Why Are People in Malawi So Hungry?

The U.S. gives approximately $70 million annually in development assistance to Malawi. The U.K. (from whom Malawi gained independence in 1964) gives even more, providing 21 percent of all foreign aid Malawi receives. (However, Great Britain frequently complains of inadequate progress and reporting on the funding.)

Colonialism's promise of bringing progress to occupied countries seems here, as in so many other places, to have gone unfulfilled. Lacking a strong foundation, Malawi's government during its half century of post-colonial independence has been described variously as authoritarian, turbulent, and corrupt. The current administration has made progress, but is seemingly ineffectual in empowering the nation, one of the world's poorest, to overcome its challenges. In a country with little internal economic development (China has invested heavily in Malawi since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 2007), government seems to function mainly as a source of employment, wealth, and power. As one NGO official told me, "Politics is business." And with most of the country's citizens impoverished, undereducated, and off the grid, even democratic elections offer little accountability for those elected by the very few.

So most go hungry.

Of course, the hunger problem is bigger than the country's people. Geography plays a part, too. Malawi is a landlocked country with infertile soil in a region prone to natural disasters, which are only increasing in frequency. Between 1970 and 2006 Malawi experienced 40 weather-related disasters, with 16 of them occurring after 1990. The areas affected by these weather events have increased as well: Before 2001, only nine districts in Malawi were classified as flood-prone, but now that number has more than tripled. Just last month , heavy rains destroyed hundreds of homes in the southern region of the country. Drought is an even worse problem than flooding. In the droughts of 1987, 1992, 1994, 2004, and 2005, Malawi was reported as the country most affected. Over the last three decades, uneven rainfall -- which, regardless of total rainfall amounts, creates cycles of drought and flood that destroy crops -- have triggered the current crop shortages.

It wasn't always this way, the villagers tell us again and again. In their parents' generation, within their own lifetimes even, the rainy season predictably lasted from November to April. Now the rains might come for only two or three months, not long enough to see the country's staple corn crops through. While decades ago rice was commonly grown, we don't meet any farmers who dare to grow such a thirsty plant now. Instead of corn, farmers are growing more drought-resistant crops such as millet, sorghum, sweet potato, and cassava. Still, it is not enough.

In the village of Chikalumpha, Felesta Chimpina is headmistress of the pre-school where children who attend are usually assured at least one meal a day: a bowl of pasty white porridge cooked over a fire. Some days, however, there is no porridge. When asked how she feels when she's unable to provide those under her care with food, Felesta answers, "Bitter." She has hope, though: She dreams that one day one of the children from the pre-school will become a Member of Parliament who will come back and represent their village.

Long before the government and NGOs came around to the villages to preach about climate change, a phrase on the lips of every villager we meet, the villagers possessed indigenous knowledge of changing weather patterns. Subsistence-level farmers in Malawi are feeling the effects of changing weather patterns every day. Only in the United States is climate change a political debate; in the rest of the world it is a phenomenological reality.

Rural farmers are adapting their practices to adjust to the varying weather. For example, many villages are initiating reforestation projects. In Fombe -- where torrential rains caused the course of a nearby river to change, wiping out homes -- the village used contributions collected from each household to plant 5,000 trees that will help keep the river on its course.

Along with crop diversification and reforestation, Malawian villages are applying chemical weed killers to the fields, planting seeds in square holes that hold water longer, and using manure and leaves as fertilizer and mulch. Verena, a widowed mother of six and a farmer in Pende, describes her use of these latter two practices, which have been so successful that she now uses one room in her two-room house to store sorghum stalks piled high.

"Climate change is more challenging to our country than HIV-AIDS because it affects everyone," explains Vincent Moyo, country representative for Tearfund, a British Christian relief agency, referring to the devastating HIV-AIDS crisis from which the country has just emerged. "Climate change is carrying with it a slow death," he says.

Back in Chikalumpha, Felesta Chimpina's husband Davis wants to send a message to the U.S.: "We have to be clever farmers because the climate is changing," he acknowledges. "But technology users in America need to be clever, too. Let's listen to the experts on climate change and adapt our technologies."

He says it like his life depends on it.

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Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.

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