By Colin Vandenberg
The impetus for my sudden journey to Malawi was the unprecedented flooding in the South. I haven’t yet traveled to the South, but that is to come. However, having arrived only a few days ago, I’m reminded that apart from the flooding, Malawians have also entered what is known as “The Lean Month”, which, in reality, stretches from as early as December until the end of March. The land is now lush with greenery and the promise of abundant food covers the landscape. From the greatest fields to the slightest slivers of available land, healthy stalks of maize rise up with certainty and forthcoming grace. Without looking any further, one might assume that Malawi is a land of abundance. But this is The Lean Month. The promise of maize is everywhere, but it will still be five weeks before any of it can be harvested. Until then, eighty percent of Malawians will face hunger as the previous year’s stores are depleted and their new crops are not yet mature. Some turn to begging, most will endure days without food, and many will not survive.
I came here in response to the flooding, but to regard the flooding as the soul tragedy of Malawi would be to ignore the annual scarcity that the vast majority of Malawians are now experiencing. As floodwaters in the South draw the much-needed support of aid organizations otherwise distributed throughout the country, the Malawians in less affected areas are now left with far less help. By no means do I want to diminish the devastation of the flooding, and for now, I’m in no real position to even say much about it; but nor do I want to become subsumed by any degree of sensationalism at the cost of ignoring the systemic and recurring struggles that Malawians endured before the floods, and which they will continue to endure in years to come.
In the village of Chilota, within the boundaries of the capital city Lilongwe, I sat with a group of women and children in the shade of the chief’s house. Some of them picked unhurriedly through a pile of okra, removing the leaves from the stalks and placing them in a broad, shallow basket. A woman wandered by with a small bowl of nsima flour, which I am told she had received from begging. Moments later, a bowl of prepared nsima and a small bowl of stewed leaves was placed in the center of the group of women and children and I was told that this would be shared among them all as their mid-day meal. It was barely enough food to feed two adults; I counted eight children and three women.
In July and August of this past year I spent thirty days eating less than a dollar of food per day. I did this in an effort to raise awareness and support for Malawians struggling to survive each year, especially during The Lean Month. Annually, the average Malawian household of six people lives on $0.62USD per day. This means that many people live on less. Also, due to the seasonal nature of crops, there are times in the year when even for those earning the average, their day-to-day earnings are much lower. During my “Dollar a Day Diet” I remained far more privileged than the vast majority of Malawians, in part because my dollar per day still afforded me more food, and in part because this was a decision that I made freely, and one I ultimately had the freedom to “unmake”.
The cost of living in Malawi is unexpectedly high. We could be tempted to assume that living on $0.62USD per day in Malawi is feasible, but in a country that has suffered continual economic troubles, especially within the last two years, our assumptions would be far from true. $0.62USD is roughly enough to buy food for two meals for six people. Being that $0.62USD is the average household income it stands to reason that there are a great many Malawians living on far less. Even from my own experience of eating a dollar of food per day, the challenge I often faced was choosing between the consumption of sufficient calories, and the consumption of necessary nutrients. Eating only rice and beans, my hunger was satisfied. But the absence of fruits or vegetable in my diet concerned me, and I often chose to eat less in order to include simple things like onions, garlic, or carrots. For Malawians this choice is often not available and the limitation of their diets, both in regards to caloric and nutritional values, is costly.
Annually in Malawi, at least two hundred people die from hunger or malnutrition. Thousands more are hospitalized but ultimately survived. 80% of Malawians are dependent on aid to survive The Lean Month. These numbers are, admittedly, sensational, but that does not discredit them. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the immense scope of hunger in Malawi. Some part of our brain goes into a panic because it is unable to solve this staggering problem; and rather than trying to cope with the problem, which is ultimately beyond our ability to solve, we are likely to duck away from it altogether. This is understandable.
It takes courage to look at the numbers and recognize what they mean. It takes courage to not avert our gaze. It takes courage to ask what, if anything, our responsibility is in response to the suffering of others, whether to those living immediately next to us, or those living thousands of kilometers away. I have never come to a clear answer. The questions of poverty and wealth, of privilege, class, and responsibility, often leave me feeling overwhelmed. I have felt paralyzed. I have resigned to passivity. But paralysis ultimately unnerves me, and I have found that passivity relies on dissociation and an ignorance of things that should not be ignored. It is not always clear what my response should be, but I believe it begins with a willingness to look at what is rather than ignoring it. It is only when we are willing to look at what the reality of a situation that we are able to respond appropriately to it.
My work in Malawi is in association with an organization called the Innovative Development Initiative of Malawi (IDI), headed by Samuel Magombo. Together with his team Samuel is working tirelessly to offer Malawians an alternative to malnutrition and hunger. Although their priority is to offer change that is sustainable and far-reaching, the immediate needs of individuals now struggling to survive the coming months is impossible to ignore and IDI, in accordance with their mandate to save lives respond to current issues of marginalized Malawians is offering support both to communities in the South who have been severely affected by the flooding, and those in rural Lilongwe who now face the annual crisis of diminished or depleted food stores. In the coming week the money raised during my Dollar a Day Diet this past summer, will be distributed in the village of Chilota to those most in need. My thanks goes out to all those who contributed to that initiative.
For those who feel compelled to support Samuel and IDI in their efforts, donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, based in San Francisco. To ensure that every dollar of your donation goes directly to IDI, please make your donations through my champion page, which can be found here: http://groundworkopportunities.org/champions/colin-vandenberg/
To know more about IDI's work, and how you can be involved reach Samuel Magombo: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can learn more about IDI's response to the lean period's food crisis by visiting https://foodforaday.wordpress.com