David Plotz in Africa

Can Malawi—or Southern Africa—Be Saved?
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 28 2003 1:53 PM

David Plotz in Africa

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MALAWI, Africa, Jan. 26—More than 3 million of Malawi's 11 million people are going hungry this year. It seems impossible. This is the greenest land I have ever seen.

The green fields of Mnjuzi
The green fields of Mnjuzi

This morning I join a U.N. team on a visit to flood- and famine-stricken villages near Lake Malawi. On the drive out from Lilongwe, we pass nothing but lushness. Corn and tobacco are sprouting enthusiastically everywhere. In the few places that aren't farmed, wild grasses and bushes run riot. The country is soaked in water. Malawi sits on the third-largest lake in Africa, and it's richly veined by rivers and streams. This is the rainy season, and every afternoon brings yet another shower to feed the crops. And yet hunger is everywhere. World Food Program spokeswoman Brenda Barton, who's in my car today, has a great description: "a green famine."

As I've learned in my accidental three-day visit here, Malawi is a window on Africa's future, and it is utterly grim. Ethiopia's persistent hunger is tragic and probably irreparable. But Ethiopia is in some ways an easy problem compared with Malawi and the rest of Southern Africa.

The United Nations caravan descends on Mnjuzi
The United Nations caravan descends on Mnjuzi

This morning's convoy takes about 30 of us—an international gangbang of aid workers, policy-makers, and a couple of journalists—to Mnjuzi, a village 90 minutes east of Lilongwe, near the shores of Lake Malawi. The caravan is a preposterous spectacle—a train of 10 white Toyota Land Cruisers and Hilux trucks racing over the rutted red-dirt roads of the countryside, roof-lights flashing on the lead vehicle. (As if there is any possibility we would encounter a traffic jam here—we'd be more likely to see a UFO.) The vehicles are loaded with representatives from every U.N. agency I have heard of, and several I haven't: UNICEF, UN WFP, UN FAO, UNDP, UN AIDS. … If acronyms had calories, Malawi would be obese.

Mnjuzi consists of dozens of thatched-roof brick houses, a church, a school, and lots of moist cropland. It is steamy beyond reason, jungle steamy: I'm soaked within seconds of leaving the Land Cruiser. The town sits a few hundred yards from the Lifidzi River, and that is its curse. Lucius Chikuni, Malawi's disaster-relief commissioner, explains the problem: The Lifidzi used to flow fast and straight into Lake Malawi. But the river, increasingly silty because of lousy farming practices in the highlands, has slowed down, and its course has changed. Now, every couple of years, the Lifidzi backs up during winter rainy season, ruining just-planted crops along its banks. Four times in the last 10 years, a flood has inundated Mnjuzi, and each time, the villagers return to the same plots and start again. (Chikuni says the government plans to relocate the village to higher ground, but this is wishful thinking. Malawi is so overcrowded that no good, empty cropland remains.)

This year's flood has just subsided in Mnjuzi, having toppled dozens of houses, ruined some crops, and destroyed the lone two businesses: a bakery and a furniture-maker, both cooperatives run by village women. Between them, the businesses lost more than $500 worth of equipment and material, a fortune for rural Malawi. (When WFP executive director James Morris promises money to rebuild, the furniture-makers break into a lovely song of thanks.)

Lobana and her son
Lobana and her son

I sit down with a translator and a pair of local women in the shade of a huge tree. Lobana is nursing her fourth child, a boy, as we talk. Galanjene seems to be a village matriarch. She's ancient and one-eyed. Judging by her sly smile and the way the women around her laugh when she talks, I bet she has a wicked sense of humor.

Like the Ethiopian farmers I met, Lobana and Galanjene have essentially nothing to eat. Their corn crops failed two years ago because of a huge flood. Last year's mediocre crop ran out months ago. Now, says Galanjene, they survive on the monthly allotment of corn from WFP and Save the Children. (About half the village households receive 50 kilograms per family per month.) They eat their one meal a day at lunch time, a corn porridge called ncima, topped with the little wild okra and mushrooms they can forage. Lopana says that her house was destroyed in the most recent flood. She has found temporary lodging, but like many villagers, she has lost everything. Mnjuzi is increasingly famished because villagers have to keep starting over. They never accumulate any wealth, so they have no margin if their crops fail.

Mnjuzi is depressing, but not in the same profound way as Dire Kiltu in Ethiopia. Lobana and Galanjene seem sad but not despairing. The village is looking forward to a better year. Corn and rice are growing vigorously in every spare inch of soil, and when those crops mature in this spring, WFP should be able to stop feeding. None of the children here eat dirt. When we stop at the school, 700 chanting, singing, dancing kids line up to greet us. They're boisterous like kids everywhere are boisterous—laughing, acting up, cheering, yelling. They had none of the lethargy that defined the kids of Dire Kiltu. Mnjuzi does not feel dire. As we walk past the green fields on the edge of town, I overhear one U.N. staffer exclaim: "It makes me feel so good to see the corn growing in these fields. It feels like it is going to be OK."

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But it's not, of course. The verdancy of Malawi is deceptive. The crisis here penetrates much more deeply than it does in Ethiopia. Malawi's immediate condition is improving, but the country and the region face long-term tragedy.

As I mentioned yesterday, one-sixth of Malawian adults are infected with HIV, a rate probably heading higher fast. Barring miracle, it will hit 30 percent and may even match the 40 percent rates of Southern Africa neighbors Botswana and Lesotho. Malawi can barely feed itself in good years: Soon even that will be impossible. By the thousands, infected Malawians are succumbing to opportunistic diseases like malaria and TB. The sick can't work the fields. Their healthy relatives shortchange farming to nurse them. The infected need extra food to stave off full-blown AIDS: Since they don't get it, AIDS arrives sooner, they stop being productive and die faster.

AIDS is demolishing the social structure and infrastructure of Malawi. Because the sick are dying so quickly, they don't have time to pass on agricultural knowledge to their children. (Malawi now has 500,000 AIDS orphans in a population of 11 million.) According to Stephen Lewis, the United Nations' special envoy on AIDS in Africa, who's come with us, 14 percent of Malawi's teachers are dying every year, decimating the already marginal education system.

And the epidemic hasn't really hit hard here yet. The real death wave won't break for another 10 or 15 years, Lewis says. "What we are looking at in Malawi and across Southern Africa is the possibility of failed states." Education will collapse; food shortages will be permanent; Malawi will be thrown further back into the dark ages. In a generation, Malawi may lose a quarter or a third of its population. Pretty soon "the Warm Heart of Africa" is going to be cold and dead.

Malawi lacks the wealth, the human capital, and the natural resources to resist this collapse. It's hard to express just how poor Malawi is. Power fails all the time (even now, as I am writing this in the airport). Hardly any cars drive its streets. Malawi has no industry to speak of and exports few farm products. The government is corrupt and incompetent. The brightest and richest Malawians are leaving, a brain drain that further weakens the society. (More evidence of Malawi's decay: One of the leading TV shows seems to be—this is not a joke—a weekly variety show called Jerry Springer's Saturday Night, filmed by Jerry at a Caesar's casino in South Africa.)

No one person I talked to expressed much hope the situation will improve. The U.N. staffers have all kinds of ideas for long-term development—grow cassava instead of corn, supply more water pumps, teach better ag skills to AIDS orphans—but they don't really expect to solve the problem. HIV plus environmental degradation plus overpopulation plus erratic weather means they will always be losing.

I'm leaving Malawi and Africa this afternoon with the same question I had when I arrived: Why, apart for moral reasons, should Americans care about starvation here? Having met the farmers of Dire Kiltu and Mnjuzi, I'm sick at the thought that they should suffer because nature is so unfair. I'm glad the United Nations and NGOs and the U.S. government are making sure they get enough food to survive. It is clearly good and right to relieve at least a little of their suffering.

But that is a moral answer. Why, as a matter of politics or security or economics, should we care? Neither Malawi nor Ethiopia matters to the U.S. economically. Even if their countries rebounded, 70 million Ethiopians and 11 million Malawians would be a modest market for American goods. At the moment, they have scarcely a pair of dimes to rub together, much less cash for a Big Mac. And save for a little Ethiopian coffee, they don't produce anything that we want to buy. The West remains obsessed with Sudan because it has so much oil: Ethiopia and Malawi have no such luck.

Ethiopia and Malawi have another problem: They're too peaceful. Places like Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan have captured American attention (and dollars) because they breed Islamic radicalism. But anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism do not fester here. Malawi's Islamic community is small; Ethiopia's is famously moderate. (One WFP staffer said, only half in jest, that the best way to guarantee aid for Ethiopia would be to blow up a food distribution warehouse and claim al-Qaida did it.) The troubles in Ethiopia and Malawi don't spill into the world at large. It doesn't threaten American interests to have millions of Malawians (and Zambians, and Zimbabweans, and …) die from AIDS. It would be tragic, but it wouldn't much affect the United States.

The hungry of Malawi and Ethiopia are too poor and too weak to make trouble, to buy American goods, to ever matter to American geopolitical strategy. There is not any reason to help them, except that we can and except that we should.

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