the most vulnerable, and who given ID cards and told to pick up food, once a month, at a distribution center. In some cases, food will be brought to the frail.

For example, the WFP provides food to the ward where Ambosio is hospitalized, and works with a group of nuns who come to visit Mr. Mwambwa in his shack on a regular basis, bringing with them small packs of sugar and little cups of corn.

But weakened by the disease, millions of men, women, and children here are finding they're too fragile to cope with the current food shortages.

"AIDS patients, along with other sick people, need a different kind of nutrition to cope with their illnesses," says Caroline McAskie, deputy emergency relief coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "Even with food, the situation is difficult."

"In the past, when we had hunger, we would just say, 'Fill up on water,' But today, we are too weak and that is not fine," says Justina Fulega, a Malawian mother of five, whose HIV-positive husband recently died of tuberculosis. "Our men have multiple wives here, and many girlfriends. We would like to plant, but instead we are all dying."

The domino effect

"You start out with a family," illustrates Peter Dupree, HIV/AIDS adviser to the nongovernmental organization Concern Worldwide in Malawi. "Dad gets sick and can't work the fields. Soon, mom is caring for him and not working. The kids are pulled out of school to work. The family starts less intensive crops that take less labor. More money is spent on medicine and less on seeds and fertilizers. The kids get sick. More money is spent on funerals. That's the story."

"I used to work my plot with my brother and have enough corn for my family," says Mwambwa. "It was just illness that made me stop working in my field. I was tired all the time."

When Mwambwa was taken to the hospital, Mwambwa's wife took their two sons to her parents' home in a different district. "She decided to leave me as she knew I would not be able to provide for her or the children anymore," explains Mwambwa, his voice ever so slightly wavering. "Unfortunately my brother died at around that time, too. So when I returned from hospital there was nobody. I was alone."

No one comes clapping

In Mongu, as elsewhere in Zambia's Western Province, people clap when they approach a neighbor's home. It's a tradition born out of respect, but also out of poverty, for, with no fences or even proper doors to knock on - clapping is the best way to announce oneself.

It has been a long time since anyone clapped around Mwambwa's shack.

"People don't want to be around me," he says, fiddling with a cracked blue plastic cup. "Many of us have the same sickness, but we don't talk about it. We just are quiet. Hungry and not well and quiet."

Meanwhile, back in the Lilongwe hospital, Ambosio puts in the last piece of the puzzle. It's a corner part, with half a red flower on it.

He flashes an enormous grin, his gums showing, his eyes shining. He looks around to see if anyone has seen his accomplishment.

Then he turns his masterpiece upside down and starts all over again. Soon, the nurses will come by and shut off all the lights.

* * *

On marshland, farmers defy the drought

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Even in the best of bumper years, when the rains come on time and the corn grows high, the two or three months before the April harvest are known in this part of the world as the hunger season. That is when the stocks from the year before run out, stomachs grumble, and mothers tell their children to stop crying and fill up on water. "Patience," advise the women, "the harvest is coming."

Usually the bad season begins around January. This year, it was October.

As the World Food Program (WFP) rushes to avert starvation in the near term, there remains a great need to continue long-term development projects as well. It is only these sorts of projects, say observers, which might, someday, ensure that there will be no more hunger seasons at all.

This message is not always easy to get across. For example, when the WFP launched its $507 million emergency appeal in July, the UN as a whole also appealed for an additional $104 million in donations for non-food support to Southern Africa. Such aid includes seeds; tools; fertilizers; and money for medical supplies, water, and sanitation projects. Only about 10 percent of this second appeal has been pledged - compared to the confirmed 37 percent pledged toward the food-aid appeal.

"Prospects for next year's harvest are bleak unless small-scale farmers immediately receive adequate supplies of seeds and fertilizer in time for the planting season," said WFP director James Morris in statement. "Without investment in agriculture, the region cannot hope to stabilize, let alone regain food security," he added.

"This [hunger crisis] is also a development crisis," asserts Caroline McAskie, deputy emergency relief coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). "But with the right kind of inputs, the right kind of management, the right kind of long-term planning ... Southern Africa will be able to cope better with the climatic variations." According to Ms. McAskie, governments in the region are aware that they have to be more aggressive at putting into place long-term coping strategies, "and the UN is gearing up to work on that aspect too."

But even small-scale development projects make a difference. Take the case of Emmanuel Kamoja.

An elderly man with seven children to feed, he cannot stop talking about how great "winter cropping" is. It's a concept neither he nor any of his friends or neighbors in Kanengo, Malawi, knew a thing about last year. But this year, it has become both their pride and their salvation.

Traditionally, people plant corn, the region's staple crop, in November - just before the arrival of the rainy season - and harvest from April to June. Farmers are then idle until the following planting season in November. So Concern Worldwide, an international nongovernmental agency, started a small project this year- teaching people in five districts to plant and yield crops in the dry season.

Concern chose participants, handed out vegetable and corn seeds, hauled in fertilizer, brought in some 150 small manpowered pumps, explained the process, and pushed for a change of attitude. It also helped to encourage the farming of marshlands that are traditionally not used for cultivation.

"The objectives of the program are to produce food for consumption or sale and to produce seed for subsequent planting," says Danny Rowen, spokesman for Concern in Malawi. "In each of the five locations where the program is being implemented, we are reaching out to approximately 50 villages. The average number of [families] per village is 30, so it is estimated that there are 45,000 beneficiaries," he says, accounting for six people per family.

The Malawian government, meanwhile, has begun a massive crop-diversification project.

"We have embarked on a civic-education campaign to teach our people to diversify their eating habits and move away from a total dependence on corn to tubers for example, and other foods like rice," says Lucius Chikuni, government commissioner for disaster preparedness relief and rehabilitation. He adds that the government was using social workers in the villages to spread the word on the value of drought-resistant crops such as cassava versus corn, which is sensitive to climatic conditions.

With the help of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the Malawian government has also begun a project to provide 200,000 small pumps to poor rural families. "It will take $240 million to address the current food crisis here," says Mr. Chikuni. "To buy 200,000 pumps requires only $80 million. It's a sensible investment."

Throughout Africa, there are hundreds of groups like Concern, governments like that of Malawi, and many donors worldwide that run, fund, and encourage development projects, big and small, which work to change people's behavior and, thus, better their long-term prospects.

There are NGOs and UN agencies working to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and change sexual behavior; there are church groups, government bodies, and donor agencies encouraging better farming techniques; and there are lobby groups and individuals agitating for fairer trade conditions and begging for more international attention to the development issues and problems at hand.

"I am able to bring home food, and I have a feeling I will be able to do this again next year," says Mr. Kamoja, the winter-cropping farmer, as he pulls his old straw hat over his eyes. "What more can I say?"

Ways to help


Catholic Relief Services

Concern Worldwide

Oxfam America

Save the Children

The First Church of Christ, Scientist Healing Response Fund
PO Box 865, Boston, MA 02117
800-288-7155 ext. 3205

United Nations World Food Program
(011) 39 06 6513 2411

World Vision