Malawi – like most sub-Saharan countries – has been hard hit by AIDS. It’s estimated 16 percent of the adult population is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and that about 70-thousand people die of the disease each year. Making matters worse, however, is a critical food shortage.
Humanitarian and relief agencies say most of southern Africa is facing a food crisis brought on by drought, poverty and in some cases, violence.
Malawi’s food shortage is blamed in large part on drought, which has brought a sharp drop in maize production. But adding to the problem is last year’s sale of reserve maize stocks to Kenya, in what’s being called a corruption scandal. Usually a maize harvest is due in April. Officials had expected it to be poor, not only because of drought, but also because people were eating the crops even before they were ripe. Hundreds of deaths have been blamed on famine.
The Malawi government has declared a state of disaster. It warns that most of Malawi’s population of 11-million will need food aid over the next six months. In March, the government announced it would spend 150-million dollars to combat hunger.
Health experts say they fear the need for food may outweigh the risks of HIV/AIDS. For example, hunger and poverty may force more women and children to turn to prostitution to survive.
In the town of Salima – about 100-kilometers east of the capital, Lilongwe – volunteer AIDS counselors are seeing the impact. George Kamyamba is the chairman of SASO, the Salima AIDS Support Organization. He says the all-volunteer group visits AIDS patients in their homes.
He says. "It happened one time when we wanted to see the clients. They ended up by saying, if you have brought in some food then you are welcome. If not, then you go back."
UN estimates say that at least 70-thousand people die each year in Malawi from HIV/ AIDS. Mr. Kamyamba says the high death rate among adults has led to thousands of AIDS orphans. To help feed and care for several hundred of them of them, SASO operates – what it calls – the Children’s Corner.
"On the Children’s’ Corner, we gather the children every Saturday here at SASO where we teach them about awareness of HIV/AIDS education," he says. "We teach them the spiritual counseling. We also teach them good manners, good habits. We do some sports. That is, exercises. We feed them by providing them with some nutritious food during lunchtime. That is mzima (maize porridge) with beans, mzima with chicken and with beef, as well. This is what normally happens on Saturdays to the children."
But SASO only has enough funds to feed the children one day a week.
Mr. Kamyamba says SASO wants to expand its services to include a hospice for the terminally ill.
He says the organization also needs more trained volunteers. It currently has about one thousand. Another need is better transportation. Volunteers generally use bicycles to get around.
Anti-retroviral drugs are not available. Most of the medication that’s distributed is for opportunistic infections, such as skin rashes and diarrhea.
SASO was founded in 1994 by Catherine Phiri, winner of the 2000 United Nations Poverty Award. The organization provides services to nearly 400 villages.
A 1999 study conducted by the Malawi government and the World Bank highlights the link between poverty and AIDS. It warns that AIDS is the most critical challenge to the country’s development. It says health and education will be among the hardest hit sectors of society.
The National AIDS Control Program has predicted that at least two million people in Malawi will be HIV-positive by the year 2010. As a result of HIV/AIDS, life expectancy in Malawi has dropped to about 40 years. Health officials say the result is a decline in the labor force and productivity, accompanied by a rise health costs.