Malawi’s vibrant greenery and the thriving maize plots in Mzuzu gardens are deceptive. It is hunger season. Maize is the country’s main carbohydrate and harvest is still a couple of months away. Last year’s rains were poor. People’s supplies are running out.
Worse still, in parts of the country this year’s rains have been too strong – climate change is hitting Malawi hard. They’ve washed crops away, as well as causing floods, landslides and bridge collapses. In the north, where I am, we’re hoping the rains will ease off a bit; they could still destroy this year’s crop.
In a country where most people are subsistence farmers finding the money to buy food is a challenge. In lots of the villages the businesses people have to supplement their farming are seasonal; at this time of year people only spend money on maize, with school fees as a luxury item. Hunger season puts Malawi’s forests under pressure as people turn to selling charcoal in the cities. The steep, narrow hills are far more beautiful when they’re forested, and without trees the soils are soon washed away. The forests encourage rainfall, so people are forced to undermine their long term food security to eat now.
Temwa does a lot of food security and income diversification work – most of the people we work with eat at least twice a day now – and we don’t usually distribute food. However anti retro viral medication controls HIV less effectively in undernourished people, increasing the risk of transmission (along with illness and death). All of this is a long way of saying that less than 36 hours after I arrived (but having sent some content back to the UK) the team decamped to our project base in Usisya to give maize flour to people living with HIV.
Usisya has an unpaved road in, meaning it is rather better connected than some of ‘our’ villages, accessible only by foot or by boat. However depending on the state of the road the journey lasts between two and nine hours and it’s been known to eat 4x4s. Our journey would have been at the two hours end of the scale, but we kept stopping to chat to people who live a long it. It was all very jolly, the scenery is amazing, and I was delighted when a monkey lolloped across the road and into a tree.
Then one of the people we talked to said a pregnant woman had died recently. She’d developed complications and called for an ambulance. It was raining, the road was more mud than dirt and the ambulance couldn’t make it up one of the hills. It was forced to turn round, and by the time the road had dried out enough for a vehicle to make it through the woman was dead. We were much more subdued for the rest of the journey.
(Pt II is much more cheerful)