Malawi: Coping with hunger while living with HIV

Published: 17 July 2016 8:45 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

For the past eight years, Alice Harry has been living with the AIDS virus. She knows what it feels like to be hungry. She especially knows what it feels like to be hungry while taking anti-retroviral therapy, the medication used to fight the HIV infection. “For a normal person, it’s okay to skip a meal, but the medicine is too strong. I was getting sick frequently because I was taking it on an empty stomach,” says Alice. “But I kept up my medication, even though I knew I would be sick. I needed to be there for my children.”

A widow, Alice provided for her three children by finding work as a casual labourer, working on a farm, or pounding maize for which she was paid with the leftovers that would normally be given to livestock. She also harvested peas and maize. “This year has been really difficult,” explains Alice. “I normally harvest 12 bags of maize which can last us the entire year. This year, I only got one bag.”

Worst drought in decades

Alice and her children are among the estimated 6 million Malawians currently affected by one of the worst droughts the country has ever seen. People have tried planting their maize crops three times, only to have each one fail, particularly in the central and southern parts of the country. The government’s grain reserves are virtually depleted and maize production has dropped at least 42 per cent.

But unlike many families, Alice is coping. Years ago, she received two goats from the Malawi Red Cross Society, with support from the Finnish Red Cross. She not only received the animals, she was also given training on how to properly care for the goats. Those two goats multiplied and the Harry family’s life changed for the better. “Now, whenever I need something, I sell a goat and then I find enough money,” says Alice. “Originally, I received two goats. Since then, I’ve sold ten of them. If I hadn’t sold them, I’d have 30 goats by now.”

She has used the income generated by her goat herd to pay school fees, ensure her family now eats three meals a day, and to build a new house. “I did it little by little,” says Alice, proudly. “One year I hired people to mould the bricks, the next year the house was built, and the next year a better roof was put on.”

The ongoing drought has resulted in Alice having to sell more goats than usual this year and prices have dropped. “The best time to sell goats is at harvest because people have money,” explains Alice. “However, this year, there has been no harvest.” Combined with rising food prices, the income generated by the goats is not going as far as it once did. “We are definitely doing better, but I am concerned that I will have to sell all my goats before the drought is over,” says Alice. “I really hope that doesn’t happen because these animals have really changed my life.”

In May 2016, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) increased its Emergency Appeal in Malawi to 3.6 million Swiss francs. The Appeal aims to support the Malawi Red Cross Society in providing life-saving aid to 25,000 people through food security, nutrition and livelihoods interventions. The Appeal is currently 15 per cent funded.