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Haunted by hunger

IN DIRE STRAITS—Nkhoma’s family eating tubers

By Fletcher Simwaka:


It may just be the beginning for a lean season for Malawi, but for Alinafe Nkhoma of Msomali Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nazombe in Phalombe District, every day of the 2019/2020 season feels like hell on earth.

After losing her livelihood to Cyclone Idai in 2019, Nkhoma’s family found itself at the receiving end of the dry spell that hit most parts of southern Malawi, including Phalombe District, earlier this year.

As if that is not enough, in March, this year, the Malawi government announced gathering restrictions as part of Covid-19 preventive measures. The measures affected Nkhoma’s income earning ability and forced her family to live on a hand-to-mouth basis. Nkhoma cannot see any end in sight to her pitiable plight.

“In 2019, we didn’t harvest much but the situation was bearable considering that most organisations were distributing food to us,” the mother of six says.

To survive, Nkhoma and her husband, John Kapasule, wake up early in the morning and trek for about four hours to hunt for wild poisonous tubers up the mountains. She says the tubers–which taste like potatoes–have to be boiled for about six hours before consumption, as one way of removing the poison from them.

“Due to hunger in the area, the scramble for the wild tubers has become high. On a daily basis there are about 100 families in the mountains digging for tubes and one has to count themselves lucky if they find the tubes in good time,” narrates Kapasule while eating the tubers on the veranda of their house.

We later learn the food was their only meal for the day.

Nkhoma says she counts herself lucky that the poisonous tubers haven’t done any harm to their lives or health, but admits hearing cases of people dying after taking the poisonous corms.

As recent as April 2020, a woman and two girls in Chikwawa, southern Malawi, died after eating the poisonous wild tubers.

But for Nkhoma, eating tubers is the only option for the poverty-stricken families which cannot afford the exorbitant price of maize, the country’s staple food.

The maize price is currently at around K10,000 per 50-kilogramme bag, but in disaster-hit areas such as Phalombe, the price is already hovering at around K13,000.

Nkhoma’s family is not the only one hit by hunger. Some five kilometres away, 82-year-old Eluby Simeon of Muruwese Village in T/A Nkhulambe has just had a meal but she is not sure where the next will come from.

Simeon stays with three grandchildren and being the head of the labour-constrained household, she only survives on assistance by her two married daughters and well-wishers. But with the hunger situation hitting almost every household in her area, Simeon now simply resigned to the sad fact that she will not be having food on a daily basis.

She appeals for assistance from government and well-wishers to enable meet her food needs.

“I just hear there is cash-transfer programme targeting the poor and labour-constrained households. I wonder why I am not being considered for the same, considering that I am too old to fend for myself and my grandchildren. Please take a photo of me and circulate widely so that some well-wishers might come to my rescue. Hunger is killing me,” she says.

Simeon and Nkhoma’s families are just two of the numerous households in the country facing hunger this year. According to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee Report released in September, about 2.7 million—about 15 percent of the country’s population—will need food support between October 2020 and March 2021.

Out of the 2.7 million affected people, 1.9 million are in the rural areas, where Nkhoma and Simeon live.

The report attributes the increase in food crisis to weather-related hazards ranging from floods, dry spells, Fall Army Warms, and the Covid-19 pandemic which has reduced income earning capacity for families.

The Department of Disaster Management Affairs says government is putting in place a lean period food insecurity response plan to cushion Malawians from hunger.

But ActionAid Malawi (AAM) Emergency and Resilience Specialist, Tchaka Kamanga, says government needs to immediately come to the rescue of the families with food support. He says government also needs to increase support towards the poor and labour-constrained households with safety protection programmes such as the cash-transfer programme.

In complementing government’s efforts on the hunger situation, Kamanga says AAM, a charity organisation that is working with grassroots partners in Malawi, will be running a cash-transfer programme to enable targeted poor and vulnerable households earn some income with which to buy food.

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