September 5, 2014
I am out in Mozambique at the moment on a short work assignment for 6 months. I have never been to Southern Africa before and this is my first time in Mozambique. Mozambique lies on the south-eastern corner of the African continent and it is slightly smaller in expanse than twice that of the US state of California. The country has just over twenty-five million people with over 50% living below the poverty line. According to a UNDP report of 2013, Mozambique ranked 185 in the world out of 187, meaning it was the 3rd poorest country in the world.
Vast majority of the people live in the rural countryside and this is where I am working up in Moma District in the province of Nampula. Of the people I work with, most of the management team and technical experts are expats from South Africa and beyond. There are supervisors and junior technical staff from the cities of Maputo and Nampula. The bulk of the blue-collar workers are from the local villages consisting of both men and women, with men comprising the majority.
One of the Mozambican guys I work with is a young man in his twenties and is a training officer. He comes from further north along the coast closer to the Tanzanian border. One morning not so long ago I am in the office and he comes in and takes a seat in front of me. I looked at him and he appeared tired and haggard and lacking any vim.
"What's up buddy? Are you OK?" I asked.
"I have no energy, I feel weak," He replies.
My initial thoughts were that he had malaria, which is prevalent in this part of the world and every day someone at work is getting sick from it. A few weeks back five guys in one team got bitten by mosquitoes on the same night and all five got malaria, being out of work for four days.
"Have you got malaria?" I quizzed.
"No, I am just tired," He replied eyes half closed.
"Did you have breakfast?" I queried further.
"No I don't eat breakfast, because it is a habit," He replied.
"What do you mean habit?" I continued.
"As a child I never had any breakfast before school, and the first meal would be lunch and sometimes only dinner," He explained.
Not even thinking I continued my quizzing of the young man, "How comes you did not eat any breakfast as a child?"
"We never had any food Shah, we simply never had any food," he said sadly.
"I'm sorry man," I apologized.
He continued to explain how even today many families and children do not have enough to eat for breakfast, let alone three square meals a day.
It made me think about this country and how the local villagers in particular have a lifespan of only forty odd years. With malnutrition rife kids suffered the most. It must be one hell of a battle for kids to survive those formative years and make it into adulthood.
I saw further evidence one Saturday when I went to the local village soccer field to watch a game. I was the only non-African person there which caused me to be the center of attention for a group of boys from the age of three to ten. Their inquisitive eyes and smiles shone through their desperate outward appearances. Their clothes were tatty, their faces mud streaked and most had no shoes. The one distinguishing feature was their distended bellies. A protruding stomach was a clear sign of malnutrition. Such a sight was disturbing to say the least. I thought how does a child contend with malnutrition, malaria, tsetse flies, HIV and all else that nature throws at them in this part of the world to get to adult life and think about what to do. As a child in London I did not have to think about my next meal, nor fight any diseases that could be fatal to my life.
On another day the hunger faced by people in the locality hit me even more when around 5pm I was on the company bus being taken back to camp. The roads are dirt tracks and the going is slow to say the least. The roadside is jungle and bush with all sorts of flora and fauna spilling out on to the road. As the bus turned a corner I saw a group of ten-year old boys facing away from the road and intently focusing on a bush. I maintained a keen eye to see what they were doing. This rag-tag group of boys with only tattered shorts on as clothing and no footwear were picking some kind of berry from the bush and putting them in their mouths. They all had the swollen bellies I'd seen previously, and they seemed busy picking away at the berries in what seemed like a desperate bid consumer as much as possible in the shortest time frame.
As the bus drove on up towards the crest of a hill, I contemplated the dire status faced by children and their parents here. Don't get me wrong I have seen hunger and poverty in a lot places on my travels but not to this extent and in such a concentrated manner. Hunger even exists in developed countries, however there is a safety net in most of those nations.
People in this part of the world are literally subsistence living, whatever they can get from the land, rivers and seas they use to feed themselves. Up until a few years back rearing goats did not exist, the main food source is still cassava.
I remember as a 14 year old in 1984 when Band Aid was formed by Bob Geldof highlighting the plight of Ethiopian famine sufferers. Over the years I have seen images of millions of people suffering from famine caused by nature or man-made catastrophes. The impact of images on the 9 o'clock news has been nothing until what I have seen here almost every day.
Mozambique may be a country at relative peace, people here face hunger that is very real, very present and here to stay.