In Malawi, AIDS Pushes Food Shortages To Crisis Point
Martha Nakaramba's two teenage children are taking turns traveling to nearby Mozambique to bring food home to this drought-stricken area of southern Malawi and care for their 35-year-old mother who is sick with AIDS.
Sitting outside her small mud-brick hut, Nakaramba musters enough strength to explain in a barely audible voice that that is how they are coping with the severe food shortages hitting Malawi, where the AIDS crisis is showing no signs of abating.
"The children were very distressed. It was very difficult," says Nakaramba, whose husband left her long ago and who has been struggling with AIDS for the past two years.
Aid agencies in Malawi, one of Africa's poorest countries, are warning of a looming humanitarian crisis stemming from the double effect of drought that has cut output of maize, the staple food, by a quarter and AIDS affecting 15 percent of the population.
Up to five million people are in need of food aid in Malawi, the hardest hit in southern Africa where five other countries are also struggling with extreme hunger that is expected to reach its peak in December and January, according to the UN World Food Programme.
The southern Mulanje district bordering Mozambique stands out as one of the worst-hit areas by the food crisis, and it also has an HIV infection rate at 29 percent, almost double the national average.
"You can't separate the two," says John Makina, program coordinator for the British-based charity organisation Oxfam in Mulanje. "We have had dry spells before but households used to be able to provide labour to get a bit of money and survive."
Makina says families in the Mulanje district are unable to cope when breadwinners are sick and unable to work or when households must shoulder the burden of caring for a mother or father with AIDS.
In the village of Mchiwa, 19-year-old Dalitso Dulla has been caring for his three sisters and two brothers, ranging in age from 14 to three since his mother died of AIDS in 2003, just six months after his father succumbed to the disease.
Dulla just returned from Mozambique where he was given dried cassava as wages for his work as a labourer. The vegetable is pounded into a paste and eaten as porridge although health workers say a diet of cassava is sure to lead to malnutrition.
"Most of the time I have to be absent from school to go look for food for my siblings," says Dulla. "And when there is nothing to eat, we just go to sleep with empty stomachs."
Last week, Dulla joined a growing number of food aid recipients in Malawi with his first delivery of a 50-kilo bag of maize to feed his family for the month.
Oxfam is currently providing food to 34,000 families in the Mulanje district, located just 80 kilometers (50 miles) outside of the commercial capital Blantyre, but it plans to scale up the aid to reach 55,000 by January.
The head of the nutrition rehabilitation center for children at Mulanje Mission Hospital says the current food crisis is the worst that she has seen in 22 years in that job.
"They are eating once a day at night to have full stomachs to be able to sleep but during the day, the parents say 'just find anything to eat'," said Ellen Gama.
Due to lack of funding, the hospital has been forced to turn away children who were not severely malnourished.
But an AIDS orphanage opened two years ago continues to welcome between ten and 15 babies per month who stay for about two weeks at the hospital until a relative can come forward to take the child.
"The situation with the orphans is becoming uncontrollable," said Gama.
Over 11 million people in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland, which also have some of the world's highest HIV/AIDS infection rates, are facing hunger in the coming months, according to WFP.
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