Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Malawi: Food questions

The usual picture the media paint of Africa is one of corruption, violence and hunger, a picture that plays well into the goal of aid groups to bump up revenue. After all, if there’s no crisis, there’s no money. And as humanitarian groups become fixers and access providers more and more frequently for cash-strapped foreign correspondents, who are under increasing pressure to feed the instant gratification demanded by the internet beast, that gloomy perspective creeps insidiously into what gets written. On the other hand, some African cheerleaders criticize foreign writing about the continent for missing the success stories of local democracy and sustainable economic development that don’t fit into the colonial framework. As Karen Rothmyer notes in her excellent Columbia Journalism Review article, “Hiding the Real Africa: Why NGOs prefer bad news,” what’s often lacking is a more contextual and nuanced reporting that sees Africa as a complex place, with successes and failures, and not just the site of the next story on famine.

A girl eats sorghum porridge as she sits in the dirt in Chidyamanga, a village in southern Malawi that has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the

I tried to keep this in mind as I headed to Malawi in late February to cover the issue of food security. A few years ago, this landlocked nation was a poster child for hunger. After the disastrous 2005 corn harvest, which left five million of the country’s 13 million people hungry, newly-elected President Bingu wa Mutharika launched a massive program to provide government-subsidized fertilizer and seed to the nation’s farmers. It was a rebuff to western governments which had for years been preaching that only free markets and government deregulation would solve chronic problems of hunger. Yet in a country where land is farmed intensively and the soil is widely depleted, Mutharika’s gamble on subsidies paid off handsomely: by 2007 Malawi had a surplus of corn and was selling grain to the World Food Program and exporting it to nearby Zimbabwe. Child hunger was down markedly. Some donor countries reluctantly supported the program, though the U.S. government largely continued to grumble about inappropriate Malawian government interference in the marketplace–although the U.S. government provides heavy subsidies for U.S. farmers.

Mutharika leveraged the success of the subsidy program into a pan-African leadership role. His most recent book, The African Dream: From poverty to posterity, speaks of the need for Africans to develop Africa. Yet his defense of troubled African leaders like Sudan’s Omar al Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, led some to question the quality of his leadership. And as chair of the African Union he remained quiet during recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. While the country faces a serious fuel shortage, which comes inconveniently on the heels of Mutharika’s recent purchase of a $20 million presidential jet, Mutharika has been cracking down on the protests of students upset about security services snooping on academic discussions. He’s also provoked a cutback on aid from European donors with his expanded legislation against homosexuality. Seeking to control even the most intimate of bodily functions, he is pushing legislation through the country’s parliament that bans farting in public. Specifically:

Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.

A small boy helps his parents farm tobacco in Dofu, an area in northern Malawi which has been hit hard by drought and hunger.  Tobacco is a cash crop for many families in the area, yet falling tobacco prices, coupled with food crops diminished by drought, have made it hard for many families to survive.

Mutharika has also grown increasingly intolerant of the press. When Malawian media last year reported on the government’s own figures that, despite the subsidy program, more than a million people in the country didn’t have enough food, Mutharika struck back, threatening “to close down newspapers that lie and tarnish my government’s image.” And then he ordered government officials to change their projections of food insecurity.

Gota Dzongololo, 11, eats sorghum porridge in the morning after getting dressed in his school uniform. He lives in Chidyamanga, a village in southern Malawi that has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the

I went to Malawi to report on how some church-related agencies were working with several local communities that, despite the achievements of the government’s subsidy program, had not been able to grow enough food. The reasons for these local problems are several. For example, climate change has reduced rainfall or made it highly irregular. I interviewed farmers who had received and utilized the government-subsidized fertilizer and seed only to wait and watch as the rains didn’t arrive and the seeds sprouted and died. In other place, local corruption–the subsidy coupons are usually distributed by local chiefs–had caused inequality. In response to some of these challenges, the church agencies are working with communities installing local irrigation systems (mirroring the government’s advocacy of a huge irrigation program alongside the country’s major lake and river), pushing crop diversification (e.g., planting drought-tolerant crops like millet and sorghum instead of corn), and distributing small livestock, like goats, which over time will build the capital reserve of poor families allowing them to cope better with seasonal income fluctuations.

It seems to me that any healthy discussion of Malawi’s achievements would take these shortcomings into account, but instead they’re swept under the rug. And so instead of the church agencies issuing a general appeal for funding the Malawi food security work, it was quietly funded by a European government.

So it’s complicated. Writing about it involves reporting both the success of an African government in responding to a chronic problem as well as that same government’s intolerance of criticism of the program’s flaws.

A worker labors on a tea plantation in near Thyolo, in southern Malawi, as the sun rises through early morning fog.

What’s less ambiguous in this story is the courage of the country’s poor, especially the women, in keeping their families fed in perilous times, even if it means digging in the marshland along the Shire River to find wild tubors to boil for their children. I wish I could say the same thing about the men (and don’t misunderstand me: most Malawian men work hard for their families), but I’d often turn from taking photos of women and girls working to see the men gathered in the shade playing a game. Unfortunately, this is a common scene around the world. First the women of Malawi:

Alefa Soloti carries a 50 kg bag of corn provided by the ACT Alliance in Dickson, a village in southern Malawi that has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the

Florence Shawa carries water home from a well in her village of Thundira, in northern Malawi.

Alefa Soloti weeds her field of sesame in Dickson, a village in southern Malawi that has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the

A woman returns from working in her farm field in Chisatha, a village in southern Malawi. Her community has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the

A woman breaks up soaked cassava and lays it on black plastic in the sun to dry in Karonga, an area in northern Malawi which has been hit hard by drought and hunger.

And then the men:

Men play a game, and drink alcohol, in Karonga, a town in northern Malawi.

Ok, ok, if I’m going to be fair to men as well as to Africa, I need to note for the record that men work also. Some of the time. Here are men working on a small scale irrigation system in the far south of the country:

Jackson Thawalima, 45, digs out a reservoir for an irrigation system in Chisatha, a village in southern Malawi on its border with Mozambique. This village has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the

Jackson Thawalima, 45, digs out a reservoir for an irrigation system in Chisatha, a village in southern Malawi on its border with Mozambique. This village has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the

Residents of Chisatha, a village in southern Malawi on its border with Mozambique, lift a 5,000 liter tank onto an elevated platform. Six such tanks will be placed on the platform, and then solar-powered pumps will fill them with water from a nearby river, providing villagers with irrigation water for their crops. The village has been hard hit by drought in recent years, leading to chronic food insecurity, especially during the


¡Gustavo Parajón, Presente!

Gustavo Parajón died on March 13. He was a Nicaraguan medical doctor and Baptist pastor who founded an ecumenical relief and development group, CEPAD, in the wake of the 1972 Managua earthquake. From personal experience, I can attest that he was an infinitely patient man with young gringo missionaries struggling with cultural sensitivity and Nicaragua’s unique Spanish. His patience was also political: although a fierce critic of U.S. policy, he was a leading voice for reconciliation in the middle of the revolution and war. He and CEPAD were intermediaries between the young Sandinista revolutionaries and Nicaragua’s evangelical community–a relationship that often needed coaching and mediation. And although several of his colleagues and staff were killed by the Contras, Gustavo pushed incessantly for human rights to be respected in the middle of the war and helped hammer out local ceasefire agreements. His work to mediate the conflict between the Sandinistas and eastern Nicaragua’s Miskito population, and to establish and nurture peace commissions in the southeast of the country, was of historic importance. I traveled with him on several trips into the mountains where his respect for the poorest campesino produced treatment no different from how he related to Sandinista officials or Contra comandantes–they were all God’s children to Gustavo. When Central American countries created National Reconciliation Commissions under Oscar Arias’ peace plan, Gustavo was a widely accepted choice to integrate the Nicaraguan commission, which also included Vice President Sergio Ramirez and the Catholic archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. In the polarized politics of the time, useful idiots of the U.S. political right, like the Institute for Religion and Democracy, attacked him as an apologist for the Sandinistas, when in fact Gustavo represented the best of Nicaragua’s civil society. He was indeed one of the more authentic “lovers in a dangerous time”–a phrase that reminds me that I first met Bruce Cockburn in Gustavo’s office. Gustavo attracted friends from all backgrounds.

Gustavo was 75 when he died suddenly of a heart attack. His memorial services were packed. In a massive gathering on March 15 in Managua’s Casa de los Pueblos, President Daniel Ortega awarded Gustavo the country’s Orden Cultural Rubén Darío. Gustavo’s widow, Joan, sat between President Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo, who called Gustavo “a hero of the culture of peace.” The music was from the Misa Campesina, though at the end everyone joined in singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

Following President Ortega’s remarks at the service, Joan took the microphone and recited a poem by Rubén Darío that she said was among Gustavo’s favorites. It speaks to both Gustavo’s inspiration and his practice.

Hemos de ser justos,
Hemos de ser buenos,
Hemos de embriagarnos de paz y amor,
y llevar el alma siempre a flor de labios
y desnudo y limpio nuestro corazón.

Hemos de olvidarnos de todos los odios,
de toda mentira, de toda ruindad.
Hemos de abrazarnos en el santo fuego
de un amor inmenso, dulce y fraternal.

Hemos de llenarnos de santo optimismo,
tender nuestros brazos a quien nos hirió;
Y abrazar a todos nuestros enemigos
en un dulce abrazo de amor y perdón.

Olvidar pasiones, rencores, vilezas…
ser fuertes, piadosos, dando bien por mal:
¡Que esa es la venganza de las almas fuertes
que viven poseídas de un santo ideal!

“Hemos de estar siempre gozosos,” tal dijo Pablo el elegido,
con divina voz y a través de todos los claros caminos
caminar llevando puesta el alma en Dios.

Hemos de acordarnos que somos hermanos,
hemos de acordarnos del dulce pastor.
que crucificado, lacerado, exánime…
para sus verdugos, imploro perdón.

6 Responses to Malawi: Food questions

  1. Jan says:

    I recently read the thin book “Like Breath and Water; Praying with Africa.” which is about the author’s visit to Malawi. I had an entirely different picture of the country than Rev. Jeffrey gives in his nuanced view. When I see the photographs and read his reports in “Response” I so often wish I were there, with the missionary/journalist. I am so appreciative of the perspective that Paul Jeffrey provides.

  2. Paul Jeffrey says:

    The issues of food insecurity and climate change in Malawi are much larger than that country, of course. I’ve written before about climate change and the conflict in Darfur. Africa is in some ways the first of the world’s regions to face conflict rooted in climate change, according to a new publication by Cullen Hendrix and Idean Salehyan of the U.S.-based Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law:

    The Brewing Storm? Climate Change, Rainfall and Social Conflict in Africa

    This study predicts that climate change effects will be severe in Africa, and because of the continent’s low capacity for mitigation and adaptation, could lead to greater social conflict.

  3. Cathy Whitlatch says:

    You always help me to think and rethink what is happening around the world Thanks.
    And a special thanks for the homage paid to Gustavo Parajón and the poem by Rubén Darío.
    – Cathy Whitlatch, New York City

  4. Bob Woolf says:

    Unfortunately many, if not most of the poor regions of the world, have almost no capacity to mitigate and very limited ability to adapt to climate change. This is true for the indigenous peoples of Alaska that I have worked with for years, and is also true for the Philippines. Not long ago the Siberian Yupik “Eskimos” of Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea lost their mayor, his 11-year-old daughter and his 11-year-old nephew while pulling a bowhead whale home in their walrus-skinned boat. They had to hunt much further from shore because of melting marine ice, and traditional knowledge of weather patterns is not as accurate with changing climate, adding to the danger. The populations of bowhead and walrus will likely be victims of the melting sea ice, possibly within 50 years. Gambell is one of the oldest continuously occupied communities in all of North America because of access to these two species and other ice-dependent species. The Siberian Yupik culture that has this food at the core of their language, culture and economic well-being will likely cease to exist. But the circumstances for the future of Filipinos is much worse. The record imports of rice during last year’s drought is a predictor of what will be necessary to produce food during endemic droughts expected as a consequence of climate change…as the already overpopulated archipelago continues to grow at 2.5 million a year, equivalent to an additional Manila every five years, and as competition for limited global food production causes shortages and dramatic price hikes. President Aquino is stumping for a reproductive health bill to curb population growth, but it is being opposed by much of the Catholic Church. This week there were demonstrations in the Philippines against rising prices of fossil fuels…another harbinger of things to come, fuel shortages and price hikes, almost no domestic production, which could cause further food shortages as a consequence of decreases in domestic food production. Gloomy? Doomsday? That is not my intent. We are at the tail edge of being able to do something about these dynamics, but the upside is that these issues have pulled our planetary society together in recent years to act collectively…somewhat, and not enough. We need to do more to push this positive trend. Facing our troubling climate-related situations realistically is needed, but should not be an excuse to let it happen.

  5. Paul Jeffrey says:

    Good article on Malawi’s crop subsidy program.

  6. Paul Jeffrey says:

    An interview with a blogger provides a good look at citizen journalism and academic freedom in Malawi.

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