Vampires are not uncommon visitors to the villages of Malawi. Historically, they have adopted different guises – Catholic priests have often been subject to accusation, water engineers and medical workers, too. In the 1980s an impending visit by Princess Anne sparked rumours: what exactly had the British Royal Family fed on to become so wealthy? Children in a school near where I lived weren’t taking any chances – they fled before her limousine had made it up the drive. Now, as the country staggers back from the brink of a major famine, the vampires have returned. It’s best not to sleep alone because their favourite trick is to enter your hut while you sleep, spray it with a chemical to make your sleep permanent, then extract your blood with a needle and syringe. When the body of a victim is found it will be grey, drained of blood, but there will be no sign of the attack other than a tiny pin-prick.

Mischeck Matchado, a schoolboy in Chief Somba’s area, lived to tell the tale. In the early hours of Sunday, 2 February, he woke to the smell of a chemical being sprayed through the window of his hut. Then he felt someone holding his hand, then the prick of a needle, ‘and that was when I realised that I was being bloodsucked.’ Mischeck survived because his brother woke up and helped him fight off the intruders – who escaped, he said, in three vehicles. Bloodsuckers always have the most up-to-date equipment; in the colonial period they were supposed to have used fire engines as well as needles and syringes. It’s a thoroughly modern, technical operation. Mischeck blamed his village headman, who, he said, was pocketing money given to him by the bloodsuckers.

Earlier attacks in December produced rather more specific allegations. Not far away, in the densely populated tea-growing district of Thyolo, survivors are convinced that their Government, headed by President Bakili Muluzi, is behind the attacks, sucking blood from its people in payment for the food aid currently being supplied by international donors. This is a theory which can only have been made more credible by the World Food Programme’s use of the word ‘pipeline’ in relation to its food distribution system. ‘Our pipeline to Malawi is currently full,’ one spokesperson was recently quoted as saying. Such pipelines, as many rural people will tell you, have two-way traffic in them. Unsurprisingly, the Government pours scorn on the bloodsucking allegations, arguing that these are unsubstantiated rumours spread by members of the opposition. ‘No government can go about sucking the blood of its own people,’ said President Muluzi. ‘That’s thuggery.’

In Poverty and Famine (1981), Amartya Sen argues that because democratically elected governments are held accountable by a free press and the threat of elections, they do not allow their people to starve (though they may allow them to go hungry). The scandal of mass starvation is something they can’t afford. But the rural poor of Malawi have a rather different theory of famine. Evidently they think they are paying an additional price for the near (and in some cases complete) starvation they suffered last year; and though the payment is being extracted by their democratically elected government, its ultimate destination is the rich countries of the North who control the aid and pull the strings.

One could certainly question how accountable to its people the Government of Malawi has been, for the last two years in particular. Some facts are still in dispute, but we can now grasp how a country that was already hungry came to be starving. Malawi has around 11 million people, 85 per cent of whom live in rural areas. It has never been rich – imperial boundary-drawing is to blame here – and as Nyasaland it was known as the Cinderella of Britain’s African empire. As a colony it struggled to pay for its existence – there are no minerals – and got by largely through the export of migrant labour to the mines of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. This other great pipeline, the march of migrant labour, has long since been blocked off, leaving Malawians more dependent than ever on agricultural production. Most are marginal subsistence farmers, many with very small landholdings: even in a good year, some 75 per cent of the population are less than 25 per cent self-sufficient in the main food crop, maize. The statistics are miserable. In 2001, the UNDP Human Development Index placed Malawi at number 151 out of 162 countries (those ranked lower were all experiencing, or had recently experienced, a state of war). Life expectancy at birth was 40 years, and it’s falling. The greatest worry is that many Malawian households are caught in a desperate poverty trap. Employment is both hard to come by and very poorly paid (the minimum legal wage is around £11 a month, but most will get less than this). So, typically, many households will have to sell off part of their small maize harvest to acquire the cash needed for medicines, protein foods, soap, clothing and, crucially, fertiliser. This makes them extremely vulnerable to any increase in the price of maize when, later in the season, they find themselves having to buy it back in. This vulnerability partly explains what happened last year. But only partly.

In 2001 rain fell at the wrong time, ruining much of the country’s maize crop. There is very little irrigated agriculture in Malawi: the country relies on one, rain-dependent crop a year, and the rain has been doing some very strange things all over Southern Africa in the last few years. Poor people are quick to respond to price increases and anticipated price increases. In August 2001, when it became clear how bad the harvest was, I saw crowds of people queuing to buy not maize but maize bran, used as a ‘filler’ by poorer people. By October some of these same people were already surviving on famine foods: roots and tubers, maize husks, green leaves, bark. Elderly women were quoted as saying that though they expected to have to survive on wild foods in the ‘hungry season’ from January to March, it was ‘unusual’ to have to do so as early as September and October.

The shortfall in Malawi’s maize harvest doesn’t complete the account of the country’s descent into famine. The politics are important, too. The maize shortfall would not have mattered quite so much if the country’s Strategic Grain Reserve hadn’t been empty. Accusations are still flying as to who is to blame. The IMF had insisted that the Reserve should operate like a market institution, and instructed the Malawi Government to sell off a proportion of it at the very moment it was needed. But they didn’t instruct them to sell it all. This seems to have been the initiative of certain individuals close to the Government who, anticipating a food shortage, saw the opportunity to make an easy profit. The Malawian middle class is small and deeply rooted in rural areas: there is no way that those who profited from the sale of maize stock could have been unaware of the hardship this would cause. In this light, the bloodsucking theory of famine seems less exotic, more a simple statement of fact.

Some Malawians see their recent transition to ‘democracy’ as the cause of, not the cure for this corruption. Under the bizarre and scary dictatorship of Hastings Banda, corruption was confined to a very small group surrounding the President, who had the whole economy rigged in their favour (with the support, it should be added, of the country’s international donors). With the first multi-party elections of 1994 came freedom of expression and democratisation, including, it seems, the democratisation of corruption. Now that there is more than one party, competition brings inflation in the cost of vote-buying, and more people now demand a share of the spoils in return for their votes. The build-up to the 2004 election is already underway, and the press is full of accounts of harassment of opposition members. President Muluzi makes speeches asserting that in the Malawian version of democracy, leadership is as important as accountability. In some quarters nostalgia for the good old days of dictatorship (and imagined full bellies) is rife. But a recent attempt by Muluzi to amend the Constitution to allow him to stand for a third term has so far been defeated. The majority of Malawians, it would seem, are anxious to preserve their democratic rights and have no desire to return to the era of ‘life presidents’; but the food crisis has certainly exposed some contradictions in the theory linking democracy, market liberalisation and freedom from famine.

Anger over the Malawi Government’s corruption partly explains why its international donors were so slow to respond to the growing evidence of hardship in late 2001. The actions of President Mugabe in Zimbabwe weren’t helping either. In an atmosphere of donor fatigue and general irritation with the region’s leaders, the hungry were left to fend for themselves. By late January 2002, when the Government finally declared a famine, some people – we will never know how many – had starved and more were starving. Famine deaths are never easy to calculate, least of all in a population weakened by HIV/Aids. Most famine victims succumb to some disease or other, and most die quietly at home. In the absence of any large-scale relief operation they are invisible. Famines do not, in fact, tend to look like the television pictures from Ethiopia in the 1980s or, earlier still, Biafra. Mass, concentrated and highly visible starvation like that comes about as a result of conflict, deliberate political manipulation of food supplies or wildly inept relief operations that congregate starving people then fail to deliver.

The belated declaration of an emergency did not bring any kind of immediate relief because Malawi was now only one of several countries in crisis. In Southern Africa as a whole it was estimated that between 13 and 15 million people were in need of food aid. Zimbabwe’s usual maize surplus had turned into a maize shortage because of the ‘farm invasions’, and though maize was available in South Africa, the usual logistical problems meant that it would be months before these imports made the odyssey through floods, along broken-down railways and potholed roads. Moving food in bulk here is not easy, and landlocked Malawi lies at the end of the very leaky food pipeline. As one visiting journalist quipped, it would help if the country could be relocated somewhere more convenient.

Now, a whole year later, the emergency food pipeline is full, the rains have arrived and the country appears absurdly lush, surreally green. Confused visitors looking for a famine see food growing everywhere and wonder aloud how people could possibly starve in such a place. But appearances can be misleading. The green is the green of chemical fertiliser – the soil’s so shot you can’t grow a crop of maize without it – and the people who need it most usually don’t have it (their maize is the yellow withered stuff). And communities don’t bounce back from a famine year just like that. In order to have survived, they will have sold every asset they had (a goat, chickens, chairs, bicycles), leaving them even more vulnerable than before. Furthermore, the social consequences of a year like 2002 don’t simply go away with a new rainy season. Starvation is a shameful thing, and making choices about who gets food and who doesn’t is difficult. These are communities in which, despite the market, norms of reciprocity and social responsibility are paramount. If a close relative falls victim to a hunger-related illness, or if an elderly person with even a remote claim to kinship is abandoned, someone will have to live with the guilt. Women still sing songs mimicking the cries of the babies who were abandoned during the 1949 famine; now there will be more babies to sing about.

There are no easy solutions to the deepening poverty that lies behind this crisis. Market liberalisation and democracy have manifestly failed the poor, but returning to the previous regime isn’t an option either. It looks certain that a significant proportion of the population will, for the foreseeable future, require some kind of subsidy to survive, a prospect that induces a great deal of hand-wringing and muttering about the ‘evils of dependency’. Malawians will be made to work for their food or fertiliser handouts – but this is not feasible for the ever increasing number of households consisting of older women and their grandchildren, orphaned by Aids. Around a million Malawians are infected with HIV, and with anti-retroviral drugs completely unattainable at their current cost, most can expect to die within a few years. Almost every family is affected by the epidemic; almost every family faces the problems of caring for the very sick and feeding children whose parents are dead.

Intractable as the problems are, there is no shortage of newly arrived experts eager to offer instant solutions – with the very best of intentions, of course. Visitors see a beautiful and potentially bountiful land (it’s not a desert, so what’s the problem?) and just like the early missionaries and settlers of the 19th century, conclude that the country’s problems are the product of laziness and a lack of imagination. ‘They could grow raspberries,’ one excited new arrival said to me last week. Of course no one, least of all the Malawian farmer, desperate to secure more of her household subsistence, is going to turn down a serious agricultural innovation. Malawians have, after all, been innovating and adapting their agricultural systems for centuries – absorbing crops from the New World, rejecting and accepting advice from colonial agricultural officers, trying out new bean varieties, carefully selecting their maize seeds, one by one, in an attempt to balance productivity with pest resistance, with drought resistance, with storage qualities, with pounding qualities, with taste. The assumption that growing food here is a carefree sort of enterprise is simply false. When I asked a schoolboy, quite casually, about this season’s rains, his face immediately took on a very adult gravity. He reeled off a set of dates from November to February, days on which there had been plentiful rain, days on which the rain had not fallen. Day by day, date by date.

In response to growing public anger that the police and Government were not taking the bloodsucking allegations seriously, on Wednesday 5 February the police took Mischeck Matchado for a medical examination. He must have had mixed feelings about entering a hospital – press reports from the previous few days had indicated that ‘bloodsucking tubes’ were going missing from medical facilities around the country. Not for the first time, medical science proved inadequate to the task of determining whether the bloodsucking rumours were true. The Daily Times, claiming to have had access to the medical report, alleged that it provided evidence that Mischeck’s skin had indeed been pierced, presumably by a needle. The Minister of Home Affairs thought otherwise, repeating his previous claim that Mischeck was suffering nothing more than a mosquito bite. Meanwhile, in the capital, Lilongwe, the World Bank was instructing the Government to pay back $1.5 million dollars of the $50 million paid to them to address the famine emergency. Under these circumstances, it seems likely that Malawians such as Mischeck will continue to fear that every ounce of free maize must be paid for with a pint of blood pumped down an intercontinental pipeline.

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