In February, when the food ran out, Ezlina Chambukira started selling her precious possessions one by one. First, her goat. Then an old umbrella. Then two metal plates and a battered pail.
When she had nothing left, she started praying for a miracle.
For the first time in a decade, severe hunger is sweeping across southern Africa. The United Nations says that two years of erratic weather — alternating droughts and floods — coupled with mismanagement of food supplies have left seven million people in six countries at risk of starvation.
Here in this dusty village of mud huts and unraveling dreams, 14 people have already died from hunger-related illnesses in the last four months, health workers say. It is harvest time, but crops are withered and many people are eating banana roots and pumpkin leaves.
“I have nothing else to sell,” said Ms. Chambukira, 36, clutching her four ragged children. “I was praying, praying for the rains. I was praying for God to give me food.”
Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho have already declared national disasters, and Mozambique and Swaziland are also struggling. Four million more people are expected to need emergency aid in the next few months as this season’s meager harvest runs out, the United Nations says.
The crisis reflects the continuing economic fragility of many African nations, even here in the continent’s most prosperous region. Africa’s leaders are increasingly demanding greater access to Western markets for their textiles and agricultural goods in the hope of strengthening nations where millions of people remain vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, government missteps and foreign charity.
Officials say there is still time to avert a famine. So far, none of the haunting images associated with famine are visible here. There are no feeding camps full of hollow-eyed people. There are no carcasses of starved animals, no villages left abandoned as the hungry scavenge elsewhere for food.
Many families have small harvests of corn, the staple that accounts for 80 percent of the Malawian diet, which will carry those people through the months ahead. The World Food Program says it needs about 300,000 metric tons of cornmeal and other foodstuffs to feed the region through September. So far, it has received roughly 30 percent of that amount from wealthy nations that are also financing critical food aid in places like Afghanistan and North Korea. Aid agencies hope that more pledges will be forthcoming as the enormity of the need in Africa becomes clear.
The affected countries are already among the poorest in the world and many people have nearly exhausted their ability to cope.
Many families have sold all of their chickens, goats and cows to raise money to buy food. Others have reduced their daily intake to one meal a day. Others have begun relying on alternative food sources with little nutritional value like wild fruits, leaves, roots and corn husks.
Without adequate food, hundreds of people have died from sicknesses like malaria and cholera that they might otherwise have survived. In February, when many households went without food for a week or more, the European Union found that the number of cases of severe malnutrition identified in local clinics here in Malawi had soared by 80 percent.
Tiyankhulanji Chiusiwa, a 20-year-old woman with worried eyes and withered breasts, has gone so long without proper meals that she has stopped producing milk for her baby. He still suckles for comfort, but he is weakening.
He is 6 months old, she says, but weighs only seven pounds.
The people have given a name to the period of biting hardship. They call it the time of “gwagwagwa” — the time when “we had absolutely nothing.”
“People who have seen what famine looks like are very scared right now,” said Kerren Hedlund, the emergency officer for the United Nations World Food Program in Malawi. She says the warning signs here are clearly visible.
Villagers in Malawi typically go through their harvest stocks by around January, but this year some have already run out of food. Right now, the United Nations has food to feed only about a third of the people expected to need emergency assistance through September.
“All the signs indicate that a crisis is looming,” Ms. Hedlund said. “Without any relief in sight we know it can only get worse.” Not since the early 1990’s, when a searing drought struck the region, has southern Africa faced such widespread food shortages.
That crisis was even more dire: about 19 million people needed emergency food, and livestock starved to death across the region because of lack of water and pasture. South Africa, which has been spared the current troubles, was also hit hard. International aid poured in and disaster was averted.
But over the last two years, severe drought, in between bouts of flooding, has battered the region once again. This time, the problem is complicated by the high incidence of H.I.V. infection along with the political turmoil in Zimbabwe and mismanagement Malawi.
The countries of southern Africa have the world’s highest rates of H.I.V. infection, leaving millions of people vulnerable to the ravages of hunger. The sale of Malawi’s entire backup supply of grain and the past year’s political upheaval in Zimbabwe have exacerbated the effects of the natural disaster.
Until recently, Zimbabwe was one of the region’s more stable and self-sufficient countries, and neighbors often turned to it for help during food shortages. But the government’s efforts to seize land from white farmers, who own more than half the country’s fertile land, have disrupted production greatly. The combination of severe drought and farm seizures has been disastrous.
Production of the corn crop in Zimbabwe plunged by nearly 70 percent this year, leaving almost half the population in need of emergency food. With triple-digit inflation, a limp currency and rising unemployment, Zimbabwe can barely help itself, let alone its neighbors.
Meanwhile, officials in Malawi have been assailed by Western diplomats, international donors and civic groups for selling off the country’s 167,000-ton emergency grain reserve and failing to account for the proceeds. President Bakili Muluzi denies accusations of corruption. He says his officials were told by the International Monetary Fund to sell the grain to repay debt, a charge that fund officials deny.
But Mr. Muluzi acknowledges that he cannot explain why his officials sold off the entire reserve, when they could have sold part, given that 30 percent of the population may go hungry and there is nothing left.
“This is the question I was asking,” President Muluzi said in an interview. “I didn’t understand the intelligence about that.” The debate is meaningless in the villages, where men and women are too busy scrabbling for food to weigh multiple causes of calamity.
The Chankhungu feeding center for malnourished infants is often full these days, which is unusual during harvest time. Inside the tiny red brick building, mothers and infants receive four bowls of porridge daily until they recover their strength. It is a stopgap solution. The women must go home to make room for other needy mothers, even though everyone knows there is little to offer at home.
“The child is getting better here,” said Aliet Kaliati, 35, who cuddled her 1-year-old son. “I don’t know how I am going to feed him at home.”
Kenius Mkanda, a government health worker, says that about 75 percent of storerooms in the village of Kaundama are empty. The shortages have created sharp tensions between families fortunate enough to have a small harvest and those with nothing. Stealing — something that was rare in these close-knit communities of extended families — is now rampant.
The local chiefs have been gathering to try to ease tensions and to find a way to feed the hungry. In the churches, the congregations have been calling to the heavens. Everyone agrees that help must come from somewhere, but it is slow in coming.
“Last year, I had a little,” said Moyas Abraham, a basket weaver, whose wife was scavenging for corn husks and peanuts. “I have nothing in my granary now.” Mr. Abraham was sitting atop a heap of straw, braiding supple strands into sturdy baskets. His wife and four children rely on his earnings because their crops failed this year. But few people are buying baskets these days.
So when his children beg him for porridge, Mr. Abraham struggles for the right words. He considers telling pretty lies to ease their fears, to give them hope. Then he looks at his empty granary and tells the truth.
“I can’t tell them things are going to get better,” he said. “They can see for themselves. There is hunger and it is really bad.”
[Source: The New York Times, June 21, 2002]