Maxwell Nkosi and his wife Mcuzi sit across from me on a wooden bench outside their tiny mud brick house in Pende, a village in the southern region of Malawi. Seated between them are two of their six children, small girls wiggling quietly while the grownups talk; a son plays nearby. One of the girls holds an aluminum dish filled with small white granules which she scoops up with her fingers to eat, a few at a time. Upon request, Mcuzi hands the bowl to her visitors to inspect. The grain inside is millet. Americans use it as birdseed.
Millet is a more drought-resistant crop than the corn that has been the staple crop of Malawi for centuries. When the Nkosi family harvested their first millet, Mcuzi tells one of my colleagues, the children wouldn't eat it. "I had to convince them it was food," she says. While she speaks, her husband sits with arms folded into his lean frame, one thin leg crossed over the other. One hand holds a small Bible. He uses the other hand to shield his eyes from the growing glare of the sun, rubbing them occasionally. Maxwell has been sleepless at night, kept up by worry over the future of his eldest son, whose government-paid primary school education will soon end when the boy completes the eighth grade. The family has no income to pay for education beyond that. Unlike their parents before them, they cannot even produce enough food to eat, let alone pay for secondary school.
Despite such worries, Maxwell has dreams for his children: he wants them to be educated, independent, and eventually able to support themselves -- and him, too, in his old age. He cannot see how this can be achieved, however. All he can do is lie awake at night and worry.
Maxwell is not alone. Eighty-five percent of Malawians live in rural areas, according to the country's 2008 census. Agriculture is the basis of the lifestyle and economy of this sliver of a country bordered by Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania in sub-Saharan southeast Africa. But this isn't the type of government-subsidized agriculture found in the American Midwest. The vast majority of farming in the country of 15 million -- one of the world's most densely populated nations -- consists of subsistence-level rain-fed agriculture. According to the country's United Nations' National Adaptation Programme of Action, 60 percent of its farmers experience food insecurity year-round. Maxwell says that years ago, the land produced enough food to feed a family all year. Now it typically produces enough for less than half the year. Villager after villager interviewed by our team, assembled by the Evangelical Environmental Network and hosted by Eagles International, a Malawian relief organization, shared similar stories.
Why does a peaceful, democratic republic such as Malawi -- dubbed "the warm heart of Africa," home of a legendary lake the size of a small state, and boasting the still-standing tree under which the Scottish missionary David Livingstone negotiated with slave-traders to free the slaves in the mid-1800s -- have so many hungry people?
As is the case with all of the word's hungry, it's complicated. But the problem is not unsolvable.
Malawi's hunger predicament, to be sure, is multi-faceted. A combination of inadequate infrastructure, geographical realities, an ineffectual political system, and changing weather patterns has created a perfect storm of food scarcity.
The most obvious problem to a first time, first world visitor is the nation's lack of infrastructure. Some major highways, still under construction, are just wide swaths of dirt. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and livestock stream precariously along each side of every road. Fast-moving vehicles remain ever ready to slow and honk at unshperherded goats wandering into traffic; to strike one would be like stealing food from a family's table. Electric lines are strung from the cities along the roadways, providing energy to clusters of shops in the marketplaces that crop along every several miles of road. But none of the villages we visit have electricity. One official tells us that 90 to 95 percent of Malawians live off the grid. A typical family might have one "torch," a kind of flashlight consisting of batteries bound together, and a few small LCD lights that glow when an attached wire is held against an electrode.
In the tiny village of Thomu, I ask Charlie Smart, 56 and the father of 10 children, how he thinks his life might change if his village were to gain electricity. Through a translator, he scoffs, "Without more food, I wouldn't be able to pay the bill. We need more food."
Yet Charlie is one of the more successful villagers we meet. His community has developed its own savings and loan program through which he was able to save enough to buy the pig that roots about in the dirt as we talk in the shade. Now he is saving to buy metal sheets to replace the thatched grass roof on his home.
It is time for the weekly Village Savings and Loan meeting. We cut our conversation with Charlie short; members who are late to the meeting are fined. Twenty-five members, about half of them women, gather outdoors into a circle around a heavy steel box that serves as their bank. The box is opened by three key holders who open each lock one at a time. Inside the box are cash, rosters, passbooks, and financial records. At the end of a long, highly-ritualized meeting, during which each member has the opportunity to buy shares in the company, make loan payments, and contribute to the community welfare fund, the monies added to the collective are tallied: about $51. These meager dollars and the independence and sustainability they represent will help this village withstand Malawi's food scarcity. And because local economies cultivate independence and sustainability, perhaps such dollars will reap greater rewards than the millions of dollars of foreign aid that flows into the country each year.