Dehumanising face of hunger

 For six years, President Peter Mutharika has been promising Malawians that “no one will die of hunger.”

But Stelia Nyadani will always remember January 27 2020 when her eight-year-old son died on the way to Chiradzulu District Hospital after eating maize bran, locally called deya.

We followed the 45-year-old to her home in Matchado Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlumbe in Zomba.

During the visit, Nyadani shared the agony faced by nine of her 10 children who suffered food poisoning after eating nsima prepared from the grain residues millers reserve for livestock.

Remnants: Joseph (R) and Mphatso survived the food tragedy which killed their brother

“After three days without eating anything, my first-born son Joseph decided that enough is enough.

“The 17-year-old sold a reed mat at K400 and bought deya so that he and his frail siblings could eat something. Unfortunately, everything went wrong. We lost one the following day,” she recalls.

This personifies the degrading impact of starvation in the grieving family’s village and beyond.

Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) reports that nearly 1.9 million people require food aid as they await the next harvest. Nationwide, food prices are sky-rocketing.

In Nyadani’s rural setting, a bag of maize that cost just K10 000 when farmers sold their yield to vendors 10 months ago, now costs up to K25 000.

Joseph couldn’t afford a kilogramme.

He explains: “I visited a friend in Mkwate Village and told him my siblings hadn’t had any food for three days, so he sold me some deya from his home.

“When I took it home, sister Chisomo pounded it in a mortar since I did not have K50 for milling at the nearby maize mill. We cooked nsima with the pounded gran and ate it with okra picked from neighbouring crop fields.”

They had the meal around 4pm, recalls Evance Singano, a brother to Nyadani.

“My sister was away. Luckily, she had taken along her last born aged one. When she returned in the evening, she was relieved that her children finally had a meal,” he says.

This was not the first time the family ate deya (maize husks) in a desperate struggle to beat the raging hunger, they say.

But little did Nyadani know that the sigh of relief would turn into a nightmare.

Tragedy struck in the middle of the night when her children, one after another, complained of stomachache, vomiting and diarrhoea.

“Since there was no money for transport to the nearest Namadzi Health Centre, we waited until morning when we carried the children on our backs to the facility.

“Joseph and his younger brother Mphatso feigned wellness because he was afraid of doctors interrogating him about the deadly meal they took,” says Singano.

In no time, clinicians at the rural health centre swiftly referred seven children, the worst hit, to Chiradzulu District Hospital.

“Sadly, one died on the way to the hospital,” he says.

As some relatives, together with police, were returning to the village with the body, they found Joseph and Mphatso weak. They complained of stomachache and were treated as outpatients at Thondwe Health Centre.

On January 29, a rainy Wednesday, the victim of hunger was laid to rest while the six other siblings were in hospital.

Chiradzulu Police Station spokesperson Yohane Tasowana confirmed the death, saying health workers at the district took samples to ascertain the cause of death.

“We are yet to hear from our colleagues. Once they have the results, they will let us know,” he says.

But Nyadani’s family is still hit hard by hunger.

“When there is food, which is usually deya and vegetables, it usually lasts a day or two. Instead of enjoying the meal, we take it with sadness knowing that there maybe nothing for the next day,” says Joseph.

Melia Chipoya, a mother of seven, says the food desperation suffered by her nieces and nephews has not spared anyone in the village.

“Maize scarcity is making the crisis worse. My husband makes reed mats and earns enough to buy maize, but we also eat deya. The food shortage has us left with no choice,” she says.

On a good day, the family earns K2 000 from selling mats. This is enough to buy 10 kilogrammes of maize from State-owned Admarc, but the nearest depot usually has no grain.

“Since maize is not available at the nearest Admarc depot, we used to buy four kilos from vendors. We have to do with deya. It lasts longer,” she says.

From January this year, Nyadani said she is only aware of two times when there was maize at Namadzi Admarc. However, at both those times, vendors were given first priority such that when members of the community went to buy, there was no maize for them.

Sadly, communities in Mlumbe are not alone in their battle against hunger.

Recently, Senior Chief Tambala of Dedza bemoaned that hunger has pushed over 40 300 people in the district to survive on porridge made from banana suckers.

He opened up: “I urge the government and other well-wishers to come and help us with enough food because even if people go to Admarc to buy food, they find that there is no maize and they come back empty-handed.”

The SOS is a cry of many Malawians as the State-produce marketer seldom stocks maize. When it is available, one can only buy no more than 10 kilogrammes after enduring a long wait in queues that morphs into degrading and crippling scrambles for the scarce staple.

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