The Irish Famine in context

Villages in Malawi where we work are probably quite similar to famine villages in the rural west of Ireland.

A village comprises up to ten “Bothans”, all close together, where all the households are related. The land is controlled by Chiefs as distinct from Landlords, with little or no private ownership. The staple diet is one (or two) meals of nsima ( tasteless maize flour with the texture of porridge or overcooked rice ) daily. Like, with our potatoes, if the maize crop fails, they starve.

Here the similarity ends. We always had clean drinking water; they don’t. We had a constant rainfall; they have a three month rainy season, with no storage capabilities for the rest of the year. They also have to cope with water borne diseases, aids, aid, snakes, and other nasties!

But they have the sun and a wonderful spirit.

They have strong, intelligent, determined, bright, cheerful and powerful women in spite of all the odds, who just need half a chance. I mention women particularly because their culture and society has made them responsible for all water and food, in most of the developing world.

They have to locate and carry water, often from very long distances. They have to cultivate, plant and harvest the food crops, as well as bearing, rearing and feeding an average of 9 children and, with Aids, burying many of them as well.

They need a little help, a jump start and small-change funding.
They need to be de-colonised and reminded that they have all the skills, to succeed.

They need pumps and wells for clean water, which will eliminate most of the Malaria, Diarrhoea, Typhoid, and Dysentery; which means more work, more crops, and more food. They need irrigation systems, model gardens, seeds (new varieties, old African varieties too), and organic farming. They need to lessen the use of artificial fertiliser, make more compost and use plants to control pests. They need education in sustainable organic farming.

They need a plan to be developed with them and for them, not a gospel thought up and delivered from New York, London or even Dublin, and not delivered by well meaning but urban graduates. They need the collective wisdom of the ICA, the IFA, and Michael Davitt.

They need to develop at their pace, with their chosen systems. They need simple tools, preferably made in Mzuzu rather than Sheffield or Shanghai.

They need the dignity of ownership, the freedom of choice, a hand up without handouts, but most of all they need affirmation and encouragement. They need us to work beside them, to stick with them, and to be good neighbours. They need help with village care for their orphans.

The collective “small change” from any organisation, could do all this and more for a “famine village” and banish the thought of famine forever.


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