Heart-wrenching and heart-warming: Lisa Stewart reflects on her recent visit to Malawi

This article first appeared in the Irvine Herald on 11 November 2016.

It’s said that at least half of us in Scotland have a link with Malawi – and growing up in Irvine, it certainly felt that way. We’d raise money for Malawi at school, and we all knew someone who went out to Malawi to volunteer in an orphanage, school or hospital.

I remember when I worked at the Irvine Herald as a student, I interviewed my school friend Jen about her experiences teaching in Malawi. We pored over her photos with smiling children, and she told me what a friendly place it was.

I never imagined I’d visit myself, but I recently spent a week there as part of my work as Campaigns and Communications Manager for Oxfam Scotland.

Ever since I returned, people have been asking how it was. This should be an easy question to answer, but I keep finding myself stuck. That’s because the trip to Malawi was simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst experiences of my life.

Let’s start with why it was the best – Malawi isn’t called the “Warm Heart of Africa” for nothing! I was overwhelmed by the positive atmosphere and welcoming attitudes that greeted us there.

We were hosted by our wonderful Oxfam in Malawi colleagues. Even though they spend every day working with some of the poorest people in their country, and tackling desperate need, they are constantly upbeat and couldn’t do enough to make us feel welcome.

When we set out to see the work that Oxfam does in rural villages, the welcome got even warmer. Gaggles of laughing, excited children followed us everywhere we went, fascinated by our video equipment and jostling to get their photo taken. Some of them were learning English at school so they couldn’t wait to tell me their names and ages.

There was great excitement when I answered back in Chichewa, the local language in Malawi. I took some classes in basic Chichewa with the Scotland Malawi Partnership before our trip, and it never failed to delight the people we met that I could introduce myself in their language. “Muli bwanji!”

But the hard reality was that I was in Malawi to document the impacts of the ongoing food crisis, and understand Oxfam’s response. Along with other parts of southern Africa, Malawi has been hit by the worst droughts the region has seen in over 35 years. This is a result of climate change, made worse this year by a weather phenomenon known as El Nino.

6.5 million Malawians are facing food insecurity – more than the entire population of Scotland. During our visit we drove the length and breadth of the country, and as we travelled the impacts of the crisis were shockingly clear.

We passed river beds that were entirely dried up, and field after field with nothing but wilted, failed crops.

We met people who have been badly affected by the food crisis, starting with a visit to Jenipher Nkotima who lives in Mulanje district in the south of Malawi. At 24, she’s considerably younger than me, but she’s the sole carer for her three orphaned nephews.

The three boys, visibly hungry and desolate, sat on the ground nearby as Jenipher told us her story. She explained how she had only been able to harvest one bag of maize this year and that now it had run out, she had no food for herself or the children.

We asked what would happen if she didn’t get help. “I could lose one of these orphans to hunger”, she replied simply.

We also met Lucy and Julius, a married couple living nearby. They look after six children – two of their own and four orphans. The drought deprived them of their only source of income, with the small amount of maize they were able to harvest running out months ago.

Julius was upset as he told us that he had no choice but to sneak into the nearby forest and illegally fell trees to sell for charcoal. To do this he faces down guards and risks punishment, but he said: “it’s the only way I can feed these children.”

Meeting people like Jenipher, Julius and Lucy, on the brink of starvation and resorting to desperate measures to keep their children alive, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

The people of Irvine have always been generous in giving to our friends in Malawi, and they need our help now more than ever. At Oxfam Scotland we’ve launched an emergency appeal, to help us reach those in need with emergency food supplies and cash transfers. Right now the Scottish Government is matching all donations, so anything you donate is worth double.

Please donate if you can at https://www.oxfam.org.uk/what-we-do/emergency-response/malawi-food-crisis