March 11, 2005
Farming in a Drought
Malawi is experiencing a crisis. During the entire month of February there was no rain. February is supposed to bring monsoon type rains to help the crops mature. Because of the lack of moisture, the maize, which comprises over 70% of the crops, is withered and dry. The ears of corn are missing or small. Since almost everyone here depends on their gardens for food, the crop failure is a true disaster. Harvest is supposed to take place in a month and there are virtually no crops to bring in. Already we see children in the bush with the extended bellies that herald malnutrition, but the experts tell us that it is going to get much worse. The drought means that people will starve.
On our trip to Balaka, we did, however, visit a few farms that have not been hit as hard. This is due to the fact that Blantyre Synod, as well as Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), have taught some farmers how to better use their land. We visited a demonstration garden in Chingale. The garden’s special hybrid variety of corn was dry, but had well matured ears of maize. The farmer’s maize that was adjoining the Demonstration Garden was totally withered and non productive. The cassava and sweet potatoes which the agricultural experts were encouraging farmers to plant were doing well despite the lack of rain. These are drought resistant plants.
In Kainga Village, we visited a farm that’s maize was suitable for seed multiplication. It faired well, despite the drought. The female farmer we talked to showed us the harvest of another crop that the Blantyre Synod’s Projects Office experts had shown her how to plant. It was an early maturing groundnut (peanut), which is a wonderful source of protein. Her family will be well provided for this year, and they will share their seeds with others in the village, so more people can grow these rugged varieties next year. That is how the program works. More and more farmers benefit from it as the years go by.
In Chingale, yet another farmer showed us his dry, yet productive crop of hybrid maize. His plants had many more soybeans than surrounding fields, because he was using seed provided by PDA.
The Presbyterian agricultural workers are encouraging farmers to diversify their crops, and you will see pigeon peas, hybrid millet, “money maker” tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, early maturing maize, and even cotton in fields. If one crop fails, it is not a total disaster, the other crops will fare better, and provide some food and income for the family.
Low tech irrigation is another solution to the region’s water woes. Treadle pumps that are driven by human power can help irrigate fields and have been distributed, but they can only be used in regions that have access to an abundant water source. All the river beds that we saw in Balaka and Chingale were dry.
The problems are huge and the crisis is here, but there are inroads and improvements being made that will save and improve lives.