Malawi food crisis: Diary of hope amidst despair

Media Officer Abby King's diary of four days in Malawi looking at the life-saving work of Tearfund partners tackling the southern Africa food crisis.

After an unexpected tour of Southern African airports, an extra four hours in the air, more meals than any normal person can stomach in a day and a surprise encounter with a Tearfund colleague somewhere over Zimbabwe, our plane eventually touches down in our final destination - Blantyre, Malawi's largest city. We left a dark and freezing cold London 22 hours ago (although it feels more like 22 days ago). Welcome to Africa!

I'm here with a crew from BBC Radio 5 Live, to witness the lifesaving relief and development work carried out by Tearfund partner's in Southern Malawi, as the 5 Live team reports on the country's crippling food crisis, for Julian Worricker's new programme this Sunday at 10am.

Following high profile aid agency appeals last summer seeking support to help prevent famine in Southern Africa, the BBC Radio 5 Live crew are here to question whether the relief effort is working and, with the next harvest just around the corner, to examine what the future might hold for people in Malawi.

Well that's tomorrow task. First a shower and some much needed sleep.


It's my second trip to Malawi in as many months and in such a short space of time the landscape looks remarkably different. The barren wasteland and dried up riverbeds that I witnessed throughout much of Southern Malawi in late December has been replaced by a lush green landscape.

At first glance it's easy to wonder whether there really is a hunger crisis in Malawi -- how can this country be so desperately short of food when the landscape looks so healthy? Well, we don't need to scratch too far below the surface to realise that under the deceptive lush green is a country still on the brink.

As we drive from Blantyre heading east to Balaka today, the good news is that some maize is standing taller than my 5ft 7" with small corn cobs beginning to poke above the dark green leaves. But it isn't long before we come across field after field of wilting, yellowing maize plants, standing barely higher than my knees.

The wilting maize plants are a particularly disturbing sight when approximately 80% of people in Malawi depend on the agriculture, particularly maize, for their survival. Last year's maize harvest was devastated by erratic rainfall -- too little rain in some areas and flooding in others.

From our first glimpses today, fears that this year's harvest could be heading in a similar direction become all the more real to me. With less than 2 months until harvest, I wonder how on earth people will be able to make what small amounts of maize they might draw from these plants last until next year. We're heading further south in a few days time. Perhaps it's a different story there. I hope so.

When we reached Machinga District Hospital -- the day's first port of call -- we are all taken aback by the sights and sounds before us. At the hospital's Nutritional Rehabilitation Unit (NRU), 22 mothers with their severely malnourished children make their home on the 10 soiled beds and a dirty concrete floor. A normal month in the NRU sees 10-15 children in this ward. Today alone there are 8 new admissions.

Meeting Lucy Kadangwe, a 31 year old mother of three, who's youngest daughter Maureen is just one of the children in the ward, brings home to me just how bad this crisis is for some of the country's youngest and most vulnerable members. At 15 months old, Maureen weighs just 6 kg -- about 12lbs, well below the weight she should be at this tender age.

In this stiflingly hot and humid ward, Maureen and Lucy become the faces of this devastating food crisis for me. Like so many other families in Malawi right now, they have no food at home and they are dependent on international relief aid for their very survival.

As we head out of the NRU, there are 30-40 mothers with their crying babies waiting under the shade of a dilapidated tin roof for their fortnightly supplementary food rations -- a combination of corn-soya powder and oil that makes a nutritious food that looks like porridge. This is for the moderately malnourished children under five years old, for whom the general food ration of maize flour and beans that aid agencies, including Tearfund's partners, are distributing to almost a third of Malawi's population, is insufficient.

As I return to Blantyre this evening, I receive a text from a friend back in the UK with news that she had just given birth to a healthy 8.5lb baby girl. I can't help but think back to baby Maureen and pray.


We are up at the crack of dawn for the 4-hour drive from Blantyre to Nsanje, Malawi's southernmost district. We aren't the only ones. More than 1,000 people from six remote villages in Nsanje are up at the crack of dawn too. We are heading for the same destination - a food distribution by Tearfund partner Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) -- but their journey is on foot, often for more than 3 hours.

On the long bumpy road down to Nsanje, my hope that the maize crop will be in a better state down here doesn't materialise. It looks much worse, with mile upon mile of lifeless looking maize plants standing little more than knee height in desperately parched soil.

It is a journey of extremes -- some areas took on the lush green landscape that I had seen glimpses of yesterday - rivers full to overflowing. Some areas are even flooded. But the further south we drive the drier and dustier the landscape becomes. I lose count of the dried up riverbeds we cross. I saw so much of this in December when I was here but it's not something I had expected still to see now, three months into the rainy season.

As we approach the food distribution there are hundreds of people from the very oldest to the very youngest sitting quietly, grouped in their villages, under the shade of mango trees, waiting patiently for their 30kg of maize flour and 5kg of beans. It is eerily quiet. We don't need to look far to see just how much people needed this food.

A lady named Modesta approaches us as we wait for the food distribution to get underway. She opens her hand to show us a tiny amount of grass seed. She explains that this is all her family of nine has to eat. She tells us how she pounds the seed and makes it into flour to mix with water, enough to provide just one plate of food a day. The grass mix provides absolutely no goodness but its all the people in her village live on.

We speak to the village chief about what life is like in his village, Chikolo. He tells us that this was the first food distribution to reach his village of almost 800 people. People have run out of food months ago and they are desperate, he explains.

The chief goes on to talk an even deeper crisis in his village, like in thousands of others in Malawi - HIV/AIDS. He estimates that about a half of the people in his village are affected by HIV/AIDS -- wiping out a generation of mothers and fathers, leaving children to grow up alone or in the care of their grandparents or extended family members. The hunger crisis is hitting them the hardest.

The food distributed today and yesterday at the hospital is clearly making a life saving difference to these families. For so many it's all they have. And I thank God for all the hundreds of thousands of people throughout the UK who have help to make this possible. I shudder to think of the catastrophe that could be unfolding now if it wasn't here.

But from our short time in Malawi so far, we can all see that food aid is only part of the story. It's treating the symptoms of an underlying disease caused a devastating combination of factors such as chronic poverty, HIV/AIDS, debt and lack of food security.


As we set out this morning we head north towards Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. Our plan for today is to get off the beaten track into some remote villages where the Evangelical Baptist Church of Malawi (EBCM), one of Tearfund's partners in Malawi, is working with more than 1000 farmers to improve their food security. My attention returned to the maize crop and the hope for this year's harvest.

As our two-vehicle convoy leaves the tarmac road to start the bumpy ride down a potholed track to one of the villages, it isn't long before we are forced to turn back. It's rainy season in Malawi right now, rendering many roads impassable. As the car up ahead of us attempts a three-point turn, the sound of wheels spinning but getting nowhere stops our vehicle in its tracks. We look on horrified as the car sinks further into the ditch on the side of the track. Time to get out and help. We're not going anywhere for a while!

After a lot of digging and pushing the vehicle is finally liberated and it isn't long before we are surrounded by some of the healthiest looking maize we've seen all week. Father of 10, Charles Cambeta, is one of the farmers that EBCM has been working with. As he leads us up a muddy track into his fields his maize stands almost twice as high than his neighbour's.

Charles points to the small trees in amongst the maize by way of explanation for the difference between his and his neighbour's crop. The trees help to bind the soil and retain much needed moisture, as well as provide an organic fertiliser for the maize and keep maize-destroying bugs at bay.

Vincent, EBCM's Agricultural Co-ordinator explains that soil erosion, deforestation and intensive use of chemical fertiliser have hampered the quality of the soil in recent years, affecting the quantity and quality of the maize crop. And you don't need to be an agricultural expert to see that for yourself.

But out in Charles' fields we see just one tiny example of how the aid effort is helping to make a lasting difference, beyond today and tomorrow. By tackling some of the root causes of today's food crisis, by improving the security of people's food supply, the aid effort is helping to prevent future crises.

Abby King, Tearfund Media Officer

Click here to link with BBC Radio Five Live's web pages on the crisis.