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Malawi Food Crisis Among Worst in Southern Africa - 2002-05-28

The United Nations says this year's food crisis in southern Africa has affected Malawi worse than most other countries in the region.

Agricultural experts say total dependence on one crop - corn - has made the country more vulnerable to food shortages than it should be. The government is trying to find ways to improve food security by convincing people to diversify their diets.

Like much of southern Africa, the staple food in Malawi is a thick porridge made from cornmeal. It has different names in different countries. The Zimbabweans call it "sadza." South Africans call it "pap." In Malawi, it is called "nsima."

The difference is, most Malawians do not consider anything else to really be food. Rice and cassava might be good to eat, but they are considered "snacks," not a meal.

The result is that maize is grown almost everywhere, including in low-lying, often-flooded areas near Lake Malawi where rice is probably a more appropriate crop.

The permanent secretary of the Malawi agriculture ministry, Ellard Malindi, says corn is planted on nearly two-thirds of the country's farmland.

"There has been a psychological attachment to maize as a food," he said. "But we know that in some places, just over 30 years ago, they used to eat cassava, sorghum, millet, and so on, as part of their diet, their daily food intake. And so we are reviving that diversification of the diet itself to create the demand."

The government wants people to get used to the idea that they do not need to eat nsima every day. The goal is to keep people from starving to death if the maize harvest fails again, which it has now done three years in a row.

The near-total dependence on corn left Malawians particularly vulnerable to the food shortage that has hit the southern Africa region. The price of maize skyrocketed in Malawi, and people took drastic measures to find ways to afford it.

VOA interviewed scores of people who had sold their livestock and other household assets at cut-rate prices in order to buy maize flour. One man even sold the roof of his house for firewood. He was able to buy two days' worth of maize with the money.

But despite this year's hardship, Malawians do not seem very open to the idea of diversifying their diets or planting crops other than maize.

In the town of Nampuma, in central Malawi, an agricultural consultant named Rowland, who works for an Irish charity, tries without much success to convince a roomful of local chiefs to spread the word among their people.

"So what they are saying is, for them here, the cassava or sweet potato would be o.k., but their main food is maize," he said. "If they do not have maize, then they do not have food. That's what they are saying. So we still have a long way to go to change their eating habits, at least if they are to survive."

The message does, however, appear to be getting across to some people. In the tiny village of Matope, on the banks of the Shire River in southern Malawi, 17-year-old student Lawrence Patrick met an agricultural counselor who convinced him that total dependence on maize was unwise.

He, in turn, convinced his family to plant other crops last year. Mr. Patrick says they have not suffered nearly as much as their neighbors during the hungry season.

"For example, last year the rain has not dropped very well, he said. "And when the hunger has hit us, we have so many cassavas, potatoes. And with that food, we survived throughout the year."

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have pressured Malawi to show proof that it is diversifying its agriculture. But the government has learned the hard way that it must win the hearts and minds of the people when it comes to diversifying their crops and their diets.

Last year, the international community was slow to respond to the food shortage. Western officials tell VOA that part of the reason was that according to government figures, it looked like there was plenty of food in Malawi, despite the failure of the maize crop. The government was reporting a bumper crop of cassava.

But unfortunately, the cassava harvest figures were badly inflated. It appears that the agency responsible for convincing farmers to plant non-conventional crops was also responsible for evaluating how much of that food was being harvested.

The government and many Western donor nations have concluded that the best way to make Malawi food secure is to convince people there really is a good reason to change their ways.