Historically: Dr. Banda became Prime Minister on February 1, 1963, although the British still controlled Malawi's financial security, and judicial systems. A new constitution took effect in May 1963, providing for virtually complete internal self-government. The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved on December 31, 1963, and Malawi became a fully independent member of the (formerly British) Commonwealth on July 6, 1964. Two years later, Malawi became a republic with Dr. Banda as its first President and was also declared a one-party state.
Humanitarian crisis: Life expectancy in Malawi is now as low as 36.5 years; five years lower than it was 50 years ago. This drop is due to population's impoverishment, which is constituted by many factors:
Health: Child mortality is 103/1000. There are more than a million orphans, 700,000 of which became orphans when their parents died of AIDS. According to Malawi the government estimates 14.2% of the population are HIV-positive, and 90,000 deaths in 2003 were due to AIDS. Unofficial estimates based on private hospital entries give a HIV infection percentage of 30%.
Nutrition: Malawi's staple food is maize but like other countries in Southern Africa, Malawi has repeatedly been affected by famines since 2002, when food was scarce for almost one third of the population. In 2003, 30% of the population was affected. According to a Food and Agriculture report from June 2005, 4.22 million inhabitants of
Malawi, 1/4 of the population, would not have enough food in 2005 to survive. In the south of the country, the rate of the population affected will be between 55% and 76%.
My introduction to Malawi began with my meeting with the Plan Communication Manager, Patrick Zgambo. Over the next 10 days Patrick and I were joined at the hip traveling from the Southern to Northern tip of Malawi. I could not have been any luckier to have this wonderful host and guide. He was a slender gentle giant of twenty-nine years, who was more than accommodating with my every wish, and calm beyond my imagination! Extremely well informed with all the work that Plan is involved in and so passionate about being a part of change for his Country.
My experiences in Malawi will stay with me forever! The land is vast and breath taking, and the people are full of such joy and happiness. But with all the challenges that they live through daily, I witnessed no pity and no doubt, and a tremendous amount of hope and determination to make their lives better. Their attitudes were fantastic! And their enthusiasm for working with Plan was an honor to witness. Plan 's approach has always been about "team work". Instead of going into a village and "telling" the community members "what to do" ---their approach is to meet with the Chief of the Village and the community to find out what they need and how together they can work to achieve this.
Why is there a food crisis is Malawi?
There are three reasons for the food crisis in addition to the drought issue.
Even though there were rains last year, the rainfall was very erratic. Maize, known to Americans as corn, is the main staple food in Malawi. Maize is a crop that is very sensitive to any amount of rainfall and sunlight that it receives. If there is a persistent dry spell for a period of three weeks or so, it can affect the growth of maize and you do not get a good yield at harvest time. However the same goes with too much rainfall. If you have too much rain you may not get the same harvest. Due to the climate changes that have been happening globally, even the climate here in Malawi has been changing over the last past few years, and the amounts of rainfall that maize needs to get in order to develop properly have not been coming. Therefore the food shortage has been chronic over the last three to four years but this year has been one of the worst years.
What is Plan doing?
The long-term plan is part of the Plan's RACE AGAINST HUNGER campaign launched in November 2005. This is a 3-year project and the idea is to promote families in Plan 's communities to produce crops that are drought resistant and can sustain the present rainfall pattern. These crops include cassava, (yucca) pigeon peas and others that do not need fertilizer. This is known as winter cropping. People in Malawi ideally only grow food once a year. The rainy season is October through April, and people plant in November and harvest the following May. The winter copping program promotes irrigation so people can get water from the river and natural resources and can prime twice a year and harvest twice a year.
The winter cropping program is a process where farmers plant drought resistant crops like cassava (yucca) and beans in the winter months (April--July). The differences between winter cropping and the regular maize cropping are:
The farmers are taught the winter cropping process with Plan's assistance and donations and have been so very grateful. When I met my first farmer in the Cha Cha Cha community, a wonderful woman named, Jane Chrisi, I asked her, "What do you like most about winter-cropping", She answered beamingly, "I can finally feed my children". It's that simple .... With the assistance of the great work of Plan, a farmer in Africa can now feed her family. I think about this moment often as I am cooking dinner at home, never worrying about where my food comes from.
RACE AGAINST HUNGER campaign was also created as a sustainable project for communities. This includes learning about the benefits of compost manure. Using local resources to make compost manure to place in community gardens saves the farmers from using fertilizer, which is just too expensive.
The Malnutrition Crisis
All the patients at the NRU are under 5 years old and they are all severely malnourished. I did ask Patrick in my naïve way, why I was not seeing children that "looked" so very malnourished. He told me that because the children are not eating any protein and too much starch it provides a puffy look to their faces and bodies. So while they may look plump they are far from it. Regarding the number of attendance is it interesting to note how the months of December through April have the highest attendance of 12-46 each month. During the summer months the attendance falls to 3-10 children each month. With the winter cropping program it would help to reduce these numbers in December-April period.
Which NGO’s (non-government agencies) was I representing?
My final thoughts
According to the UNAIDS 2004 Report on the global AIDS epidemic:
As I talk to Patrick about the HIV/AIDS situation in Malawi he tells me that the official life expectancy of Malawians is 36-37 years old. Please take a minute to re-read that sentence . I would be dead already if I lived in Malawi, and I have only lived half of my life. Patrick tells me 70,000 is an estimated number of annual deaths but he believes because of poor records it is much higher.
Not once while I was in Malawi did I fixate about AIDS. I instead thought about the heart and soul of these amazing people. I thought about the families that they were desperately trying to feed. I thought about the children they were trying to educate. And above all I thought about the amazing strength, courage and determination of these Malawians to make their lives better. I wanted to honor them with dignity and allow myself to see them as the amazing people they were and are. Perhaps if more of us could do this; then we would be able to face them a little easier and then be willing to realize we are all more similar than different. We all want the same; love, happiness, food, education, and recognition in some ways.
The people of Malawi will be in my heart forever and I am honored to bear witness to their beauty, strength & joy.