1. Early Warnings about the Conditions in Liwonde; a Plan to Help
Once the results of a harvest are “in,” almost anyone can predict with reasonable certainty how bad the conditions will be for poor families as they approach the next harvest; hence, local Church leaders have known for months local members would likely suffer as they exhausted their maize reserves weeks, and in some cases even months, before the 2016 maize crop could be harvested. The earliest green maize can be harvested is in late March to early April. This meant some families, if left without assistance, might face starvation, while others, if frugal, would suffer but could probably squeeze by until the first fruits of the 2016 harvest were available. Local Church leaders expected some members in Blantyre to suffer, but thought the greatest burdens would fall upon members in the Liwonde Group, primarily those living in and around Sitima Village.
Virtually all of the Liwonde Group members are subsistence farmers, and Liwonde as a mid-size market town offers few job opportunities to the villagers and their families, those looking for non-farm work being forced to relocate to Lilongwe or Blantyre. Unemployment rates are currently high in Malawi, so villagers, especially those with limited skills, have trouble finding non-farm jobs in the larger cities. If they can, they send money home to the family remaining in the villages. As early as the District Conference held on the first weekend of December 2015, Liwonde members alerted the District Presidency to their growing concerns about the likely suffering, and possibly even starvation, the villagers would shortly face. President Matale, immediately after being called as the new District President, scheduled a fact-finding mission to Liwonde to consult with local group leaders, and to visit several families out in Sitima Village about their welfare needs. So on Thursday, October 28, 2015, we escorted Presidents Matale and Banda to Liwonde, first meeting with local leaders at the Liwonde Chapel, and later driving to the Sitima Village. It quickly became apparent that conditions were as bad as represented, since many of the members, even then, had exhausted or would shortly exhaust their 2015 maize crop, leaving them to eat mangos, fresh and cooked, to feed their families until the next maize harvest in early April of 2016.
Several days later, the District Presidency submitted to the Area Presidency in South Africa an detailed proposal, outlining how the District intended to provide welfare to the 32 some households living in Liwonde and to help them acquire hybrid seed and commercial fertilizer to plant the 2016 maize harvest. Generally speaking, farmers may usually double maize yields when using commercial products rather than using native maize seeds and animal wastes as fertilizers. After several weeks of consideration, the Area Office rejected the proposal, advising local leaders that it went beyond the welfare guidelines set forth in the Church Handbooks, asking them to revise the District’s welfare plan to be more in line with announced welfare policies. In addition, to traditional welfare assistance, the proposal called for the Church to advance money to local members to purchase hybrid maize seed and commercial fertilizers to plant the 2016 harvest, anticipating that most would not have the capital to make such purchases absent some intervention. It also provided for members to “repay” those advances out of the 2016 harvest and could be said to have had some elements of “partnering.” Although the Area Office did not specifically call out these elements as troublesome, the Church Handbooks do make clear that the Church does not loan money or provide capital to welfare recipients, nor does it provide for “partnerships” between welfare recipients and the Church. Welfare is intended solely to maintain essential health and well-being of members during periods, expected to be temporary, when a family cannot, using its own resources or those of extended family members, provide for itself.
 Yesterday (Wednesday, February 3, 2016) we saw literally hundreds of Malawians, primarily women and children, waiting next to the warehouse on Zingwangwa Avenue, serving as the local ADMARC outlet, in hopes of buying up to 10 kgs of maize flour per person. Some had apparently queued up as early as three in the morning to get a better place in line, and many waited for five to eight hours to make their purchases.