Monday, Oct 9 we saw our first rain here. We've seen a few sprinkles but this was the real thing: big dark clouds, thunder, the smack of raindrops against the tin roof. I think we got about half a centimeter or so. It cooled things off beautifully and cleared the dusty haze from the horizon.
When we took a stroll through the countryside around Bunda a few days later, we were convinced that things looked greener.
We were surprised, as we'd been told not to expect rain until November or maybe December. Our Malawian friends were surprised too, as it turned out. But actually it fits in with what we've been hearing about the rains in recent years: they're getting less predictable. We were also told this by Matt Raboin, an ag expert at the USAID who gave us a briefing week before last. (The Public Affairs Sector of the US Embassy arranged it; being a Fulbright scholar has its perks!) He said that all the models which predict what might happen under climate change scenarios show the same thing for Malawi: unpredictability. It doesn't necessarily mean less rain; its timing is just less predictable. People used to know when to plant their corn (here, "maize") and they knew that most years once it was planted there would be enough rain to keep it growing until harvest. Now sometimes the rains start but then stop for a while, and the young corn that's just come up withers. That year maybe those who waited to plant until later do better. But the next year if you wait to plant you might not have the rain you need when it's forming tassels, and you get a poor harvest. It's just not as predictable and dependable as it was...not good in a nation where 80% of the people rely on subsistence agriculture. There are usually about 2.5 million people here classified as "food insecure" (in a nation of some 15.9 million), but the hotspots of hunger change from year to year depending on the vagaries of the rainfall.
Other sobering news we learned from Mr. Raboin: The population is growing at a rate of 2.5% a year, and is expected to triple within 30 years. It has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. The population density is already quite high; we were struck by this crossing back into Malawi from Zambia a few weeks ago, noticing how little forest is left on the Malawian side of the border. Most of it has been cleared for farming, and the demand for firewood and charcoal is eating into what's left. The average land holder now supports a family on about 1 ha (2.2 acres) - less in the south where population is even denser. As population grows, land holdings shrink. In addition, while Malawi tends to have pretty good soils they're rapidly being degraded. Maize is continually cropped on some land because it forms the main part of the traditional diet, and many farmers don't have enough land to rotate crops. Not enough people own livestock to make manure a viable source of soil fertility, and synthetic fertilizers are too expensive for many. The need for more farmland also means cultivation of marginal lands prone to erosion, which is a major problem here. It not only damages soil fertility, but when you mainly rely on hydroelectric power erosion is especially bad news.
According to a UN report from 2013, Malawi ranks near the bottom of the Human Development Index: 170 of 187 countries in the world. (The HDI is a statistic which incorporates life expectancy, education, and income indices). Life expectancy at birth if 51 years; infant mortality is 76 of every 1000 live births. Over 14% of adults ages 15-49 are HIV positive; it's as high as 20% in some urban areas. There are over half a million AIDS orphans.
This is actually not where I expected to end up when I started writing about rain. But I guess I was bound to end up on these topics sooner or later. It's easy enough to sit down with an internet connection and look up all these facts; easy enough to organize them into black and white type for a little report. It's much, much harder to settle it all in my mind as I look out a shiny glass car window at shouting, laughing, waving, ragged children for whom this is not statistics, this is reality.
This brings to mind the sermon at church the Sunday before last: Dr. Alex Kalimbira, one of the professors we've become acquainted with, spoke on generosity. His advice was to not think you have to worry about the big picture (leave that to the politicians, he said!) but focus on what you can do, what acts of generosity are within your reach. I don't find this entirely satisfying - but I don't have a better solution to suggest, to the problem of feeling overwhelmed by so much poverty.