Trying to avert famine in Africa

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In a normal year, this would be harvest time in Malawi.

But the effects of the El Niño weather pattern — bringing floods and then drought — disrupted the 2016 planting season, said the Rev. Daniel Mhone, United Methodist superintendent for the Malawi missionary conference.

Assisted by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Methodists are responding to food shortages in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Crops planted in Malawi last November and December “did not mature” for the late winter and spring harvest, Mhone said, leaving an estimated 2.8 million Malawians facing food shortages.

“The government had promised to make the meal available in agricultural depots,” he told United Methodist News Service. “But the meal flour is not being made available. That has put many of the Malawians at very big risk.”

The partnership with UMCOR ensured the delivery of dry rations to families in need in the Madisi area in Malawi’s central region of Dowa. Based on the progress made in Madisi, the relief agency extended the partnership with the Malawi church to cover other drought-affected communities in southern Malawi.

Dependent on agriculture

According to the U.N.’s World Food Programme, food insecurity is a fact of life in Malawi, where more than 80 percent of the population are “smallholder farmers” on marginally productive agricultural land. Natural disasters, such as flooding and drought, can have catastrophic effects.

“Women are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity as their extensive home-based workload and care work does not usually translate into economic gain, limiting their ability to afford a balanced diet,” the World Food Programme reports. The U.N. program is providing emergency food aid in Malawi through April, largely supported by contributions from USAID.

Some 85 percent of United Methodist church members also are subsistence farmers. On a trip to Malawi this month, the Rev. T. Cayce Stapp saw firsthand the damage to maize fields. He is director of global impact ministries for the Church of the Resurrection, a multi-site United Methodist congregation headquartered in Leawood, Kansas. The Kansas church has partnered with the Malawi church since 2010.

To Contribute

Donations for drought relief in Africa can be made to International Disaster Response, Advance # 982450 of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

“The combination of the flooding… followed by the drought has just been crippling,” he said. “Everywhere I went there were crops you could tell were going to yield nothing.”

Stapp said he visited a few food distribution points and met recipients who talked about “how their lives were literally hanging on by a thread” until they received the food assistance.

Disaster relief and food security are among the areas where the Church of the Resurrection is working to empower members of the Malawi church to address basic needs, he said. Other priorities include clean water, sanitation and hygiene training; self-sustaining economic empowerment; health education and medical rehabilitation; spiritual formation and pastoral leadership and early childhood education and life skills training.

In addition to the UMCOR funding, Church of the Resurrection sent $30,000 to the Malawi church for famine relief and other contributions came from several other U.S. congregations. “It’s really been a true cross-church and cross-agency collaboration,” Stapp added. “I think all of those pieces have been critical and instrumental in the success of the relief effort.”

United Methodist farm makes due

Malawi’s severe drought has not spared the United Methodist farm in Mchinji, reported Lester Mhone, farm manager, in an email to United Methodist News Service. Early rain in November, followed by a prediction for more rain, prompted a start to the planting season, but a hot dry spell “affected the germinating seeds,” he said.

“The weather pattern during the current growing season has not been very favorable to the farm and farming communities around the farm,” the farm manager added.

“The farm, however, has an irrigation system that covers part of the area where we planted maize and groundnuts. We have already harvested the maize and started digging out the nuts. Soon we shall start planting the winter crop.” 

He expects the harvest will be half the usual yield or even lower, but the United Methodist farm did its best to adapt. “When we realized about the erratic rains, we decided to plant sweet potatoes and cassava to supplement the shortfall on maize harvest and we have just started selling the sweet potatoes,” Mhone explained.

UMCOR projects in Zimbabwe

Other parts of southern Africa also are suffering the combined effects of floods and drought. In Zimbabwe, where the government declared “a state of disaster” on Feb. 3, about 30 percent of the rural population — an estimated 2.8 million — are considered “food insecure.” That number could rise to 4 million by January 2017.

UMCOR is responding in partnership with the World Food Programme in Kariba District and Uzumba Maramba Pfungwe (UMP) District, reported Daniel Tripp, UMCOR’s head of mission in Zimbabwe.

“We also have an integrated development project funded by UMCOR in UMP,” he wrote in an email. “We have proposals pending approval for an extension and expansion of our projects throughout the year.”

Some 1.4 million children potentially are affected by food shortages in Zimbabwe’s 10 worst drought-affected districts. Approximately 11.2 percent of children under 5 are reported to be underweight and nearly 100,000 children in that age range thought to be acutely malnourished.

Safe drinking water is another problem. About 1.9 million people in Zimbabwe require improved access to water, sanitation and hygiene, leaving the population at risk for outbreaks of communicable diseases. Eighty-one percent of households do not have water for agricultural purposes.

 Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at or contact her at (646) 369-3759 or [email protected]

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