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Last Updated: Friday, 21 March, 2003, 17:30 GMT
Diary of an aid worker

By Anita Payne

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.

5 April 2003

The children are sitting under a tree with their teacher, the blackboard in front of them. The downpour has just finished and they've started work again.

Outdoor classrooms common across Africa

Millions of children learn under trees in Africa. There are just not enough classrooms.

I remember my primary school days. I sat at my desk, longing to be playing outside. Now, I realise how fortunate I was. A desk all of my own, plenty of books and equipment, and us children sitting snugly inside listening to the rain clattering on the roof and splashing in the playground outside.

The children wave to us as we drive past. The teacher smiles patiently and turns again to the blackboard.


The scene changes, we're back in Mbewe and Andrew and the team are counting latrines. Yes, life is full of interesting tasks!

When we first started working in Mbewe last year we sat down and listened to the village men and women talking about their situation.

"We have so little food this year because the floods came and swept away our crops."

"Why was that?" we ask.

"We've cut down the trees on the riverbanks, so we could plant more maize, to have enough to eat. Now when the heavy rains come, there is nothing to stop the water breaking down the banks and flooding our fields."

Then cholera hit the villages.

So we discussed with the villagers what we could do together. And today I'm surveying the progress.

The riverbanks are sprouting. Some 22,500 tree seedlings are waving in the wind. They're only a metre high, but they're growing fast.

What about the latrines? Well, latrines often feature in the work of development workers and I've have spent many a field visit inspecting them in schools and villages.

Perhaps I ought to put it on my CV!

Last June only 40% of these villagers had latrines. 'What is the point?' they asked back then.

Now the tally is over 90%.

Has it made any difference to the cholera figures? We go to the health centre and find that there were 60 cases of cholera last rainy season (Jan - May 2002).

"How many cases have you had this year?" we ask.

'None, so far!' is the encouraging reply.

We stand surveying the areas of withered maize. No, it hasn't all been good news.

Drought hit in January, just after villagers planted their maize for the second time. The young shoots didn't stand a chance.

Only some villages have enough to start their village grain banks, a project that helps communities work together to prevent future food shortages.

Other villages will continue to need the relief food for some time to come.

We know there are only two more monthly distributions planned. Life will be tough.

23 March 2003

The lorry lumbers to a halt amid the waiting crowds and the Nchalo village relief committee in southern Malawi starts unloading the sacks.

They're skilled at loading the sacks 10 high in neat piles so we can count them easily.

All recipients sign for their food

I can hardly see over the top of these huge piles of sacks. Now we're also supplying beans, corn soya mix (for children and nursing mothers) and oil - trying to ensure a reasonably balanced diet.

The oil is in a box of four bottles each containing 5 litres.

The villagers are lining up in groups of ten, each pressing their thumb into the ink pad and 'signing' against their name in the relief register.

They each receive a sack of grain but the beans, corn-soya mix and oil have to be shared amongst the group.

Maths puzzle

I watch the group of 10 men and women trying to work out how to share four bottles of oil, each containing five litres, so that each one of them gets an equal share. It takes me back to complicated sums at school of so many men digging so many holes.

We discuss our basic arithmetic; four bottles of 5 litres each = 20 litres. Twenty litres divided by 10 people = two litres each!!

When we have all understood this (or think we have), then we have to work out what two litres looks like in the assortment of empty plastic bottles they have brought with them.

It takes a lot of discussion and pouring back and forth!

Hot work

I've decided to follow the local fashion and use my umbrella to shade me from the sun.

Many Malawians remain reliant on food aid

Even so, my head is humming with the heat. The distribution team, young men and women from the local churches, have no umbrellas.

They just stick at it, hour after hour, checking the names against the register, checking the deliveries, checking the right number of sacks are taken, sorting out the problems.

It's amazing that this huge nationwide distribution - to 3.4 million people (1/3 of the population) - is being staffed on the ground by young people like Gloria and Cuthbert from the churches and NGOs - the Government and UN are responsible for the major logistics.

I dig into my cool bag and find some bottles of tepid water and some scones and pass them around.

They hardly pause, just take a quick swig and a small bite and carry on.

The line of anxious recipients hardly seems to have diminished at all.

"'We can't stop," says Cuthbert.

"They've come a long way. We've got to feed them all before sundown."

19 March 2003

I think I must be back in biblical times. I've just passed a small boy, in a shapeless brown garment, on the roadside, with his small herd of goats.

He was casting a stone beyond the straying goats to bring them back within closer range.

He was all of six years of age. No schooling for him or the many other young boys herding goats and cattle throughout Malawi.

I'm driving south again to see how the relief work is progressing in Chikwawa, Southern Malawi.

We pass over a battered but defiant bridge. The floods have devastated the river banks and almost washed away the road but the bridge stands untouched.

We rumble carefully over the centre part of the road giving the crumbling earth edge a wide berth.

Harvest looms

We pass lots of healthy maize - promise of a better harvest than last year.

However, here and there, are pockets of stunted yellow leaves, only inches high - and we're fast approaching what should have been harvest time.

Border road
The road runs along the border with Mozambique

Other patches of maize stand tall but are completely dried and withered.

My urban lifestyle in England is so removed from the agricultural cycle I find it hard to imagine the overwhelming distress by the farmers as they survey these withered stalks.

What must it be like - with a young family to care for - to have no other resources - and the next harvest is a year away?

I love this drive along the Malawi/Mozambique border. There are no fences or ditches, just Malawi on one side of the road and Mozambique on the other.

I was here 13 years ago when over one million Mozambicans simply crossed the road, fleeing the bombing, plundering, machetes and guns, to safety.

The left hand side of the road was crammed with mud houses, cheek by jowl, whilst the right hand side lay eerily empty with the occasional bombed and shattered building.

We pass, today, the same crumbling ruins on the Mozambican side, the faint ' Vote Chissano' fading in the sun.

The acacia trees are pushing up through fallen walls but not far away whole villages have reappeared, maize is waving in the fields and all is quiet. Yes, there is always hope.

25 February 2003

The windowless room is nine feet square and pitch black.

The ceiling fan has stopped, its hot and sticky and we can sense each other's presence rather than actually see each other.

Meeting (photo: Tearfund)
Workshops are leading to greater co-operation

Yes, I'm back in Africa.

I have returned to Malawi following a health check-up in the UK.

And it is good to be back.

The electricity has been coming and going since lunchtime but now it has finally given up trying and here we are, Charles, Wezi and I, trying to review the food relief programme we're operating in Malawi.

I'm listening to their latest news.

One of our partner agencies lost a key field officer just before they were due to start their January food distributions.

"What did you do?" I ask.

"We helped them cover the whole district, what else could we do?"

I realise that this meant more than a tenfold increase in their workload!

Samson, James and Andrew and our local church teams were only expecting to be in the villages for a few days in January.

They ended up sleeping out in the rural areas for more than three weeks, waiting for the trucks to get across the broken down bridges and through the flooded dirt roads.

Dingi, Lloyd and Limbi arrived back in the office, this morning, from the North.

They've been out of contact for two weeks (cell phones unreachable), waiting for the last trucks to arrive in Khosolo.

We've been anxious, praying that all was OK.

They look tired and exhausted, but quietly satisfied that every beneficiary finally got their bags of food.


They could all do with a couple of days' rest but we'll all be back on the road next week in Chikwawa, starting all over again for the March food distributions.

The black-out continues, the screen of my laptop providing a faint glow by which we look at the statistics and make our plans.

Will our vehicles survive this taxing schedule? Will our teams?

Machinjira comes in, stumbling in the dark, with a welcome tray of cups of hot tea. We shuffle our cups around.

The laptop battery gives out and we are in total darkness.

On my return I discovered that the land is transformed.

An oasis of green was the welcoming sight as our plane touched down last Sunday at Lilongwe airport.

Some maize is still small and stunted - farmers who can't afford fertiliser, but some fields are head high. Will it be enough?

Only time will tell, but at least it's more hopeful than last year.

Another hopeful sign is the workshop two days ago.

Several Malawian churches, from different denominations have put aside their differences.

We've begun planning joint development projects over the next few years, aiming to share our technical expertise and work together among our communities. Co-operation rather than competition.

Yes, there's definitely some good news since I got back.

I've just unpacked my photos of home and stuck them on the wall. There's one of the family, out walking on the mountains together, catching up on each other's news over the New Year.

Yes, I'm missing them and our new home among the mountains.

Only last week I stood on Todd Crag, my boots just edged with snow, my face glowing with the cold. Now, my blouse is sticking to my back, even though night has fallen.

The BBC World Service is keeping me company, but I reckon it's time for bed!

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