From the American People; From the Malawian Earth

My village and the entire traditional authority of Mwansambo have been implicitly named in a ‘targeted emergency response’ at the start of this year.  I found this out last week, not in the passing of high flood waters, or of an especially bad cholera outbreak, or even a volcanic eruption from the belly of Lake Malawi, but from a large professionally garnished sign hanging up across the side of our primary school, Nyenje primary.  I looked out over the school grounds at amassing crowds of community members, standing in small circles shifting their gaze back and forth to a flat bed truck that had been parked in the school’s front yard.  It was stacked high with white sacks, tied down with muddy ropes.  The students of Nyenje primary were gawking from the classroom windows, drawn from the repetition of their counting exercises, watching their parents wait for the relief maize. And then I was struck, this is the fabled hunger season.
Nyenje primary school is about 200 yards up the road from my house and encompasses the heart and soul of Chinthankhwa village. The school works just as much as a primary (elementary) school as it does a community meeting ground, an interdenominational praise and worship house and a landmark along the Mwansambo road. The school marks the point along the road where the electrical lines, perusing through the bush in route to Mwansambo, intersect the road giving the illusion that the Chinthankhwa ‘downtown’, very well, could light up in the night. This again is only a mirage; coca cola here at Mr. Josum’s shop will always be bought and sold at room temperature. It is here at Mr. Josum’s shop that I commonly gravitate towards. The shop sits across the road adjacent to Nyenje primary. I move under the cover of a tree hedge to avoid a group of cackling old women; as a personal rule I avoid most crowds over 4 people. I am the reigning local celebrity, my greatest affect is to pop up out of nowhere, the element of surprise is one of my favorite tools and also another tool in my belt of self preservation. I jump up on the porch, slap some hands, and find a seat in the corner next to Elvance (pronounced Elvis). Elvis Josum is the son of the shop’s proprietor, and unlike his father, Elvis speaks moderately fluent English. Elvis is my source of information for all the happenings in Chinthankhwa village. He is my informant, what those in the CIA might call an asset, but strictly in the Peace Corps way of things, he’s my friend. I could find myself in this corner on any given morning and this is where I was on Tuesday of last week.
“Targeted emergency response”, I repeated out loud as to demonstrate my proficiency in the English language. No one else, besides Elvis, on the porch or wandering about the school yard, had any notion as to what the big white sign was saying. In repeating the phrase, I allowed for the words to permeate through my mind. I observed that people were calm, composed, talking modestly and in an amiable fashion. Our senior chief, Blackface Galumba (pronounced Breakfasti) was moving up and down ‘mainstreet’ as fast as his walking cane would allow. He is, without question, the man in charge around here, take that as pretext.
“Where’s the fire?” I asked Elvis in my best West Texan accent.
“I’m not getting you.” Elvis responded flatly.
“Well, that’s just an expression we use sometimes in American English.”
“Oh, thank you very much. Where is…that fire.” Elvis repeated.
“Yeah well…. the sign there. It says that there’s an emergency, what’s up?” I say with piqued interest.
“Oh that sign … ahh, but I don’t know what it is saying.”
“Ok well it’s saying madzidzidzi (emergency in Chichewa) and I don’t know what you’d say for the rest.”
“Oh yes.” said Elvis
” Well so that’s why I asked, ‘where’s the fire?’ I mean what’s the emergency?”
“I think they are distributing maize. There is somehow hunger.” Elvis responded plainly.
“oh right, so everyone is here because they ran out of maize.” I muttered rhetorically.
I then sat and deliberated, as insensibly as I can muster to write, as to which of my neighbors and community members had fallen short from last years maize harvest and how that was even a possibility. I wondered how many opportunists had showed up to receive their bags of free food only to go and sell off down at Mwansambo market? On this morning, parked outside of the primary school, was more than 10 tons of Malawian/African grown relief maize under an exorbitant sign written in the Queen’s English. There wasn’t enough time or daylight even to contemplate the complexity of this situation. There wasn’t enough information anywhere to decide if this was a worthy cause, a life giving intervention, if this was the debilitating crutch called dependency, if this was a gift with strings attached. Maybe some people in my community were facing hunger, but some people in a place like Kansas City also face hunger, and someone is running around a place like Dubai stark naked and that’s just the way things go. I was stupefied. Where does the threshold of poverty lie in rural Africa? And this stupefaction brought on two strongly dissident emotions, which hit me in the same moment and gave me a sort of head buzz as I sat staring off from the porch.
The first began as a passing thought that formed into an irritable emotion and eventually morphed into an old fashioned ranting conspiracy theory to the extent of resounding senility, and at the risk of losing all credibility from my Grandma’s breakfast club (who actually read my blog). It was a completely baseless abandonment of objective fact-finding, more of an emotional escalation of hunches and assumptions. It was an emotional escape and it starts this way.
[This is now a dialogue of my thoughts] It seems to me, a reasonable idea, that a community of people experiencing a prior year of slightly above average rainfall would have an equally modest harvest capable of lasting through the entire year. You could assume the most cunning, or even rudimentary idea of how much maize would be needed to grow, how much of that a person could sell for liquidity, how much is to be given as a church tithe, and how much you and your family would subsist on throughout the year. For entire lifetimes, spanning multiple generations my neighbors have been in a continuous cycle of planting with the rains, growing, weeding, harvesting, selling maize and other commodity crops so much so that it should be perceived somewhere between an exact science and the simple necessity of drawing water from a well. It requires the same emotionlessness of waking up every morning to fix yourself the same breakfast, it takes less than a thought (which in some ways is the major overlying problem; complacency). If this year were, so they say, the fabled hunger season, then I could only wonder as to how anyone survived for decades on into the past. Last year was another year that passed like the others; a textbook year of agrarian living, free of calamities and locus. In my eyes it seems degrading and demeaning that after the sweat and toil of having grown your own food through the year for your own survival and sustenance, that some coalition of foreign governments and some group of agronomists should drive through your village and conclude so swiftly that your community is on the brink of starvation. And so my question is under what process of submission does the UN World Food Program accept, with so little foresight, a merited instance of food insecurity? How do they in fact target an emergency response? It definitely was not the local maize venders or business persons who would have raised a false alarm. They stand to see their entire business washed out by a tidal wave of free maize. Now with such a mass influx, who could ever really know the true price of maize again. The UN has benevolently smothered to death a natural business cycle that is essential to our local economy. It now seems reasonable to assert that money grows on trees and the UN is giving out maize (as hunger rations) in times of peace and in years of average rainfall. I can only perceive this as a gesture of pity and more deceivingly as a message of total ambiguity (ie. what makes a legitimate food emergency). It’s possible that my own vision has been enflamed with pride, but none the less we can never have the confidence of a sovereign people if we are tolerant of annual gestures of pity (verses opportunities for scholarship).
Through observation and inquiry, I have found that a ‘targeted emergency response’ is in fact a food distribution, wherein you can register your family with the World Food Program (under the UN) on the basis of your family size and your land availability you are eligible to receive food in 3 monthly installments; December, January, and February (through the hunger season).
This is roughly how it breaks down. The British government is one of the larger players in the World Food Program for Malawi. They’ve bought lots of maize at a premium price and put it into 55 kilogram sacks with a British flag and a little quip, ‘ From the British people’. The British taxpayers have bought this maize from Rab’s Processors Inc. Rab’s Inc. is a Malawian company (most definitely owned by the political elite) that buys maize from Malawian farmers throughout the year. Some of these farmers are overselling ( selling too much of) their maize earlier in the year for cash liquidity. Simply put, this is a revolving fund of maize. This is foreign money buying maize from Malawian farmers to distribute back out to those same farmers 6 months later free of charge, as part of some heroic rescue mission by the World Food Program. “From the British people”, but really from the Malawian farmer, dug by hand from the Malawian earth. In my example the British government is buying maize, but our U.S. government is contributing cooking oil as another stakeholder under the World Food Program umbrella. In saying that America is bring cooking oil to the table, I’m talking about a 4 liter metal canister of oil, garnished with an American flag on the side, which looks as silly as something you’d buy at Sam’s club, distributed to each Malawian family. My neighbor has never seen such a prodigious amount of cooking oil in her life, she doesn’t know what to do with it all so she sells 2 liters for cash liquidity. Hopefully now you now have a question to ask.
” Well it seems ill-advised for a Malawian farmer to oversell their corn in the year, isn’t that part of the problem?” And to that I would say yes, good question, but this is what I have noticed in the last hunger season/year. Last year we had no assistance from the World Food Program. Of course there were those that oversold their maize and ran out prematurely, but then there were just as many who had grown and/or acquired a surplus of maize. This provided for very organic business opportunities for borrowing and lending, where those with a surplus were able to lend maize to a borrower and receive maize from the next harvest with interest. In this scenario, the borrower then has the incentive to grow more crops in the coming rainy season as an alternative to having to borrow again and pay more in interest. The World Food Program has, in our case in this small corner of the world, overlooked the implications of how there false emergency could so detrimentally affect a local economy. They’ve flooded our local economy with a commodity that works essentially as a secondary form of currency. And that is my complaint, and that’s the wind behind the fire and the true heart of the matter.
Its clear to see that this is lackadaisical aid work! This appears to be where people from an office building in Lilongwe fire buckshot out into the bush at the first beastly sound they hear (the groans of hunger). They collect faulty data that doesn’t add up to, or is inherently unattainable and they cover there bases in the recitation of untranslatable agency indicators to our community leadership (the chiefs). I would assume that in the same office building the phrase emergency targeted response has been , for the past months, slung around the office like a seasonal sales drive. It was most certainly a directive from somewhere in the world like headquarters. Headquarters, no doubt, consults with a firm full of English majors, who would never have realized the irony that all the sharp wit of their sententious phrases is now printed on a sign and hung in a community of full of non-English speakers.
[internal dialogue continued…]
America, entertain this hypothetical analogy for just a minute. Imagine the Chinese government coming in 4 or 5 years ago to buy off all the foreclosed houses in your neighborhood and then without any noteworthy strand of information or understanding about your living circumstances, have made the assumptions that you, as a group, are partially homeless and therefore facing hunger. The Chinese government would come back to offer the entire neighborhood a monthly food stamp program to help supplement your livelihood (That is only an analogy, don’t be upset). We would surely balk at this suggestion. We would say, ” Well this sure has been one hell of a recession, but I still like to take my family to Applebee’s on the weekends and I don’t know how we could take charity from a foreign country; I’m sure they have their own problems.”
We would shout through the diplomatic cables of our nation’s capital and say, ” Hey China, what’s your angle; why you bein’ so nice to us?”
China would merely have to respond with the results of a Google search in order to expose the figures of American obesity, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce, the 10% population without medical insurance, the giant algae plume in the Gulf of Mexico linked to the overuse of NPK fertilizers. They would only have to say, “we want to help you help yourselves. Please accept this container of weight loss powder”, they’d say with a red flag and a yellow star on the can and with a little quip, “from the Peoples’ Republic of China”. And to further the analogy, this situation would be all very one sided. China could do a quick Google search and condemn America of its short comings while we would have a much harder time turning the mirror off of ourselves, in this case as China is a state run government that doesn’t divulge too much about itself.
And so this was the first emotion that I felt… But then the second emotion stirred off to the side in a pool of doubt that had circled out of the raging torrent of my own altruistic self-assuredness.(that’s a little much) This uncertainty gave way to a sort of genuine compassion for the people I live with. In their circumstances, in the bliss of simple living, and in the hardships that were unknown to me still. I saw myself removed of the situation as a foreigner involved in a culture, which still had the appeal of being exotic after these past couple years. I had sensed that I have gotten carried away in my way of thinking, as evidenced by the use of the pronoun our to argue something along the lines of sovereignty. In truth, I am not a Malawian. In reality, I am an American who is moving back to America in April who has missed the principal fixture of the conversation; poverty. Poverty is a relative word, but in the context of this writing would imply living under the dollar-a- day threshold, sleeping on a reed mat, and affording only to eat rice and meat on major holidays. With that lack of life experience, I felt a conviction that I was not the right person to cast a tract into the ethics of a hunger season. Poverty completely changes the collective psychology, it changes the voice from what we would say as Americans, “Hey China, what’s your angle?” to a message that is heard every evening on Malawian news broadcasts, which says, “Oh yes donor countries, we are facing many problems here in our country. We would very much like your assistance.”
Feeling more humble now, I can’t argue in the face of poverty. That would be a criticism against my friends and neighbors for being opportunistic. No matter the pretenses, when a benevolent organization comes in to distribute free food who would have the gull to be prideful and decline? Who could afford to defend their ideals of food sovereignty?
In the world at large, Malawi is known as the Warm Heart of Africa. That is the official national identity, and sure, it is a warm and welcoming title, but the motto also runs parallel to the notion that’ nice guys finish last’. So in years of average rainfall can Malawian farmers really have food sovereignty? Who owns the lifeblood of Malawian sustenance, the British people? Grown by the sweet and toil of the farmer, in red Malawian earth, bought by foreign governments, and redistributed under an ambiguous white sign, ’emergency targeted response’. What does it mean, who does it help? I don’t yet understand.

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About jeff G.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Malawi. I work as a forestry advisor near Nyenje Forest Reserve in the district of Nkhotakota. I like reading, chatting with friends,biking, farming, and eating nsima, at least that's all I do anymore.

One response to “From the American People; From the Malawian Earth

  1. Anonymous

    Maize is king….. IF Maize is “currency” then another way to look at this is from a infusion of resouces (cash) into this commuinity. Maybe being opportunistic is just another phase of the cycle. The forward thiking people would see this as a chance to use this for exchange of something else that would be truly beneficial to them. Idealistic yet practical…. Love you Mom

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