Loveness Chimphonda, 53, lives in the Traditional Authority of Symon, one of the areas worst affected by a severe drought that has put nearly three million people – half of whom are children – at risk of hunger in Malawi.
Life has placed Loveness in front of several and arduous challenges: She no longer has a companion, she has been living with HIV for several years and her days are now filled with a tremendous preoccupation as lack of food threatens her family’s survival.
Incertitude over the future of her child and three grandchildren has put a considerable – almost unbearable – weight on her shoulders. However, as soon as I arrive at her house, she greets me with a smile and a tight hug, a warm welcome you would rarely experience from a stranger, unless you travel to Africa.
When I ask her to tell me how lack of maize – a staple food in the country – has changed her life, Loveness’s face become serious and shadows of worry and fear obfuscate her eyes.
Due to lack of rains that have made this year’s harvest almost impossible for millions of people, Loveness and many others in Malawi have resorted to cutting trees to produce charcoal, which is then sold on the streets, a practice the government has outlawed due to the negative impact it has on the environment.
“If they catch us cutting trees, they beat us,” she says, while one of her grandchildren grabs her legs, looking at my camera with eyes filled with curiosity.
“We sell charcoal to the people who come from the city, who say electricity is very expensive. But the trees I burn for charcoal are those around my household and they are finishing. What I earn is not enough to get me throughout the year,” Loveness explains.
“I take Anti Retro Viral drugs, and to be able to take those medications you have to eat. And with the drought, the hunger in the country, I think: How am I going to take the medications? I would just die. I am also worried for the future of my grandchildren, because even if they go to school they won’t perform well if they haven’t eat anything.”
Loveness, who is being helped by charity World Vision to cope with the hunger, urges other people and organisations to help Malawians survive one of the worst droughts in recent times.
“Things will get worse: Theft is on the increase, people are breaking into houses to steal maize flours, chickens,” she explains. “We need help, but donors need to make sure money comes straight to the people, who would be able to use it as they think it’s best.
Impact on children
The food shortage has particularly impacted children, mainly girls, who are dropping out of school by the thousands in Malawi. Children are usually sent on errands to earn money for food or stay at home to look after their siblings while parents look for food.
Girls who drop out of school often engage in transactional sex in exchange for food or end up getting married, amid fears child marriage, pre-marital sex and deaths related to early pregnancies are increasing.
Some people also pointed out the food currently being delivered is not suitable for young children who, as a result, will end up dying as they are currently refusing to eat. Levels of stunting are also expected to increase in Malawi, where at least 1.4 million children are already malnourished.
Wide scale hunger looms
The Malawian government is buying maize from neighbouring countries and delivering it to people who are most in need. Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) is delivering food to thousands of households. However, due to lack of funds, the programme is due to end in April, when the hunger problem is expected to worsen as food and cash stocks will diminish.
It is also feared assistance to people who are facing hunger could be further undermined as donors have cut aid to Malawi following a 2013 financial scandal known as “cashgate”, which involved government officials siphoning money from state coffers.
Although donors are still sending money to humanitarian organisations on the ground, some have pointed out that the aid freeze is undermining the country’s response to the food crisis as well as construction of infrastructures, schools and hospitals.
WFP said Malawi needs $38m (£27m) to help those affected by the drought. Despite the fact it is one of the worst impacted countries by this year’s lack of rainfalls, Malawi is only a fraction of a much wider problem. It is estimated that at least 14 million people across southern Africa, where people mostly rely on agricultural practices for their survival, have been impacted by a drought exacerbated by the El Nino phenomenon, the warm water in the Pacific Ocean.
Droughts cannot be prevented, but its effects can be reduced by, among other things, investing in irrigations programs so that farmers can learn how to produce crops even during periods of lack of rainfalls.
Noel Chalamanda, mayor of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial and financial hub, explained the government is doing its best to help people cope with the hunger. However, he acknowledged Malawians must be willing to start implementing new agricultural practices and become aware of the negative impacts of climate change.
Virginia Kachigunda, deputy director for the department of school, health and nutrition within the ministry of education, believes Malawi and other countries can cope with the drought, but they need the assistance of foreign donors.
“Financially speaking, the Malawian government is on its knees and we cannot reach each and every person,” she told IBTimes UK. “We are trying at our own level but we need more support.”
However, some opposition members believe the leadership is to blame if millions of people are facing hunger in the country, due to perceived mis-management of resources and lack of proper investments in the agriculture sector that could have helped reduce the impact.