I am in Nampula, a northern province in Mozambique, a two hour and a half flight on a Mozambican Airways Boeing 737 from the capital Maputo. Whilst we are driving through the wet streets of Nampula en route to Alua, about four hours away, Jose Daniel, World Vision-Mozambique's Emergency and Relief person briefs me on what he and our "development" staff based here make of the current situation in Nampula following a series of assessment visits.
Nampula has recently made it to the headlines both nationally and internationally after it was hit by a tropical depression that is officially said to have led to the death of over fifty people and affected more than 200 000 others. There have also been unconfirmed reports of deaths allegedly caused by the consumption of 'poisonous plants' in places described as 'pockets of hunger'. These are often remote, mostly isolated places one can bump into at any time along the sometimes improvised, sinuous roads taking you from community to community. Luis Norberto, a local journalist argues that this is "probably why Nampula's 'hunger problem' is not as visible as one would expect particularly in view of the official figures."
But what are the main, the real causes behind these 'pockets of hunger', I ask? Have things actually been worsened by the adverse weather conditions affecting the region lately?
World Vision-Mozambique's food security specialist Paulo Mabota explains that "historically some areas in Nampula province, especially those close to the coast are known to be regularly faced with chronic food security problems hence the presence for some years now of our project here."
Mabota adds that World Vision-Mozambique's Food Security Project aims mainly at equipping communities such as Alua's with the information, knowledge and means to strike a balance in terms of their eating habits and needs. Dictated in the past by poor soils, such a challenge however has grown bigger in the past few years with the devastating on-set of a destructive disease that has been decimating cassava, the region's main staple food.
"To many local people not having cassava is equated with having no food," Mabota tells me. That is why the strategy has been to gradually pave the way for a richer, healthier local diet, by adding more nutritious food to it and not necessarily eliminating traditional eating habits. The introduction of new varieties of cassava resistant to the disease is also part of that strategy, one that is gaining an increasing number of supporters - like the ladies who have learned how to make cakes with cassava flour by mixing it with nutritious wheat, peanut or sweet potato. But these initiatives don't reach everyone.
Despite the gloomy picture painted with the brownish colours of decimated cassava, the upcoming harvest looks promising. "This will be a good one. There will be plenty of maize, ground nuts, beans and sweet potato," says the local leader. On our way to our next stop I actually saw signs of this with people already selling these crops along the busiest intersections of the highway. I bought some maize and ground nuts at very competitive prizes and did not regret it later.
Our next stop was Namige, in Mogincual, described as the worst hit place by tropical depression Delfina early in January. For two long hours José Daniel and I had to endure the twists, turns and bumps of a 90 kilometre tarred road bearing all the scars of the heavy rains that have been falling in the region. Strangely enough though it was a hot, sunny day. We still managed to see some fallen cashew trees and speak to some of the locals.
"Yes, it was bad when the cyclone hit us. It has been pouring ever since and in some cases crop fields have been destroyed but not too many," one man tells me.
In Namige we note that despite being Saturday afternoon the little, local market is quite busy. A teacher who amicably starts a conversation with us explains that the majority of the market customers had walked through a 15 kilometre short cut in search of supplies. According to the teacher "They have been doing this for sometime now since the bridge that allowed access to their village has collapsed." The result has effectively been the cutting off of normal routes that literally ensure vital communication for the survival of remote villages such as these and where the concept of food security is unfortunately lost in a myriad of inappropriate practices.
"This has also prevented us from getting some basic help to them just to tide them over whilst we're waiting for the next harvest which is just around the corner," the local Government leader says. So things should get better? "If the damage to the roads is dealt with we're confident they will," he assures me.