“This year’s hunger is a hunger I have never experienced.”

Published: 13 July 2016 14:19 CET

By: Katherine Mueller, IFRC

It is a non-descript brick structure standing approximately 3 metres by 2 metres. It has no windows and anyone taller than 175 centimetres has to bend to walk through the door. The thatched roof is sagging – on the verge of collapse, a wooden pole props it up from the inside. At quick glance, one would be forgiven for thinking it is a storage shed, or a shelter for goats.

It is not.

It is someone’s home.

Gertrude Muotcha, 31, lives in this crumbling structure with her 4 children who range in age from 3 to 13. Her husband abandoned them long ago. Gertrude says he does not help provide for the children.

The soft-spoken woman can only find piece work – helping out in a farm field here, washing clothes there, pounding grain somewhere else. This year is proving especially challenging with one of the worst droughts on record affecting millions of people across central and southern Malawi.

“This year’s hunger is a hunger that I have never experienced in my life,” says Gertrude, perched on a short stool in the shadows of her dilapidated home. “I don’t know how we will survive this year.”

For as long as she can remember, Gertrude says they have only eaten two meals a day, using the maize and peas she grows to provide for her little family. It is now 3 o’clock in the afternoon and they have yet to eat. They are down to one meal a day, if they are lucky.

“I normally harvest between 6 and 9 bags of maize. This year, I was only able to harvest half a bag.”

The effects on the children

A strong El Niño phenomenon delayed much relied-upon rains, leading to a sharp decrease in maize production. The Government of Malawi, which normally has 60,000 metric tonnes of maize in its reserves at the beginning of the year, this year started with only 6,000 metric tonnes. An estimated 6.5 million people, or approximately 41 per cent of the population, are in need of aid.

In the past, when times were tough, neighbours would call upon neighbours. People would help one another, sharing what little food they had. “But this year, the situation is very bad,” says Gertrude. Everyone, it seems, is limited in how much support they can provide.

Her school-age children are still attending class, but they do not exhibit their normal energy. “My children’s health has changed. Their weight has gone down because they are not eating the way they used to,” laments Gertrude. “I am worried and concerned because sometimes my children can see other people eating. When they come home and they don’t see food, I feel ashamed as a mother.”  

With future employment looking bleak, and food prices likely to remain high, Gertrude expects that to keep her family from starving, she may have to once again resort to begging for maize residue – the straw, husks, and cobs from the maize plant – material usually fed to the animals.

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.