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Saturday, 18 December, 1999, 18:36 GMT
Malawi's hidden hunger

Malawi children Millions of people in Malawi are on the verge of starvation

By David Shukman in Malawi

As this millennium draws to a close, attention is generally focused on mankind's achievements in the last 1,000 years. Yet one fundamental and ancient threat remains unsolved - hunger.

The latest estimates from the World Health Organisation say 800 million people - one in seven people - are still not getting enough to eat. And one third of the world's children go to bed hungry.

Often this is because of wars or natural disasters. But for the most part, hunger is routine, a normal feature of life, even though the world grows enough food for all its people.

Malawi child One third of the world's children go to bed hungry
In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, I spent time with one such family who have never known the feeling of not being hungry.

We first met Modeste Chimane while she was at work in her field. She was clearing weeds from around her crop of maize and dust rose over her bare feet as she hacked at the dry soil.

It was only eight o'clock in the morning but the sun was ferocious and we found ourselves edging into the shade.

We had climbed a steep hillside to reach Modeste and the slopes seemed to be bursting with brilliant green vegetation. Above us towered the silvery cliffs of Mulanje Mountain.

At first sight, the landscape looked idyllic. But then we got talking to Modeste and a much darker, nightmarish truth about her existence emerged.

Amid this pretty scenery, she and millions are imprisoned on the frontier dividing survival from starvation.


Modeste, 37, has to provide, somehow, for a large, hungry and weakened family.

Aids has claimed the lives of her father and her brother-in-law - there are no menfolk around.

Alone, Modeste looks after her elderly mother, a young brother, and two sisters, one of whom is dying of Aids and will soon leave two orphan children.

Modeste will soon have to care for them as well. Her own daughter died of malnutrition when she was three years old.

Each day is a struggle. The whole family feels listless, feeble and demoralised. They have virtually no possessions. A baby taps an empty plastic cup on the ground. Otherwise the family hut is quiet.

There are no chickens, no livestock, there's no money. The children gaze at us, vacantly.

The day begins without breakfast. When I mentioned to Modeste that she might eat something before setting off to toil under the sun, she thought I was joking.

This is life on the edge - there are no stores, no snacks, and no hope. The field is the mainstay of the family. But the soil is poor and the maize it produces is not the chunky yellow sweetcorn that we know - it is pallid and dry. And Modeste can only harvest enough to last about three months.

One meal a day

In the midday heat she tries to rest and not to think about the pain of hunger. She dreams of plenty, she told me. Only in the late afternoon does she start to prepare the family's one meal of the day.

It's a kind of porridge, and there's enough for one bowl each. Today Modeste has picked a few pumpkin leaves which add a little flavour. And that's it. There's nothing else for another 24 hours.

If on one day she decides to cook two meals, then on the next day they'll all have to go without. No one seems to have the energy to complain.

When her own crops run out Modeste has to find work. That in itself isn't too hard because all around are vast tea plantations.

Poverty cycle

If she puts in a day's labour picking tea she's given a meal - just for her - and only enough pay - about $0.50 - to buy food for another adult and two children.

That's if the prices in the market don't get too high. So Modeste is caught in a trap, an endless cycle of poverty and hunger.

She can't grow enough food or buy enough; there's never a surplus or money to save. Her daughter's death is proof of that.

In fact in Malawi one in five children don't make it to the age of six. Nearly a third of the population is malnourished.

Early grave

You might expect so many people to be short of food if they're caught up in some conflict, if they're refugees or the victims of a terrible drought or flood.

And if there is a major disaster, the politicians or the media or the aid organisations generate a sense of emergency and things get done. Mercy flights are arranged, medical teams arrive, we see sacks of food being handed out.

But what's happening in Malawi is not grabbing anyone's attention because it's somehow normal.

It isn't quite a famine, or even mass starvation; instead the one meal a day is a widespread persistent reality that leaves millions debilitated, and then leads them to an early grave.


Some say the solution is for the richer countries to be more generous, to cancel the poor countries' debts, or offer them fairer trade.

Others say the key is the education of women - so they have fewer children and have a better chance of looking after them more effectively.

Another possibility is the application of more modern techniques in farming. Or a mixture of all of these options together.

Modeste Chimane doesn't really care, she says. She laid out her mat for the night. She told me she dreams of plenty, of not having to worry about getting enough to eat.

For years, in conferences and at summits there have been declarations that no one should have to go to bed hungry. But Modeste has yet to see the difference.

For her, tomorrow will bring another battle against hunger, and yet again someone in her family - maybe Modeste herself - may lose.

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See also:
18 Dec 99 |  UK
Campaigners hail UK debt deal
17 Dec 99 |  debt
The burden of debt
09 Oct 99 |  Africa
Malawi's president weds
18 Jun 99 |  Africa
Victory for Muluzi

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