WFP's web editor Chris Endean is on a mission to Malawi. This is his second report from a country in the midst of a food crisis, and first appeared on the Guardian Unlimited website.
We could tell we were close to the food distribution site long before we actually reached the village of Masenjeve in Chiradzu district. A trail of local villagers stretched back down the dirt road, converging on the local school classrooms that WFP uses to store its food rations.
In total, 365 people were gathering to claim their monthly ration of maize. Hester Nyasulu of Concern Universal, the UK non-governmental organisation responsible for distributing the food, told me that the number of people needing aid to stave off hunger in this region has risen threefold since August.
After the worst harvest in 10 years, demand is fast outstripping supply with more and more people running out of their staple diet.
Hester explains that each bag of maize is supposed to feed a family of six for one month. But several villagers confessed to me that their rations would only last two weeks because they would have to share with relatives.
By far the majority waiting patiently were women. Despite the baking sun, they heaved 50 kilo sacks of maize on to their heads and set-off for home – usually, several miles away.
The lucky ones tied their sacks to rudimentary bicycles and started pushing. We accompanied one, 65-year-old Katalina, to her mud hut.
Sitting in the shade of her porch amid the parched fields that this year have been a graveyard for Malawi’s harvest, Katalina explained how four of her eight children died in their 20s.
Both are buried in the local cemetery, where row upon row of fresh piles of red earth are testimony to one of the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates. Now Katalina must look after her daughter’s two orphans: Andrew, aged 17, and Bison, 14.
Katalina expresses her relief that she is eligible for food aid. Before she had to pay for maize at the government-run warehouse just up the road in Namitambo.
Today, word has quickly got around that the warehouse has opened its doors for the first time in two weeks and scores of villagers are queuing for government subsidized maize.
Marooned behind a barred window and guarded by a gun-toting farmer, Evas Gama has Namitambo’s least enviable job – portioning out meagre amounts of maize at the rate of 17 Kwachas per kilo.
The arithmetic is easy because most people cannot afford much. Delita Darison, aged 54, shows me her four kilo sack. With four kids to feed, she expects it will last less than a week.
The warehouse is unlikely to get another consignment anytime soon, but it’s the only alternative to the local market where maize costs 38 Kwachas per kilo – well out of Delita’s reach.
This is what most worries WFP and other aid agencies. If the price of maize is already beyond most Malawians, how many will require free food aid from January to April when the country enters its more traditional ‘hunger season’? At the last count, we are estimating 40 percent of the entire population, some five million people.