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.
The contrast with some other southern African nations is vivid. Although the U.N. World Food Program has had to deliver aid to six drought-stricken nations in the region this year, most of that food is bought in South Africa, where mechanized and irrigated farms regularly produce surpluses of corn. Malawi's struggling neighbors, Mozambique and Zambia, have also exported corn in some recent years, but both will receive aid this year because of the drought.
Even in the impoverished Shire Valley, a South African company runs a lush, 30,000-acre sugar plantation that uses huge amounts of water from the Shire River every day for irrigation, with energy provided by hydroelectric dams. The plantation employs 7,000 workers and has enough extra water to support extensive landscaping and a small golf course.
But company officials said they had no interest in switching from sugar to corn, which after years of government price controls is seen as unprofitable in Malawi.
"To grow maize as a commercial crop, it's not viable," said Irene Phalula, a company spokeswoman. "We wouldn't make anything out of it."
Today, Malawi resembles the arid West African nation of Niger, which is suffering from a systemic food shortage of its own. Both countries are dependent on the most rudimentary forms of agriculture and cannot afford to import enough food to make up shortfalls. Both also have rapidly expanding populations and liberalizing economies that have failed to provide promised benefits.
Pauline E. Peters, a Harvard University anthropologist who studies Malawi, described the government's agricultural policy as ad hoc and politically driven.
"They basically destroyed the public systems . . . expecting the private market to leap into place, which of course it didn't," Peters said. The country had a heavily regulated agricultural system, and it was dismantled quickly. At the same time, the steps needed to create a successful market system, such as establishing sources of credit and merchant groups to provide seeds and fertilizer, were not taken.
Discontent with the handling of economic liberalization is widespread in Malawi. The government's secretary for agriculture, Randson Mwadiwa, said international donors and the World Bank had rushed Malawi into sharply scaling back the old system before it could build a new one. He said the state-run system had stabilized prices and distributed a steady supply of corn seeds and fertilizer deep into the countryside.
In recent years, Mwadiwa said, international donors have been generous in providing emergency aid during food shortages. But he said development aid for irrigation, or even fertilizer and seed, had been inadequate.
Several aid groups are investing in foot-pump irrigation systems to bring water to crops, but officials acknowledged that the scale of the project was nowhere near what is needed to end Malawi's chronic food shortages.
With the help of international donors, Malawi expects to spend 5.7 billion kwacha -- about $46 million -- on food aid this year. "Imagine if we had 10 billion kwacha set aside in one year for irrigation," he said, the equivalent of about $80 million. "Even over three years, we could do a lot."
Caught in the middle of these policy disputes are farmers such as Benford Bizeki. His last harvest, in April and May, produced 10 bags of corn, each containing 110 pounds, instead of the 50 or 60 bags he usually produces. Not only were the rains poorly timed, but he no longer had money for fertilizer.
"We would have had enough food if we had fertilizer," said Bizeki, a father of three who appears to be about 40. He was wearing a torn checkered shirt, grubby shorts and green sandals so old the soles were worn through.
Like many people in Malawi, Bizeki has become so poor he can barely set aside money throughout the year to buy fertilizer and seeds when he needs them, he said. He and his family are sometimes so hungry they eat seeds.
It wasn't always this way.
In the late 1990s, a Chinese aid group built an irrigation system that drew water from the nearby Nkhuza River into a series of concrete-lined canals. For four years, Bizeki said, this gave his fields enough water for a second growing season. He grew so much corn and rice he was able to sell the excess crops. The profit allowed him to pay for school fees and clothing, he said.
But over the years, the plastic pipes that carried the water to the fields broke and were not replaced. Now they are all gone, and the canals are mostly dry. Bizeki's neighbors use tin pans to carry the remaining water, a few cups at a time, to their thirsty crops.