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 Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Diary of an aid worker
Malawian with food aid
Some Malawians are now getting food aid (Photo: Tearfund)

Tearfund aid worker Anita Payne writes about her experiences in Malawi as she works with local churches assisting people in the grip of a major drought.

9 January 2003

Well here I am back in England, looking through my study window at three roe deer munching my garden plants, the winter sun shining on the fells of Cumbria.

It is a far cry from the heat and dust of Malawi! I had to return to the UK in December and am hoping that I'll be able to rejoin the team in Lilongwe, shortly.

It is never easy moving from one culture and situation to another, in just as matter of hours. I shared the flight home with the Malawi President Maluzi, not that we saw anything of each other as we were not in the same cabin!

However we watched the marching band, the crowds of government colleagues and singing women, there on the tarmac to see him off.

I'm keeping in touch with the situation in Malawi by email and internet - great assets for relief and development workers!

Yesterday I collected my Malawi photos from the local shop and I recapture again the heat, dust and urgency of the relief distributions.

I'm holding in my hand a photo of a young girl, no more than 14 years old, carrying heavy sacks of seeds, maize and beans on her head, for her family of brothers and sisters.

I look at her careworn face and guess that she is now mother and father to the family.

Malawian girl
It is likely this girl will have to look after her family

Another photo is of the women queuing anxiously for food, waiting to see if their names are on the list of beneficiaries. It reminds me of the day, watched by thousands, I sat registering names and surreptiously drinking bottled water and nibbling a biscuit, whilst they waited, empty-handed under the broiling sun.

I put the photos down and sit down to my computer and link up to the internet. How is it all going on over there?

I find the website. Well, the rains have come at last! But crops will be at least a month late in many places. But... and here's the big 'but'.

There it is, staring at me from the my laptop screen 'Floods make 15,000 families (approx 82,500 people) homeless in Malawi, crops washed away, homes destroyed, many sheltering in churches".

How much more agony can they face? But face it they will and face it they must.

Somehow they have to care for their families and carry on. I think of the many local churches we were working with.

They must be inundated with homeless people. I want to get back there as soon as possible, to stand side by side with them and help.

19 December

Here in central region, people are getting desperate. The rains are very late, so those who have seed are still waiting to plant.

I see people anxiously watching the clouds that build up most days, hoping that they will develop into heavy showers. Praying for rains is a serious business here.

It really is a matter of life or death. Working in Africa has taught me to know that some of the most wonderful words you can hear are "the rains have come!"

Famine crisis:

Back home in Ambleside, we think we get too much rain!

As I drive south I see the fields, newly dug and ridged... still empty and waiting. Four hours later, as I drive into Blantyre region in the south I can see that the rains have arrived here and more fields are sprouting early shoots of maize.

As I look at the tiny shoots I think of the recent government/UN food assessment report. It has not been an easy read.

There are so many shocking statistics within the covers of this report but the one that really hit me was that "70% of Malawians don't have, or cannot afford to buy seed for the next harvest".

I remember the women in Kampani village, whom we met in September. They were living on a handful of cherry like fruits (see diary for 29 September).

Well, it was good to know that they were among the 2,000 families (some 11,000 people) that we distributed seeds and food to last week.

During that distribution I had recognised the Kampani chief.

He had bicycled home to his village that day in September when we were sitting talking with the women. He was looking a much happier man last week, watching his people carry home on their heads the sacks of seeds, maize and beans.

But then I think about the other villagers, throughout the country who are still "hoping for something to turn up".

There are several major seed distribution schemes taking place now, but we know that they will not be sufficient to reach everyone who is without seed.

It is one of the tensions of relief work. We try and target the most vulnerable but there is often not enough even for them.

But at least those with seed have some hope for next year.

Late November, 2002

I am up early, but not as early as the hundreds of people already gathering under the shade of the trees at Tomali, waiting hopefully for us to bring them the seeds for planting, now that the early rains have arrived.

The chief has included extra names of his relatives

What a headache it has been trying to organise the delivery of 90 metric tonnes of maize, beans and seeds for Tomali.

Lloyd rings to say that the two trucks he is travelling with started yesterday but they were detained for three hours overnight at an army roadblock, because of lack of paperwork.

He arrives this morning, having had no sleep all night.

Andrew rings (thank goodness for mobile phones) to say that two other trucks, carrying maize have been involved in an accident and are now at police headquarters.

How long will it take us to get them released?

Another truck has still not been loaded so Charles remains to ensure that it is.

Our team is now down to two people: Dingi and myself.

We pray for guidance, then the two of us set off for Tomali to alert the people of the delay.


We swing into the clearing at Tomali village and I'm overwhelmed by the numbers.

We get out, just two of us, surrounded by 2,000 people sitting quietly waiting and four 10 ton trucks piled high, ready to unload.

Do we wait for the others or start without them?

It is now already late morning and the people have been here for hours.

We discuss the situation with the Paramount Chief and village chiefs and decide to make a start. We stand together with the Paramount Chief and local dignitaries and explain the situation to the patient crowd.

The sun shrivels us up and the dust devils swirl around us.

We confirm the amount of food and seeds each will be given and how the day will be organised.

We talk about the seed banks they will establish when they harvest these seeds; some seeds for themselves for the following year's planting and some for other villages who have not benefited this time.

I keep turning, at the sound of any vehicle, hoping against hope that it is the rest of our team, but no.

Dingi strides over to the waiting lorries and oversees the unloading, helped by the village committees. The hundreds of sacks begin to rise in orderly piles.

I turn towards the waiting nine villages and start registering the beneficiaries from the list compiled by the chief of the first village.

Mrs Singu, a local government officer, sits beside me.

We smile more confidently than we feel.

I pick up the pen and she calls out the first name. We start the mammoth task.


When the last name from this village has been read out, I look into the eyes of several elderly women.

They stand silently on the edge of the village group. Their names have not been read out, yet they are among the most vulnerable in their village.

I ask the chief why they are not on the list. He looks away.

He says that they were on the list but "got left off". I do not accept this as Andrew checked each name with the chief three days ago.

He must sort out the issue. These women are in greater need than others and we only have a limited number of bags.

The Paramount Chief comes over and discovers that the chief has included extra names of his relatives.

He is not pleased. The village discuss the issue. The relatives' names are replaced by those of the old women.

Village number two. We start again, call the names, give out the ration cards... There is dust in my hair and eyes.

Mrs Singu and I share the water bottles, trying to stave off further dehydration. I find a biscuit or two and feel guilty as we share them.

The eyes of countless children watch us. Finally, the others arrive!

It is totally dark now, the first nine villages have gone home but 20 volunteers remain to reload the remaining stocks into the store for the last six villages, due tomorrow.

I can't see a thing. How can they work in such conditions?

But at least there is the whisper of a cool breeze on my face. I arrive back at the guest house at 9.15pm, shower and fall into bed exhausted, unheeding of the tapping on the door to say that my dinner is on the table.

14 November 2002

My busy weekend begins with a police roadblock just outside Malawi's capital city Lilongwe.

I am on my way to spend the weekend with women leaders of a local church in Blantyre when I am flagged down.

I'm tired and hungry and want to sleep. I find a hotel that is more expensive than I really want and fall into bed.

"Would I give a lift to two policemen," inquires the armed soldier?

What if I say no, I wonder? I agree reluctantly and ask them to sit in the back.

I don't feel comfortable - they are not in uniform and I have no assurance of their identity. And at the Dedza roadblock they decide I have room for another passenger!

So now there are three 'policemen' in my four-wheel drive vehicle.

When I am stopped at the fourth roadblock and a soldier asks me to give him the vehicle I decide to take it as a joke and reply that unfortunately it is not mine to give. At last, I am free of all my passengers and I arrive safely at the shantytown on the edge of Blantyre.


I can tell from their well worn work clothes that most of the women have come from poor towns and villages.

It is dark now and I stumble across the rough ground with my small torch, trying to avoid the open sewers and other pitfalls. The church is half built and has no electricity.

We greet each other by candlelight and I find that the benches we are sitting on are temporary seats made out of bricks laid end to end.

I fall into bed at the end of the day and find that I am sharing it with another guest! I'm too tired to be bothered about this so we wish each other a good night's sleep.

The next morning we start early at 0600 and first have to rearrange our brick seats as they were cleared last night to enable the women to sleep on the floor.

A temporary kitchen of plastic sheets and sticks has been erected on the waste ground outside the church and the cooking pot simmers in the crisp morning air.

Later in the afternoon, we look at the main issues affecting the women in the local communities that the church serves. We discover that:

  • Three-quarters of these women leaders are illiterate.
  • Two-thirds are caring for sick relatives or neighbours.
  • Most of the women are caring for orphans as HIV/Aids has had a devastating impact on many communities.
We draw problem trees - the branches being the problems they face (for the poverty tree the branches are the lack of basic necessities such as food, employment and health).

We identify some of the causes (roots of the tree) and see that many problems are related to the low position that Malawian women have in their homes and communities.

We then draw a second action tree and the women are soon in animated discussion, identifying what action they can take to address these problems.

The branches of this second tree are the hoped for outcomes - their modest dreams of a life without the constant daily struggle familiar to them all.

Bad trip

Later in the day we discuss the implications with the pastor and his leadership team as the first heavy thunderstorm crashes around us and the lights go out. At last, the beginning of the longed for early rains!

On Sunday morning, I fall into one of the open drains (sewers) outside the pastor's house and cut my foot. Out comes my first aid kit, antiseptic wipes and dressing - I'm afraid that I'll end up with an infected foot if I'm not careful.

Come Sunday evening the workshop has ended and I arrive at the guesthouse in Blantyre to find that they have cancelled my booking.

"There's no room" they insist. It's getting dark, I don't know the area, I'm tired and hungry and want to sleep. I find a hotel that is more expensive than I really want and fall into bed.

Monday morning and we are off, spiralling down the tarmac road into the heat baked Shire Valley, preparing for a large seed and food distribution in Chikwawa. What I would give for a day off, a good book and the chance to put my feet up!

11 November 2002

I am standing in Sarah's field, looking at her cassava and all the land she has hoed, ready for the rains. What is unusual is that Sarah Kyanso is 84 years old and she has farmed all this land on her own.

Colleagues and I had arrived at Ekwendeni in the north of Malawi just a few days ago and we have been out seeing the situation for ourselves.

My son fell sick and died. There was nowhere for the children to go, so I took them in

Sarah, 84
We drive through the bush to Sarah's village, not far from Ekwendeni.

She greets us at the door of her two-roomed home, which is about 5m by 3m and beckons us inside.

We stoop to enter, take off our shoes and sit on the plaited mat on the earth floor.

The room is bare of furniture. We share the room with a hen and some cooking pots, nothing else.

Sarah tells us her story. "I didn't know what I was going to do last year. My son fell sick and died. There was nowhere for the children to go, so I took them in".

The eldest is 15 and the youngest only 6 years old.

She indicates the girl, standing shyly in the doorway.

"She helps me as much as she can, but I'm trying to keep them in school. I do have some land but I didn't have money for seeds (hybrid maize is the staple crop here). The church saved my family," she says quietly.

"They gave me a sack of seed last year."

Special feast

Sarah is one of the recipients of the church's programme of seeds for the most vulnerable households.

Many would have thought that Sarah was too old to benefit from such a scheme, but they would have been wrong.

We find that she managed to hoe all the land herself, though it took a long time.

We ask her how much maize she harvested. "Enough to keep us going through the drought months," she tells me.

"Please come and eat," she says.

It's her way of saying "thank you" to the church. She would not take "no" for an answer so despite her poverty of circumstances, she fed us a special feast of chicken and rice on enamel plates and complained when we ate "so little!"

I stand beside Sarah, in her field, surveying the freshly turned earth, ready for the rains that she is hoping will arrive shortly.

She tells me that she gets up at 5am each day to get it all done.

I try and imagine what it must be like to be 84 years old, on my own, with five energetic children to feed and care for, wielding a hoe almost as tall as myself, hour after hour, day after day.

Sadly, I realise that Sarah is not unique. I think of the other grandparents I've met, sharing the same task, many as a result of HIV/Aids.

We walk together back to our vehicle.

I'm a grandmother too, but our lives are so different. Here am I, thousands of miles from my grandchildren. I will tell them about Sarah when I get back.

15 October 2002

Judith and Mercy, two young women with their babies on their backs, are gathering young children together on cane mats under the shade of a large tree. A few yards away is a soot blackened clay pot, with porridge gently simmering.

One hundred yards further away is a pile of newly formed bricks, waiting to be stacked and fired, ready for building.

Malawian orphan with flour sack (photo: Tearfund)
Malawi is badly affected by the Southern Africa drought
So what am I witnessing? This is a community caring for its orphans - members of a poor village, called Chitumayo, in Malawi, caring for its young members who have been orphaned by HIV/Aids.

Judith and Mercy are volunteers who take it in turn to care for 28 children (all less than five years old) each morning, while the families caring for the orphans are doing other work.

Other children join the orphans so there is no stigma. They're following the nursery school curriculum, learning their local language, some basic counting, music and singing.

The likuni phala (corn/soya food) has cooled now and the women spoon out the porridge into the plastic bowls. The children spoon feed themselves and gaze at us. A little boy cries at his first sight of a white face.

Judith and Mercy get up as early as 0400 to work in their fields and collect water, before gathering the children.

Self help

The local community supports its orphans in various ways. One elderly man, wearing a white overall as a sign of importance, takes us to look at the pile of bricks nearby.

They hope to fire the bricks and build the community shelter for the children before the rains come. How will they fit this in around their field and house work? With difficulty, is the answer.

I can see that this is a community-church partnership, each providing what they are best able to contribute for these vulnerable little orphans.

Pastor Jere is a gentle man who has worked with children for 20 years now.

"We provide the training for the 'teachers' and support the village committees who organise the community orphan care," he replies.

"We'll also provide the tin roof (not available locally) when the community has built the brick community shelter."

We climb back into our vehicle, heading off to visit several other nearby villages that are caring for their orphans. As I take the wheel and we bounce over the dusty rutted road, I ponder on these partnerships that are taking place across Malawi.

These schemes may be small and simple but they are enabling orphans to grow up and to receive an education within their own communities. It strikes me that self-help is alive and well here, despite the pictures of dependency we may see on our screens and in our newspapers.

10 October 2002

We are driving north, among Malawi's Tubuka speaking Ngoni people.

Tearfund's church partners have been assessing the food insecurity in the area.

There is not enough for all who are without food. What will happen to them?

Beside the stream some fortunate farmers have a 'winter' crop of beans but the vast majority have land far from water.

We meet the Traditional Authority (big chief), Mr Jere, coming home from a funeral. He has responsibility for hundreds of neighbouring villages.

Last year 50 people died of hunger in the immediate area.

The funeral this afternoon was for a small child who has not made it through the early months of this hunger period.

He fears it will be worse this year.

"It would be better that I died, rather than my people die," he says.


The local church is planning to respond with distribution of seeds and fertiliser before the rains, and also a monthly maize distribution to the most needy, hopefully until the next harvest in April 2003.

The community will discuss and identify those people who are most in need.

Will it be the elderly, female and child-headed households, and the disabled? Probably, yes. But what about the others?

There is not enough for all who are without food. What will happen to them?

They are trying to find work, eating less each month, scavenging for wild foods and hoping that the poorest who will receive some maize will share it with them.

There are no easy answers in relief work.

6 October 2002

As part of training in relief work for our church partners we visit a food distribution at a school in Malawi.

We can see our destination from a considerable distance. At least 1,000 adults and children stand in long straggling lines, or sit in groups, waiting patiently under the hot sun.

Food is only available for the most vulnerable, elderly and disabled people, female and orphan headed families.

Their registration cards are checked. If they qualify for food aid they line up, village by village, while other village groups sit quietly further back, waiting their turn. Many of the people are women.

The men have sent them to collect the food. We wonder whether the women will be allowed to keep the whole bag when they get home?

We greet an, apparently insignificant, elderly man sporting a top hat, crumpled suit and tie. He is carrying a short stick. We realise that this is a big chief who wields significant power in these communities and has come to ensure all is orderly.


We speak to an old, stooped women in the queue.

Nyamata clutches her distribution card in her thin hand. "How far have you come," we ask? She's walked seven kilometres to get here, starting early in the morning.

Can she carry her bag of maize home? "No", she says, but indicates a tall, younger man behind her in the queue.

"He will help me carry it home," she says.

We also talk with Elizabeth, a younger woman.

She says many of the elderly widows and orphans are being left out. There is only sufficient food for about 20 families out of 400 people in her village. "We try and share a little of what we have," she says.

We gather a group of children together and ask them how often they are eating. One young lad replies that his family has just one meal a day. Why do we want to know these things, they ask? We explain that many different churches have started or are about to start food distribution.

29 September 2002

We are sitting under a tree outside the chief's house in a village in Chikwawa district in the south of the country.

The women get out a bench for us and unroll mats for themselves to sit on.

70-year-old Sinos Khatcha  (photo: Tearfund)
Sinos: "I do not have a plan to survive... I may not be here in two months time"
The chief arrives back on his bicycle to greet us. We apologise for not informing him in advance. Our arrival attracts growing numbers of men, women and children.

What have the 'muzungus' come for? We listen to them telling us how things are in their village.

They are already out of maize, their staple food. The women are just back from four hours working in the fields, their hands still earth stained from hoeing the land ready for the rains - if they come.

We lift up one of the hoes. What a weight. What are they doing for food if they have run out of maize? One of the women opens her hand.

She is holding a handful of wizened fruits, about the size and colour of a cherry. They get up early and pick the fruits and then go out to work.

What do they hope to plant when the rains come?

They tell us they have no seeds or fertiliser to plant, but still they prepare the land, hoping something will turn up.

The children listen silently, some already showing signs of malnutrition.

A baby toddles towards the group, the women stretch out their hands and lift her up, passing her to her mother.

28 September 2002

The sun is just rising above the dark outlines of the Cumbrian fells as I set off early from our home in Ambleside in the far north of England for the long journey to Malawi.

Only the sheep seemed awake as we drive down the empty country lanes towards Kendal station, on course for Heathrow and finally Lilongwe, capital of Malawi.

It has been 4 years since I'd last lived and worked in Malawi.

Now with the deepening food crisis I have been invited as a Tearfund adviser, to work with some of the local churches, assisting them as they help their local communities in this growing emergency.

I say goodbye to my husband, John. It won't be easy without him, but I'm looking forward to him visiting fairly soon.

The bougainvillea is brilliant in the warm African sun as our plane lands at Lilongwe.

In the arrivals lounge a bouquet of orange roses is thrust into my hands by the young daughter of Francis, General Secretary of the Evangelical Association of Malawi.

I will be working with Francis, his team and their partner churches .

We drive out of the airport. I wonder what lies ahead of us in the next few months.

Key stories

Horn of Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

Ways to help



See also:

07 Jun 02 | Africa
30 May 02 | Africa
06 Jun 02 | Africa
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