In Malawi, over three million people are at risk of hunger after two consecutive years of poor harvests of maize – the principal food crop. In response, the government is importing over 250 thousand tons of maize – which is being distributed by nearly two dozen non-governmental organizations.
The men and women line up quietly and in a single file under the gum trees and orange mimosa blossoms at the Nagwengwere Area distribution point. At the end of the line, officials of the humanitarian aid group World Vision check the identity cards of those who have come to claim a single 50-kilogram bag of American yellow maize.
In the past few days, about 520 households in neighboring Thyolo district have benefited from the distribution. Today, the last 100 or so have arrived for their share. The younger people hoist the bulging sacks on their heads and head off down the dusty path of red clay -- while older people receive help taking away the life-saving grains. Each bag is expected to last about a month.
World Vision has been appointed to distribute maize, beans and a mixture of protein rich blend of soy and corn flour called likuni phala — all of which was obtained by the World Food Program. World Vision’s role is to distribute the food in four districts of southern Malawi: Thyolo, Nsanje, Chikwawa, and Mwanza. So far, more than 59-thousand households have benefited from the distribution – nearly half of them in Thyolo district.
World Vision is mandated to provide food to a minimum of 15 percent of the poorest in each village – and perhaps more, if there is enough food in the pipeline. Village committees determine who among them are most at peril and most in need. Standing among a group of women chatting is Eliza Kaipa. She spoke about the food situation in her village of Tomasi:
Q: How bad are the food shortages? A: The problem is serious now and (I am) thankful to World Vision that it has come with the maize. Q: Do things look better in up-coming wet season? A: Yes, provided you help us. Otherwise we are so thankful World Vision has provided us with some food. We have orphans and we don’t have anything to give them. Q: What type food do you grow ? A: Some crops like cassava, but we are parents, and so old...we try but things are not good. Q: Do you blame the food shortages on drought or on the government? A: Not the government, but the drought. We have several children and once it’s finished we will go back to hunger. Q: How many children in your family? A: I have six children who are orphans, their parents died...I’m the grandma looking after them.
The lines are also peaceful a few kilometers away at Thava Court distribution center – which covers nearly 850 households. The families here have already received their one bag of maize. Today, each village has appointed one representative to collect one 50-kilogram bag each of American pinto beans and another of lukuni phala donated by Germany. Other village members have come as well to take their share.
World Vision district commodity officer Mcpherson Njawala explains
He says, "What will happen is these people were chosen through village criteria. These are believed to be the most vulnerable people in the village. They come on their own but if they are (too) told they can send their grand children to collect their portions. But no one but the person himself or the person he appointed can come in his place. The (50-kilomgram) bags are divided by 10. The women here are good at dividing by 10....each gets an equal share. Ten families from the same village all divided the bags of lukuni phala or maize. Each village will get its share according to its population."
At the back of the distribution center village women with tattered plastic bags gather around the open sacks of pinto beans and lukuni phala. In each circle of women, attention is focused on the one with power – the woman who wields the plastic bowl that dips into the sacks of food - and carefully pours the food through the mouth of each outstretched plastic bag.
A few yards away, one woman – bent and old looking – puts a few of the raw brown beans in her mouth and swishes them around – perhaps testing their flavor. Fyness Sailesi of Mangwalala Village is 55 years old with four children.
Q: Are you hungry today? A: I haven’t taken anything and I’m very hungry. Q: When was last time you ate? A: Two days ago. Q: What did you eat? A: Cooked bananas, that was all. Q: Do you live with family and grow any food at all? A: No we have little land and we depend on a few areas for farming. Q: Have you been able to grow any food or winter crops? A: Yes, we did, we grew only cassava. Q: What happened to your crops? A: Due to drought we only managed to get four bags of maize and a bit of cassava. Q: Do you have anyone in your family who can work ? A: No, nobody who is working. My husband is always sick and has no energy to cultivate and every thing with the house is up to me but I have four children. 14, 12 and 9 and 6. Q: Do you think things will be better with the rains next year? A: Yes, we hope things will change for the better.
Mrs. Sailesi says she’s never tasted American pinto beans before -- nor has she eaten yellow maize. Malawians usually eat white maize – which they say is sweet, and tastes like egg. She’s just one of 28-thousand people in southern Malawi who will be eating the donated foods for the first time.
The recipients of the aid have turned a deaf ear to the arguments that have surrounded the food distribution – from the types of foods imported to whether or not they have been genetically modified by American scientists. For the hungry, food means survival – while debate and politics are for those with full stomachs.