It is lunchtime, but for four-year-old Janet Mkotole of Ngwerero Village, Traditional Authority Ngwerero in Zomba, the only meal she knows is boiled mangoes.
This has been her breakfast, lunch and supper for the past two weeks and it is not clear when she will have a proper meal.
Janet’s mother, Fanny Chilumpha, does piecework for which she gets mangoes as payment. This is how she feeds her family of seven.
Sitting on the verandah of their grass-thatched house, Janet looks to the far end where her 10-year-old second-born brother Lojasi is lying in pain. He has been sick for over a week and their mother does not know what to do.
“We are just waiting for God to touch him,” says the eldest child Leonard, 12, who plays a fatherly role to his younger siblings.
Their father left home as soon as Janet, the youngest, was born.
Without proper food, Lojasi’s body is slowly getting weak. Little Janet takes a mango to her sick brother who, despite the pain, smiles in appreciation. Sadly he cannot eat.
“When he wakes up every morning, he comes to sleep here on the verandah,” says Chilumpha, their mother. “I don’t know what to do,” she adds before turning her eyes away.
The sadness of a mother failing to give the best to her children is clear.
“I try my best, but it is tough,” she laments.
Chilumpha, 38, is helplessly watching her six children feed on mangoes for every meal.
Although the lean period, when Malawi faces food shortages, has not officially started, Chilumpha and her children are already feeling the pinch of hunger.
She and her six children are among the 2.8 million Malawians who are facing hunger this year, according to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac), an independent team that assesses food availability in the country.
Chilumpha and others in her community saw their maize gardens washed away during floods in January this year. The little she harvested in March lasted barely a week, and ever since life has been tough.
Leonard agrees with his mother: “We harvested too little to last even just a week, after which we had to get back to working for food.”
The young boy barely attends school as he now has to help his mother by doing piecework to put food on the table.
“When I am in class, I cannot concentrate not knowing what my mother and siblings will eat,” he adds before breaking down into tears.
Chilumpha says there is no one to turn to.
“The people we used to depend on in the past years are also hungry today. Some of them only have little food which they cannot share as they are also not so sure of tomorrow,” she says.
Chilumpha’s children have big dreams. Lojasi wants to be a pilot while Ulemu wants to be a professional driver. For Leonard, he just wants to go to school and find a job that will liberate not only him but his mother and the entire family from poverty.
Unfortunately, their dreams may not come true as the children are constantly missing class. If they can manage, they attend classes once a week, Wednesday. This is because the school they attend, Chikomwe Primary School, demands school uniforms every day except Wednesday. Without school uniforms, they are sent back home.
“I want to be in class every day, but they chase us every day because we have no school uniform,” says Leonard.
Today, all that Leonard does is wake up and follow his mother in search of menial work. While most children his age are playing around and enjoying their childhood, he cannot afford that luxury.
Walking around the community, most children look malnourished.
Christina Chimala, chairperson for the Area Development Committee for T/A Ngwerero says the food insecurity problem has reached alarming levels for many families and children are the most hit.
“We have had food problems in the past year, but this year it is bad. Every day I have people visiting me, with traditional leaders asking for support which we cannot provide as we do not have the resources,” she says.
Chimala says she fears for the children who are now getting malnourished.
“We fear that something worse than malnutrition may happen if help does not come soon,” she says.
Amid all the hopelessness and uncertainty people are living in, World Vision is about to start an emergency food aid response in the community in partnership with World Food Programme (WFP) and the Malawi Government.
So far, this is Chilumpha’s hope for survival at a time when there seems to be none. n
Charles Kabena is a communications officer for World Vision Malawi, based in the Southern Region.