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Where maize is gold dust

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

Nsanje is the last place in Malawi that you would wish to inherit a farm: deep in the south, it is one of the hottest places in the country. It was 45C (113F) in the shade on the day we visited.

Yet when Lucy’s sister died of Aids two years ago, she was left more than a hectare of stony soil. The 22-year-old also inherited her sister’s disabled husband, seven young children, a goat and two ducks. The couple have since had three more children.

Drought

Even with regular rains, Lucy struggled to produce enough food to feed 12 mouths, but last winter drought withered and strangled her crop long before harvest time. She showed us the remains, a short walk from her family’s stone hut, on the other side of a dried-up river bed.

By June, Lucy had exhausted her total yield: two sacks of sorghum. Like most other subsistence farmers in the village, she turned to casual labour, crushing stones into gravel to sell on the roadside. There were few takers, and her neat, grey piles still line the dirt track.

Turning to food aid

In August, with the price of maize soaring in the market, her family surviving on one meagre portion of maize porridge per day and her youngest child showing symptoms of kwashiorkor (severe protein malnutrition), Lucy approached her village chief and joined the monthly queues for WFP food aid at the local school.

Queuing patiently under a burning sun, one of more than 1,000 hungry villagers, Lucy waits her turn before handing in her ration card and collecting a 50kg (7st 9lb) sack of maize. Somehow hoisting the dead weight on to her head, she walks the mile back to her hut.

Gold dust

By the time she arrives, a trail of maize is running from a small split in the bag. Her children sweep up the granules as if they were gold dust.

It is hard to imagine Lucy and her fellow villagers ever being more than hostages to disease and drought in such a harsh environment. As Lucy said herself: “As soon as you’re born, you’re starting to die.”

Story of hope

But an hour up the road, at Chitsukwa village, there is another story that offers some hope for the future of southern Malawi - not to mention enough maize to feed Lucy’s village several times over.

For three years Bishop Khado, a local farmer, refused to accept his fate, clinging to the dream of irrigation. Initially, that meant little more than a few watering cans that he would fill daily from the local river.

Hungry hippos, jealous farmers

Bishop had to guard his small but flourishing crop from jealous farmers and the occasional herd of hippos, but efforts to convince fellow villagers to start digging canals linking the river to their fields fell on deaf ears for a long time. Eventually, after insistent lobbying, the Malawian government, the European Union and the WFP stepped in to help turn Bishop’s dream into reality.

Today, some 176 farmers use treadle pumps to irrigate their land. The result is 18 hectares of fields so lush and green that you could be in Kent, not Chitsukwa, on the frontline of a hunger crisis.

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