Famine and Aid

The last couple of weeks have been spent looking for land to set up the African Moringa and Permaculture Project (AMPP) headquarters. I found the spot and have embarked on the treacherous waters of land acquisition in Malawi. The plot I found has not been used for 35 years for anything other than occasionally baking some bricks. We are not displacing anyone or interrupting any human activity by setting up shop here. You would think then that the process would be simple and that maybe just maybe the arrival of an organisation whose motive it is to work with and for the local community, would be met with an overwhelming feeling of positivity and good cheer. This was not my overwhelming feeling.

Instead the phrase “give me money”, all too common in Malawi, was heard at every turn. For those who might read this and have not been to Malawi, I should qualify my obvious displeasure at hearing it again and again. This is a desperately poor country. Consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the world by such organisations as the World Bank and the IMF. Many people might think that it is to be expected that people should beg but it was not always like this. When the civil war in Mozambique raged, refugees poured into Malawi and of course hot on their heals came the hordes of aid workers. Aid workers are generally compassionate and generous people. It was natural for them, when faced with poverty, to handout money and gifts left and right. It’s hard to begrudge them for doing so. And yet I do.

Many Malawians, particularly in rural areas, have now come to associate foreigners with handouts. This has lead to “give me money” almost entirely replacing “hello” in many areas. For someone like me who is setting up an organisation that will be based here and will give people the necessary skills and knowledge to provide for themselves for the long term, handouts are anathema. AMPP absolutely cannot start life in this community being viewed as the local cash cow. We want to restore people’s pride in their work and in their village, banishing the ghost of malnutrition and hunger to annals of history in the process.

But here’s the catch. People are hungry now. Not tomorrow or the next year, now. Telling them you will give them skills that could change their lives in the long term yields reactions ranging from mild enthusiasm to blank stares closely followed by “I cannot feed my family”. How do you refuse money to someone who cannot feed his family when you have been driving around spending a small fortune on fuel?

As a Londoner I am not unused to begging. It’s on Tv whenever savethechildren or oxfam come out with a new ad and we come across it in the streets occasionally too. My first thought in the first instance is to change channel or avert my eyes, it’s horrific but it’s also incredibly unfair to guilt trip me into reacting to it. In the streets of London when someone comes up to you and says “I need 50p to get home on the next bus, please help” my first thought is “No. He’s full of it and will probably spend it on booze.” Perhaps these reactions are unfair, I don’t know.

In Malawi it is very real, especially in person. But there’s another catch. Sometimes it isn’t. The family AMPP is buying land from said the same thing to me: “we need the money now, we have no food.” Fine, I said, I’ll pay you an advance now but cannot give you the whole amount until I have the paperwork assuring me that AMPP owns the land. This advance, all I had with me at the time, would have been enough to feed a family of four for ten days, by which time I would probably have paid the full amount for the land. Much to my surprise they said no. How then am I supposed to believe that they genuinely need the money for food now? How do I distinguish between those who desperately do need the money and those who are just using it as a line to real you in?

And then there’s the chief. We call the chief the Traditional Authority or TA, as a way to explain it to our western minds. I was told before my meeting that this was a good chief, compared to others and that I am lucky to be dealing with him. This so called “good chief” was present when people in the village asked me for money to feed their families. He was present also when a man asked me for money to mend his bike so that he could get back to his family. The chief said nothing and barely even looked at them. He then demanded enough money from me to feed a family of four for two weeks, just for his own lunch and to satisfy his ego. I got the distinct impression that the unspoken threat here was that if I didn’t do this he would not sign the papers selling AMPP the land. I paid him.

I don’t know what the correct behaviour is in all these cases or whether there even is an answer. The whole experience left me feeling awful and certain that I had done the wrong thing, yet utterly unsure as to what the right action was. I’ll keep going and, with luck and hard work, AMPP will successfully meet its goals by eradicating malnutrition and hunger in its area of influence. Maybe then I’ll have some answers to the questions posed by the experiences I have related here.