Southern Africa food crisis: A Christmas lunch

When Oxfam's communications officer, Jane Beesley, was invited to dine with the women of the Mlomba villages in Southern Malawi they were surviving on poisonous beans and mangoes. Food aid reaches their area this month and should improve their situation
Beneath the scant shade of a single mango tree, people gather to talk about the current food shortage facing their community.

It is 'lunchtime' and the heat is rising, many people use their umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun at a time when they expect to use them in the more 'conventional' way.

The Mlomba group villages in Southern Malawi traditionally grows rice but this year the rains have been late...again...and experience tells them this won't be a good rainy season. There is little food remaining and up to now this community has not received any food aid.

The week before Christmas we were invited to 'lunch'. The invitation was the women's idea; they had said "Come and see what we eat, come for lunch!" Ironically at the same time around the world many people would be enjoying a traditional Christmas dinner.

On this 'menu' is kalongonda beans. They are poisonous and if not prepared correctly can kill. They need to be cooked all day with at least seven changes of water, using precious water and firewood. After the first cooking the outer, hairy skin is removed. If the pot isn't guarded children might be tempted to eat from the pot too soon.

"If you are far away and a child picks from the pot she or he can die."

Once soft the beans are then mashed ready to eat.

In addition to the beans people are eating the last of the mangos. Unripe mangos are taken from the trees, boiled and then mashed to produce 'porridge'.

Normally the rains would have started before the mango season has finished, generating other wild food to help see them through the usual 'hungry' period, but so far this has not been a normal year. It has not been a normal year for three years.

Beans or mangos often form the single 'meal' of the day for many people in this community.

Many of the men are away, travelling to Mozambique to find casual work (ganyu) often returning, after 2 or 3 weeks, with payment in kind like maize (if they are lucky) or mokoko (dried cassava peelings). Children go to other villages where they care for the goats and cattle owned by people more fortunate.

People continue to help themselves as well as each other, a village headman sends a 'gift' of beans to the poorest woman in the village, but besides the food crisis there is another more devastating threat.

"Hunger is killing people, but let's be honest it's AIDS that is killing people" Aaron Mwahareya

Here two or three funerals a day are a common sight.

Many older people who should be enjoying their old age are instead caring full-time for their grandchildren. Like most of Southern Africa Malawi is losing many of its most productive adults through the AIDS pandemic.

Of course there isn't enough food for lunch, there isn't spare food to welcome and feed visitors. The community, for the time being, continues to share their limited resources and dwindling coping strategies.

Oxfam has now received food for another 1000 households (approx 5,500 individuals) and from January 2003 the Mlomba group villages will be included in the new allocation.