I chose to focus my blog on Malawi, my father’s place of birth. He is from Lilongwe, the capital city, but he grew up in a rural village called eManyaleni, where his parents were subsistence farmers cultivating primarily maize. When I was young, he told me stories about catching fish with his hands in the river and trapping tiny songbirds to roast on sharp sticks. He hunted for honey in the hills above his village, laughing off stings because the waxy honey was so delicious. It all sounded like a series of idyllic adventures to me as a child. He doesn’t talk about the things he didn’t have growing up. No electricity, often not enough food or water. My father is the only one from eManyaleni to go to college; the only one to come to the US; the only one to have a PhD. The first time I traveled to the village I was seventeen, and it holds a very important place in my heart.
It frightens me to see the way climate change is ravaging this country as I feel a very personal connection to it. The biggest threats facing Malawians are periods of intense drought and delayed, erratic rainfall, which are increasing in both variability and intensity (Stringer et al., 2009). These risks manifest in many tragic ways. For example, the New York Times reports of a communal well in a Malawian village that was contaminated by January floodwaters that swept away homes and crops (Revkin, 2007). Not only can this sort of heavy rainfall displace entire villages, it brings with it the threat of both disease and malnutrition.
Because nine out of every ten Malawians live in rural areas and rely on rain-fed subsistence agriculture (Stringer et al., 2009: 756), periods of drought have been linked to severe famine. As the population continues to expand rapidly, more and more people who rely on agriculture, particularly maize as a cash crop, will have their livelihoods in the hands of the frequent climactic hazards (Ellis et al., 2003). This year, farmers were relieved by good rain and a bounty harvest, but it came after a long three years of drought in Malawi (Bafana, 2017). And this is not the first time: in the 2004-2005 growing season, drought left behind a “catastrophic maize harvest” putting five million people — more than a third of the country — in need of emergency food resources (Rosenberg, 2014). Events of this sort will continue to fuel rural-to-urban migration, as the unpredictability of rainfall shifts Malawians away from their reliance on agriculture as a main source of income and into the urban workforce. Other steps being taken to adapt to the current and future impacts of climate change include planting hybrid maize and modifying the growing season to adjust to new rainfall and temperature patterns (Stringer et al, 2009: Table 5). Many smallholder farmers move completely away from mono-cropping, diversifying into legumes like groundnuts and soya (Bafana, 2017). Some supplement with tobacco. This way if one crop fails due to drought, they may be able to compensate with income from the others. However, many still feel unsure of what crop to plant, and when. I hope that 10 years into the future we will have developed an effective way to manage these climate extremes for an already vulnerable population. I believe that a change in agricultural practice is a start, but there is a long and challenging journey to go.