Southern Africa on verge of famine

Drought, floods, officials' mismanagement have left 12 million with little to eat

July 14, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GWENGWE, Malawi - To reach the house of Madyawako Lepu, you follow a worn dirt footpath through this mountain village, past barren crop rows, dilapidated mud huts and a banana tree stripped bare of its fruit.

In these times of hunger, it is difficult to tell if anyone is home. No goats graze in the yard. No cooking fires burn. No talking or laughter is heard. Lepu's family sits motionless on the stoop of her mud hut. With their ragged clothes and listless eyes, they look like castaways, adrift in an open sea of despair.

"The situation in my house is not good," offered Lepu, a withered mother with 12 people to feed.

On good days, she serves them one meal of chicken feed. On bad days, her children go without food.

Most days are bad.

"My children wash out the pot and put it in on the fire and expect me to cook something," she said. "I must tell them there's no food."

It's a refrain being heard in millions of households across southern Africa this year as the region faces mass starvation, the result of a deadly combination of drought, floods, grinding poverty and government mismanagement. The mounting food crisis threatens more than 12 million people living in a half-dozen countries.

"What is in the process of happening is actually the most serious humanitarian crisis that is taking place in the world today," said James Morris, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, speaking at a news conference in Johannesburg last week.

Here in this village of 2,000 people in the foothills of the jagged-peaked Dedza Mountains, 72 people have died of hunger-related illnesses, local health workers say. During the worst weeks of the crisis, so many villagers died that weary gravediggers started burying two bodies to a grave.

One of the villagers who lost his battle with hunger was Lepu's husband, a farmer and basket weaver. When the last grains of food ran out, he foraged for banana tree roots and grew ill. He died in February.

His death set off a chain reaction of tragedies for Lepu's family. Her husband dead, Lepu had no one to help out in the fields to attempt to plant another season's crop. Without a harvest, she had no dependable source of food for her children. Without food, she and her children grew weak and lost weight. Every few days, Lepu's breasts dry up, leaving her youngest daughter, 23-month-old Tiphetsa, without any milk.

So her family limps forward - bad day to good day - praying for better times. Sometimes she earns enough money selling firewood to buy a small bag of cornhusks, chaff of the corn milling process. It has no nutritional value and in any other year it would be used as chicken feed.

"It's not enough," she said.

Appeals for help

Yet for all of the hardships found in villages like Gwengwe, it could be worse. Southern Africa's food crisis is not yet considered famine. Visitors to Malawi will not see the skeletal figures that have come to define Africa's worst battles with starvation.

It's just such a disaster that aid organizations such as the World Food Program are scrambling to avoid in the six countries at risk: Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. The WFP has launched an appeal for $507 million to feed an estimated 12.8 million people facing starvation during the next nine months. It has received pledges of $135 million, including $98 million from the United States.

About 3.1 million of those at risk live in Malawi, a tiny country about the size of Pennsylvania located in the Great Rift Valley. Most residents here make their living by subsistence farming and are accustomed to lean periods between harvests, skipping meals, watering down the maize to stretch it further. But this year, the belt tightening is starting even as this year's meager maize crop is harvested from the fields.

This is the second straight year of poor crops. Flooding, a late start to the rainy season needed for planting and a long dry spell at the beginning of this year have all contributed to dangerously low yields of maize, the country's staple food used to make a thick porridge called nsima.

Meanwhile, food prices have soared, making it impossible for the majority of Malawians - who live on less than $1 a day - to afford the most basic foods.

In February, the Malawi government declared a national disaster as families ran out of food and started eating unknown and often poisonous wild roots, berries and leaves.

"In one village we saw people eating dirt. It's something to give the sensation that they have full stomachs," said Kerren Hedlund, WFP's emergency officer in Malawi.

Residents here say the stomach cannot be fooled for long. After several weeks without proper meals, people suffering from treatable diseases such as malaria and cholera died because they were too weak.

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