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Last Updated: Friday, 7 October 2005, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Hunger grips in Malawi maize crisis
By Karen Allen
BBC East Africa correspondent, Malawi

The main government maize market in Mulanje is packed.

It is seven o clock in the morning and many Malawians we stumble across have been queueing for days. Queueing on empty stomachs and with bare feet.

Malawians queue for food
Tired and hungry Malawians often have to queue for days to get food

Mothers whose breast milk has dried up due to lack of food, jostle for space, their babies strapped to their backs in the traditional African way.

Occasionally a scuffle breaks out as some hungry person, accused of pushing in, is plucked from the queue by police officers.

These are Malawi's poorest people - unable to buy maize on the open market where prices have doubled in recent months. Stocks in the main government markets are diminishing fast, so they're starting to impose rations.

Emerging food crisis

The worse harvest in a decade and failed rains are being blamed for what aid agencies warn is a rapidly emerging food crisis.

What is making matters worse is HIV/Aids. One in seven people in Malawi is affected and it is fuelling the problem of extreme hunger.

Money that households would normally spend on buying seed and fertiliser, is being spent on transporting the sick to hospital and buying basic medicine instead.

Malawians, particularly in the parched south of the country, are well used to hardship, but their ability to cope is being severely eroded.

Hunger and heartbreak

Sixty thousand tonnes of maize is being brought in by the Malawian government. The aim is to distribute it in the coming months.

But it is only a stop-gap measure for the most vulnerable, and Malawi's ministers are reluctantly having to turn to the richer world for help.

A maize packer gathers small supplies of grain
Replenishing maize stocks is a huge challenge for the country

The real challenge facing Malawi is how to replenish home-grown stocks.

Aid agencies are trying to distribute seed and fertiliser ahead of the planting season, which is approaching rapidly, but contributions to the UN's emergency relief fund have been miserably low.

Only $27m (15m) out of the $88m (50m) appealed for has been committed by the international community so far.

The frightening reality is that if no seeds are planted now, the squeeze on food supplies now could rapidly escalate into a major humanitarian crisis.

And hunger is already causing heartbreak. Admissions to specialist therapeutic feeding units, which nurse malnourished children back to health, are up a third on last year - and desperate people are being forced to take desperate measures.

In a small village in Mulanje district we come across Berita Chimtengo. She is a mother mourning her son. Two weeks before we arrived, her son Benito went out foraging for food. He brought home wild yams for the family to eat.

Berita Chimtengo and her mother
Berita is terrified every time her children go out in search of food

What Benito didn't realise were that they were poisonous. The young man fell unconscious and very quickly died and 11 other members of his family, the majority of them young children, were violently sick.

Berita told me that she now was terrified every time her children went out hunting for food, but what can you do she told me, when you simply don't have anything to eat.

In other surrounding villages there are families with similar stories to tell. And aid agencies fear that without massively increased help in the coming weeks, the tragedies these families have faced could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Children suffering from malnutrition at a hospital in Malawi

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27 Aug 05 |  Africa

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