Malawi: Hidden hunger

Originally published
Oxfam's Helen Palmer sees firsthand the effects of the food shortages on the people of Malawi and the distribution of emergency food aid to those most in need
It took two men to lift the sack of maize onto Lucy Magulenji's head. At 50kg it was probably equivalent to her body weight, yet Lucy hardly flinched. With her baby Moses sleeping in a sling on her back, she balanced the load with one hand, turned and walked away.

This scene was repeated hundreds of times last week as Oxfam began distributing emergency food aid in Mulanje district in Malawi's mountainous south-eastern corner.

"I try to do some casual work to earn some money but I'm so tired. When I haven't had anything to eat I just want to sleep"

Over the course of three days, hungry people gathered at distribution sites. Chosen by village committees as the most needy, they waited patiently in the hot sun, registered with a thumb-print and collected their sacks of grain.

Their stories have a common theme. Because of the failure of the harvest in April and the high cost of maize, they are locked in a daily struggle to find enough to eat.

Oxfam and other agencies working in Malawi are using food aid to target the most vulnerable and yet there are clearly many more hungry people than there is food.

In the village of Chambe, I came across four-year-old Malitino Segula sitting in the dust, gnawing on a pea-pod. His swollen stomach is a telltale sign of malnutrition. The bowl of peas a gift to his family from a 'well-wisher.'

With their maize crop destroyed by flooding the family's only way of earning money is to collect and sell bundles of firewood.

Malitino's mother, Egnele told me, "I try to do some casual work to earn some money but I'm so tired. When I haven't had anything to eat I just want to sleep. Often we sleep with empty stomachs."

Malawi's food crisis doesn't make the headlines on a daily basis. But out of sight, hidden away in villages, there is widespread, debilitating hunger.

Emergency food aid will help people like Lucy Magulenji until the main maize harvest is ready next April. But as the hungry season grinds on in the weeks and months to come, much more aid will be needed if a full-scale famine is to be averted.