Drought Magnifies Hunger, Suffering of Children in Malawi

Anna Bande, a nurse, jots down a baby's weight as it is read out by Goodson Fobrica, a community volunteer. Bande said rarely has she seen so many hungry children.
Anna Bande, a nurse, jots down a baby's weight as it is read out by Goodson Fobrica, a community volunteer. Bande said rarely has she seen so many hungry children. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 4, 2005

MBADZO, Malawi -- One by one, the women of this hungry village untied their babies from their backs and hung them on a scale dangling from the limb of a mango tree. As a volunteer called out the weights, Anna Bande, a nurse, grimly plotted the toll of southern Africa's latest drought on Malawi's young.

"It is affecting every child," Bande, 53, said wearily as she drew lines on grubby paper growth charts last Thursday. Instead of the smooth upward arc of healthy, growing children, the babies of Mbadzo had lines that zigzagged slowly higher before spiking down in the past month, as the last of the food from a disastrous harvest disappeared.

A drought across six southern African countries has left 12 million people hungry this year, according to the United Nations. None has reached the acute hunger crisis faced by Niger, in West Africa, during the summer. But Malawi has long been ravaged by malnutrition, AIDS and desperate poverty, and many children are now suffering from all three afflictions.

Bande said she had raised 18 children -- nine of her own and nine orphans. As the head of child and maternal health at Trinity Hospital, she has known thousands of others. Yet rarely, she said, has she seen so many hungry children. With five months until the harvest, admission for severe malnutrition already is running one-third higher than a year ago. A child is dying nearly every week.

"This year, each and every house, there's no food," said Bande, who wore a plain blue uniform and an orange cloth head scarf.

About 12 million people live in this landlocked sliver of a country wedged between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique in southeastern Africa. There is little economic activity, especially here in the sun-baked Shire Valley, other than dirt farming on tiny plots to raise corn, or working on a neighbor's farm for about 40 cents a day.

When the rain comes, there is enough food, but only barely in a country where nearly half of all children suffer from stunted growth.

When the rain doesn't come, the bottom drops from beneath this fragile society. Meager food stocks disappear. Casual farm jobs vanish, making it harder to buy food as prices soar because of scarcity. The most desperate start scavenging for wild roots or leaves.

The last harvest, in April and May, produced one-third or less of the corn grown in a good year, farmers here say. Many fields yielded nothing at all.

Among the hungry, diseases such as malaria and AIDS race ahead with scant resistance from weakened immune systems. Malnourished children get sick, and some die.

The U.N. World Food Program is already feeding 1.3 million Malawians and has plans to reach 2.9 million in a few months, though donations are running far short of the projected need as food shortages deepen.

In Mbadzo, a village in south-central Malawi where modest homes built of handmade bricks dot terraced, brown hillsides, the supply of food from any source has slowed to a trickle.

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