When in Nsanje, it is easy to note that sorghum is to the district what rice is to Karonga. The crop, locally known as nchewere, is not just popular in the district, but it appears to be a staple food.
However, when you talk with the locals, you hear a different story.
“Of course, sorghum is widely grown here. But these days, peopleâ€™s eating habits are changing. We are becoming more interested in nsima from maize than sorghum,” says Simawo Simawo from Marka, Nsanje.
Simawo suggests a reason for this change.
“I think we have, over the years, been exposed to maize, which is economical. Five bags of maize are equivalent to ten bags of sorghum. Sorghum does not last long,” he says.
But there is a serious disadvantage with this steady change of Nsanjeâ€™s eating habits. Most low lying areas of the district seldom cultivate maize. They grow sorghum because it withstands the heat and also low rainfall in the district.
On the other hand, most of the maize that feeds the district comes from hilly areas. These include Chididi, Mwanalundu, Khuche, Mazino, Masimu, Nyakamera, Masona and Tchaja in Traditional Authority Malemia. These villages are the breadbasket of the district.
Unfortunately, this year, the villages will not live up to their â€˜breadbasketâ€™ status. The erratic rainsâ€”believed to be a product of a changing climateâ€”have taken their toll on the locals.
“Usually, I could harvest almost 45 bags from my garden. This year, I will get less than 10. You may not believe it, but it is true,” says Jenaford Kamkoche, a farmer from Nyakamera Village.
Kamkoche is one of the farmers from the â€˜breadbasketâ€™ villages who uprooted their maize last December, after it had wilted due to a dry spell.
“Usually, we plant our maize in October, especially between 15th and 24th. But last year  was different. Rains came on 3rd November. Luckily, it was just after we had received the maize seeds and fertilisers. Then we planted and applied fertiliser.
“The rains continued for some three days. The crop was full of promise, but after a week, the rains stopped. The dry spell began and you know the scorching heat in Nsanje.
“The maize started to wilt until it became lifeless. Now we are left without a choice. We just have to uproot this, so that when opportunity comes, we can replant,” said Kamkoche in an interview with The Nation in December last year.
But three months later after the uprooting, what are the conditions of their gardens?
“We replanted in mid-December. This was after the rains had, again, began to give us hope. We were just giving it a try,” says Kamkoche.
Another farmer, Jasinawo Jasinawo, 78, from Masimu Village, concurs.
“We rushed back into our gardens to replant. Our agricultural experts advised that we start all over again. That meant making new ridges. We complied because we had no option,” he says.
But the quality of their maize is not that inspiring. Most of it is stunted, yellowish and hardly inspiring.
“The problem is not just because the erratic rains continued. We had exhausted the improved seeds and the fertilisers we bought and received during the first planting exercise. We became penniless and hopeless.
“With the rush of replanting, most of us ended up planting the local seeds we had in our homes. Even worse, we did not have enough fertiliser for the crop as advised by agricultural experts,” says Kamkoche.
However, despite the fact that most of the maize in the area is stunted, there are some farmers whose crop is doing well.
John Lemucha from Nyakamera Village is one such farmer.
“I follow what our agricultural experts advise. They told us that after replanting, we should try as much to lay dry maize on the ridges to maintain their warmth. This helps to keep the ridges wet. As a result, the heat can barely destroy the crop,” he says.
His maize, despite the continued erratic rainfall, is quite green and promising.
The challenge is that Lemuchaâ€™s story is quite isolated. There are very few farmers whose gardens look as his.
“We are in for a serious problem this year. I look after a big family which includes orphans. Maize has been the source of food and income for my family,” says Kamkoche.
It is not just in Nsanje where dry spells are rearing an ugly face on the locals. This story has affected a number of farmers across the country.
Spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture Sara Tione says government is well aware of the problem.
“Currently the ministry is compiling agricultural estimates. After this we will be able to make necessary recommendations regarding interventions necessary for the situation,” she says.
The ministry is also advising farmers to diversify into other crops.
“For instance, in Lower Shire, there are crops like cotton and sorghum which are doing well. If other crops like maize fail, at least, they can seek refuge in those that are doing well,” says Tione.
But crops like sorghum and cotton only do well in low-lying areas of Lower Shire. But for villages like Chididi and others in the hilly areas, the crops are barely grown.
In addition, as observed by Simawo, peopleâ€™s eating habits in the district are changing. Perhaps with the changing climate, people in Nsanje just need to accept that sorghum is their wonder crop.