A Harvest of Hunger In Parched Malawi

Awine Bingolosi uses a hoe to prepare a non-irrigated field for planting. U.N. officials say 5 million of Malawi's 12 million people are hungry this year.
Awine Bingolosi uses a hoe to prepare a non-irrigated field for planting. U.N. officials say 5 million of Malawi's 12 million people are hungry this year. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 13, 2005

NCHALA, Malawi -- Bending at the waist, Awine Bingolosi scratched the dry earth with quick strokes of her hoe, chopping away weeds and arranging the soil into long ridges. One day soon, the weathered, wiry grandmother planned to plant corn seeds in neat rows, just as her parents used to do.

And after a long day in the field, Bingolosi said, she would pray as she often does: "Oh God, forgive us our sins. Please give us rain this time. We are suffering."

This is agriculture, Malawi-style -- tiny in scale, carried out without benefit of machines or animals and utterly dependent on the unpredictable weather. It is why a country blessed with fertile soil, nearly constant sunshine and abundant water has become one of the most consistent recipients of international food aid, even as some of its neighbors have become at least occasional exporters.

An estimated 5 million of Malawi's 12 million people are hungry this year, according to the United Nations. Hospitals also report higher rates of malnutrition and, with the harvest still five months away, unusually large numbers of hungry children are beginning to sicken and die in rural areas.

Malawian agriculture once appeared to have a brighter future. A state-run farm agency, although widely criticized as overbearing, sold reliable supplies of seeds and fertilizer and guaranteed prices for whatever was grown. And for a time, the government actively sought ways to build irrigation networks drawing on the mighty Shire River that flows through the dry, destitute valley south of Blantyre, Malawi's commercial center.

But in the past 20 years, under pressure from the World Bank and donor nations, Malawi has liberalized its agricultural economy and dismantled the state-run agricultural system. The government's clumsy implementation of this change has led to complaints from farmers such as Bingolosi about the market's failure to deliver a more efficient and bountiful harvest. The government has also sold off state food reserves at times, leaving nothing for emergencies.

Meanwhile, various water schemes have remained on the drawing board. Today less than 1 percent of this southern African nation, roughly the size of Pennsylvania, is irrigated, and that land mainly belongs to commercial farms that grow tea, sugar and tobacco for export.

Bingolosi sees little hope for change from a government embroiled in a bitter power struggle. Opposition lawmakers have tried to impeach President Bingu wa Mutharika for alleged corruption and misuse of funds, and his leading parliamentary critic was arrested on Nov. 2.

"The government of nowadays, they are busy only with politics," said Bingolosi, who appears to be in her fifties. "They can't think of bringing irrigation."

Like many Malawians, she also expressed the belief that things had only grown worse since the late dictator H. Kamuzu Banda was voted out of office in 1994 after three decades of often oppressive rule. "He used to keep enough food for the people of Malawi," Bingolosi said. "We never had a crisis like this one."

According to aid workers, researchers and government officials, Malawi's failure to advance from its status as one of the world's poorest, sickest and least developed nations stems from the tiny plots that produce roughly the same amount of corn per acre as they did in 1964, when the country won its independence.

While the population has more than tripled, 85 percent of Malawians remain subsistence farmers, struggling to survive with primitive means and extremely vulnerable to devastating food shortages in years when the rains come too early, too late or barely at all.

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