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Despair beneath the 'normality' in Malawi

WFP's web editor Chris Endean is on a mission to Malawi. This is the first of his reports from a country in the midst of a food crisis, and first appeared on the Guardian Unlimited website.

Driving the 320-km road from Lilongwe to WFP’s sub-office in Blantyre, deep in the south of Malawi, it’s easy to forget this is a country in the midst of a food crisis that threatens 40 percent of the population - some five million people – and suffers an adult HIV-prevalence rate that is among the highest in the world.

Against a stunning backdrop of towering mountains and African bush, women and children make their way home along the roadsides with fresh fruit balanced precariously on their heads.

Dedza’s marketplace bustles with activity, vegetables on sale in neatly stacked piles, and freshly painted signs suggest business as usual: the Camp David telephone exchange, Nice Price superstore and Heaven-bound Funeral Service to name a few.

Tell-tale signs of hunger

It takes the trained eye of my travel companion, a WFP emergency programme officer, to spot the tell-tale signs that hunger lurks behind the apparent ‘normality’ Malawi’s villages display.

She stresses that food crises start long before the appearance of images we usually associate with severe hunger, such as queues of people waiting for rations or malnourished children fighting for their lives in health clinics.

Maize in short supply

Yes, it looks like there’s plenty of food on sale at the markets, with piles of cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes tumbling off the stalls, but there is no sign of the Malawian’s staple diet: maize.

In April, the country suffered its worst harvest in 10 years and, three months before the traditional lean season, maize is already in short supply. The little that is available is unaffordable for most people.

No stocks to fall back on

My colleague also points out that the steady lines of people walking along the roadsides are an increasingly common sight in this part of Malawi. Most have walked tens of miles to get food from the market because they no longer have stocks of their own to fall back on.

Even the small boy cycling on the wrong side of the road and bent double under a heavy load of freshly cut wood is an unwitting sign of food shortages.

Struggling to cope with the rising price of what little maize is available, villagers are burning firewood to create charcoal to sell.

Malawi's malaise

By the time we reach Blantyre, the old trading town which owes its Scottish name to explorer David Livingstone, there are far clearer symptoms of Malawi’s malaise.

With more and more people heading for the city in search of food, beggars are working door to door, pleading for casual labour or scraps of food. The slightly better off sleep overnight at the marketplace, waiting for two or three days lest they miss one of Blantyre’s rare deliveries of maize.

Most worryingly, as desperation grows, theft and muggings are on the rise.