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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 17:57 GMT
Spectre of starvation in Malawi
A woman struck by grief on hearing her baby has died
For some children help comes too late
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By Hilary Andersson
BBC Southern Africa correspondent
line

In Malawi's commercial capital Blantyre people are starving to death in hospital. By the time they get there, many are too far gone.

For one little boy, every breath is an effort. He's managing to stay alive, just. Disease is feeding on his hunger. And he is not alone.

Kingsley has been watching his family starve. They swell up as if they'd eaten too much, he told me, then they waste away

In the rural areas, it is worse. This calamity is happening in one of the poorest countries on earth. There are no doctors for miles.

A few people have managed to crawl to a shed for church handouts. Some were so weak they fainted on arrival.

One woman has been walking for three days to get here carrying her children on her back. They are both one-and-a-half years old, but weigh a fraction of what they should.

Baby affected by starvation
Some people have been eating wild leaves for months
Many have been surviving on nothing but wild leaves for months and they are on the brink of starvation. Some others have been eating pig food to survive, but even that has now gone. The strongest may survive this, the others won't.

Disaster

Malawi looks lush, but seven million people here face starvation - thanks to politics and floods.

People receiving help in a church hall
People walk or crawl for miles to reach help
Erratic weather has ruined the region's crops. The troubles in nearby Zimbabwe have made matters worse. There, the land crisis has destroyed food production and the demand is for food imports.

Now the whole of southern Africa is short of maize. Even food destined for Malawi often cannot get through, with vital transport routes being disrupted by Zimbabwe's crisis.

Wasting away

No-one has calculated the scale of what is happening here. But what we found in one village was frightening. Only a handful people live there. Three have died in the last week.

Kingsley took me to his grandson's grave. He's been watching his family starve. They swell up as if they'd eaten too much, he told me, then they waste away.

Baby's wrist compared to a adult thumb
The strongest may survive, others will not
Church groups say in this small area, death rates are running at a staggering 6%.

If that's true nationwide, thousands could have starved already.

Back at the hospital, a woman has just heard the unthinkable. Her baby is dead. The second to die here in an hour.

It is impossible to bear. And all the more so because this tragedy is partly man-made.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Rageh Omaar in Malawi
"The international community is beginning to respond but time is short"
See also:

27 Feb 02 | Africa
Malawi declares famine emergency
19 Feb 02 | Africa
Famine stalks Southern Africa
19 Nov 01 | Africa
Malawi donors suspend aid
25 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Malawi
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