Dorothy Dembo and Evelisi

MPHAKO, Malawi (WOMENSENEWS)–Little Evelesi Dembo, born just six months ago, chose an inauspicious time to enter the world. In the fields, the corn–Southern Africa’s staple food–has withered on its stalks and people are calling this the “chinkukuzi,” or the time of everyone dying.

This should be a season of plenty in Malawi, when stomachs are content and silos full from the Southern Hemisphere’s fall harvest. But this year is unlike any in memory. Worse even, say the old ones, then the last great famine in 1949.

At least 12 million people in six Southern African countries are facing potential famine in the most severe food crisis to hit the region in at least a decade. The United Nations estimates that 4 million tons of food will be needed over the next year to meet the region’s emergency food needs.

While flood and drought have played some role in creating the current situation, much of its cause is political. In Zimbabwe, for example, government-sponsored land seizures have devastated agricultural production and caused the national currency to plummet in value.

Here in Malawi, a densely-populated, agrarian country that is one of the region’s worst hit, one of the major causes of the crisis is the lack of seeds and fertilizer. Subsidized farming programs were cut drastically in recent years, leaving thousands of families with nothing to plant and no fertilizer with which to coax a harvest from the overworked land. The United Nations has not yet labeled this current food crisis a famine, saying the death toll is still low. But for those living on the margins of society, particularly women who are divorced or widowed, the situation has already reached crisis proportions.

By custom in Central and Southern Malawi, women move to their husbands’ villages after marriage. If a woman’s husband dies, she must marry her husband’s brother or return to her home village with her children, leaving behind all the property acquired during her marriage. In difficult times like now, women often return to communities that can spare little to help their returning relatives.

One Child Is Dead; His Mother Tries to Keep Siblings Fed

At a feeding center run by the Roman Catholic Church in the small village of Mphako, 38 severely malnourished children live with their siblings and mothers in tiny rooms around a barren courtyard. For a compound filled with children, the center is oddly silent. Many of the sick children are breastfeeding infants who are too weak to cry. They are slowly starving with their mothers.

Little Evelesi’s mother walked more than three miles with her two children hoping to find enough food to keep them alive. Last year, after she was widowed, Dembo and her children were kicked out of her husband’s village and went, empty handed, to live with her mother.

“When we were preparing our garden last year, we didn’t have any maize seeds,” she said. “We tried to buy seed, but we ate them because we were hungry then.”

One of her children, a 2-year-old boy, died that season. Dembo says it was from hunger. This year things are even worse and her remaining two children are at the edge of starvation. Were it not for the feeding center, she says, they would have starved months ago.

Soon, when her children have recovered their strength, the nuns will send the Dembo family home to make room for the more than 100 children on the feeding center’s waiting list. What her family will eat then, Dembo does not know.

“Without this program,” says Sister Modesta Chitembwe, manager of the feeding center and a small mission hospital, “all these people would have starved in their villages.” Many of the families that have been hardest hit by the current food crisis are also suffering from the effects of the AIDS epidemic.

AIDS Deaths Adds to Famine’s Harm

South of Mphako, in a small city called Monkey Bay on the edge of Lake Malawi, Save the Children United States is distributing food to families hit by the AIDS epidemic, most of which are female-headed households and AIDS orphans.

“We’re finding that the ability of people to cope is less and less,” said Tom McCormack, the organization’s deputy field office director. “And that’s going to increase in the future.”

On distribution days, several hundred women and children gather in the hot sun to wait for the 50 kilogram bag of corn the World Food Programme has given to the Save the Children for distribution.

Barefoot, hunched old women drag the heavy bags from the government warehouse and across a dusty yard. Some live as far as 10 miles from the distribution points and will trade for transportation.

Margaret Mpondi is one of the beneficiaries. About 60 years old–Mapondi isn’t entirely sure of her age, but her lined face and stooped gait indicate the passage of many decades–she should have long ago passed on the burden of running the household to her children.

Instead, she is struggling to scrape together enough food to feed her two grandchildren, whose parents died of AIDS.

“We are eating only a little once a day to make the maize last longer, but even then it will last only a short period,” Mpondi says. “Then we are in trouble.”

Nicole Itano is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg.

For more information:

World Food Programme:

Food and Agriculture Program of the United Nations
“Famine threatens 4 million people in southern Africa”:

American Council for Voluntary International Action
“Food Crisis in Southern Africa”: