The long, slow tragedy of chronic hunger in southern Africa

Published: 16 November 2012 15:49 CET

By Alexander Matheou

On the third page of a recent edition of Malawi’s leading daily newspaper, there was a small article which said the number of people facing hunger in the country is now 1.97 million. This figure represents approximately 11 per cent of the population, and is a 21 per cent increase from the last estimate. The rest of the paper covered business as usual.

There is nothing immediately dramatic about this hunger crisis. People are not dying. Populations are not moving. There is no visible epicentre around which media can mobilize to take heart-wrenching photographs.

The crisis has not happened suddenly. Visitors over the years would notice the gradual erosion of greenery, the deforestation, the growing barrenness of the landscape around villages. But even the villagers themselves barely distinguish this year from the one before. Their hunger has become chronic.

Yet the impact of their hunger in 2012 will shape the rest of their lives, particularly, the lives of the children.

In the village of Nedi, 25 year old Patricia Patero is already a mother of four. Like her neighbours, Patricia’s family has been hit by another year of poor rains and poor harvest. She sold her few belongings months ago, and now supplements her income by chopping down any remaining trees and selling them as charcoal, or working as casual labour in the nearby fields, picking weeds in exchange for mangoes. This may bring in four to five dollars a week.

The money doesn’t go far, not with inflation at 28 per cent and the price of her main food source – maize – now double what it was last year. Her coping strategy is to reduce the amount of food the family eats every day, from two small meals per day to one.

Other villagers have similar stories. Fathers regret having to take their children out of school to work as casual labourers in the fields. Mothers fear for how frequently their weakened children are falling sick with malaria and diarrhea. Teachers speak of a 20 per cent drop in school attendance due to hunger-related absences. Grandparents and parents worry particularly for the young girls, so easily abused – a risk made even more severe by the country’s 11 per cent HIV rate.

One grandmother suggests that most girls over the age of eleven in her village are now involved in sexual transactions for food.     

These children may not die from hunger in this crisis, but they will suffer damage for the rest of their lives. Malnutrition in childhood leads to lifelong losses in cognitive capacity and health. Micronutrient deficiencies permanently affect immune systems. Stunting is rooted in poor nutrition in the first 1,000 days from conception to a child’s second birthday, and can result in permanent damage in capacities to learn and generate income. These traits shape limitations for generations.

The situation is even worse in villages further from market centres. In the village of Wandarford Tugadya, poverty is everywhere, but it is most acute in households headed by elderly women caring for grandchildren orphaned by HIV and AIDS. Veronica is in her early 60s and cares for five grandchildren.

Her only income is a few dollars per week for cutting grass and weeding. She feeds the children with little bits of maize flour and rough, wild fruits. On a good day they have one small meal, but often none at all. Veronica herself is listless and disoriented. Her grandchildren are prone to stomach pains, diarrhea and vomiting.

The villagers, the government and aid agencies are unanimous in saying that there needs to be several months of food distribution to support communities through a crisis that will hit its peak in the leanest months of December to March. All agree that food alone is not enough, and that the recovery will have to promote economic regeneration which acknowledges that rain-fed agriculture will not provide sustainable food security for growing populations in what appears to be a climate now characterized by unpredictable rains.

In 2012, much of Africa is beginning to benefit from growing economies and confidence, but small, rural, resource poor and land-locked countries like Malawi will continue to struggle, and be fragile in the face of rainfall patterns and external trends in fuel and food commodity prices.

The extent of that fragility is sadly evident now. The numbers affected and severity of the hunger are such that international support is urgently needed.