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Travel Logs: Senanga, Zambia

Zambia

  • Population: 19 million
  • People Facing Hunger: 1.35 million

In Senanga, Zambia, a crowd of farmers stare at a shriveled corn field. The leaves are wrinkled and falling apart, and what little remains is a withered echo of what once was. Most corn—one of the country’s main crops—has been destroyed by the recent drought, which was declared a national emergency by the president in February. With no harvest, no rain, and little money, Zambian farmers are facing a bleak, hot future this summer in the Western Province.

These anxieties are widespread in Zambia’s Western Province right now. Farmers of all ages, from teenagers to mid-70-year-olds, tell me that they’re facing unprecedented hunger. The crisis has only just begun. Some will have to survive the year with little more than a bag of beans for a ten-person family.

To give an idea of the magnitude of the situation, I’m reporting on site.

Memory shows me a handful of cowpeas—known in the United States as black-eyed-peas.

“In all my life in Zambia, this is the worst drought I’ve ever seen,” said Samuel Mwanza, one of our project officers.

Mwanza and his team sought to thwart the crisis through drought-resistant agriculture. Last fall, over 1,280 farmers enrolled in Action Against Hunger’s new project.

The aim is simple: provide training and tools for farmers to plant cowpeas (known in the United States as black-eyed peas). These climate-resilient crops can grow in hot, sandy soil, and need very little water to survive. They provide a healthy, protein-rich alternative to what many in Senanga eat—rice, nshima (lumped cornmeal), and in many cases, nothing at all. In fact, it’s not uncommon for families here to skip meals.

A 52-year-old farmer in the Lukanda Agriculture Camp greets our team. "Because of the dry spell, we will only be eating one meal per day," he tells me.

Farmers participated in Action Against Hunger’s trainings and received both the seeds and technical support. Throughout the fall, Mwanza and his coworkers guided farmers on when and where to plant.  But despite the project’s success, the drought has posed a bigger threat than anyone could imagine.

Disaster struck early this year. Farmers looked upward, eagerly waiting for rain that never came. While the ground baked in 95-degree weather, only the cowpeas were left sprouting.

It’s far from enough. Although the cowpeas endured the drought far better than all other crops, farmers are harvesting three to four times less than they had originally hoped for.

Project Officers Namunji Mubita and Samuel Mwanza walk through a dead corn field.

Wednesday

6 a.m.: I woke up under a massive mosquito net in Mongu Country Lodge, a quiet motel in the heart of the Western Province’s biggest city. After quickly getting ready, I embarked on a bumpy hour-long drive from Mongu to Senanga, where I met Project Officers Namunji Mubita and Samuel Mwanza. Both officers briefed me on the drought: there is no end in sight.

“There’s a lot of mental anguish as people try to figure out how they’re going to survive,” Samuel said.

Project Officers Namunji Mubita and Samuel Mwanza are based in Zambia's Western Province.

9 a.m.:  Later that morning, I sipped a hot cup of instant coffee and munched on some dried mango strips as I prepared for the day’s travel.

The Zambezi River curled lazily behind us, the only flash of blue in an otherwise arid and grassy landscape. It’s surrounded by beautiful marshlands that, in a typical year, are flooded with deep waters and traversed by local boaters. Today, it’s completely dry.

Today, the Zambezi River is surrounded by marshlands that are almost completely dry.

Before long, it was time to get straight to the project site. But when you’re in such remote areas, it’s almost a rite of passage to face some hiccup. Action Against Hunger works in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places—and they were truly hard to reach. Our car got stuck in a sandy embankment and it took at least half an hour to get it unearthed.

10 a.m.: The drive to the first farm was nauseating, the road twisting and turning over rough terrain. We first stopped at a local hospital, where we met with Memory. She had originally planned to meet us on her farm, but had to make a stop to check on her 15-year-old son, who is being treated for malaria.

Farmers in Lukanda Agriculture Camp are enrolled in Action Against Hunger's program.

Memory let us down to her fields, which sit in the middle of Lukanda Agriculture Camp, a community with a population of about 1,500. We’ve enrolled farmers across 19 of these camps. In Lukanda, about 100 farmers, including Memory, are enrolled.

It wasn’t long before dozens of other farmers crowded around the small field, watching as we ventured into the small cowpea bushes. Bright green and unassuming, these little bushes have enormous potential.

Cowpeas are drought-resistant and can grow in sandy soils.

Most farmers say that the crop has been their saving grace.

Still, times are tough: “I was expecting a good harvest, but there’s nothing I can do now, because it’s a national drought,” said one farmer, 42-year-old Harriet.

Harriet, a 42-year-old farmer enrolled in our program, must feed a family of seven.

Harriet must tend to seven people in her household, including herself, her husband, and five kids. Her youngest is only a year and half, and she struggles to feed the baby.

“Sometimes we spend the whole day without eating,” she said. “Sometimes we eat once a day.”

A farmer lifts a bag of cowpea stalks. In the next month, farmers will split open the stalks, collect the cowpeas, dry them, and sell them at a market.

1 p.m.: There’s never a dull day with Clare. The elderly farmer, flanked by her three sisters, greeted us joyfully when we arrived at their field. Clare was wearing a green jumpsuit studded with a homemade pin: a piece of paper where she had handwritten “Action Against Hunger.”

Project Officer Samuel Mwanza greets Clare, an elderly farmer who grows cowpeas with her sisters.

She couldn’t contain her excitement when I gave her my own Action Against Hunger pin, and immediately put it on.

Clare’s harvest was promising: “We are very happy, because we never expected anything like this in our lifetimes,” she told me.

Read More

Zambia’s Western Province has been hit particularly hard. More than 80% of the province’s population lives on less than $2.15 USD per day and rely on humanitarian assistance. Many farmers felt the impacts of the drought and turned to cowpeas.

Read my other story about our CEO visiting Memory’s farm.

One of Clare's sisters prepares to fill a bag with cowpeas.

3 p.m.:  Sitwala is a small farmer living in a thatched hut at the edge of a yellowed corn field. He is one of the lucky few that planted early, and the small amount of rain was just enough for him to grow several bags of cowpeas.

Sitwala greets Project Officer Samuel Mwanza. His harvest will more than double his annual income.

Last year, cowpeas sold at a market rate of around 3,000 Kch per 50kg bag, or about $120 per 110 pound bag. That means if Sitwala sells about 10 bags, which is likely, he’ll make around $1200. Since 60% of Zambians live on less than $2 per day (and for these farmers, it is often less), Sitwala’s harvest will more than double his annual income.

7 p.m.: Back at the hotel, I watched as the sun set peacefully over the sky and ignited the horizon. I ordered a traditional Zambian meal for dinner—nshima, cooked greens, rice, and a tangy red gravy. That same night, many farmers would be eating nothing at all. In the coming months, many more will continue to face desperate situations.

Cowpeas are nutrient-dense and healthy to eat.

Thursday

8 a.m.: Mrs. Ilwange is a kind, 63-year-old woman who lives in a small house in Senanga with her husband. Most of her children are grown and scattered, but the couple and their grandchild share a house with two other friends.

Despite the drought, Mrs. Ilwange and her husband expect a promising cowpea harvest.

To the left of the house, a small side building holds the couple’s storage, including a cool room filled with freshly dried cowpea pods. In the front yard, a scale sits in front of ten heaping bags of shelled cowpeas.

Early on Thursday morning, all five members of the Ilwange household were gathered to weigh the legumes.

“The drought has been very difficult, very,” Mrs. Ilawange told me. “We pray for a few rains. Knowing the cowpeas are drought resistant gave us the motivation to go ahead.”

Our Work in Zambia

More than half of Zambia’s population lives in poverty, and their malnutrition rates are among the highest in the world. Action Against Hunger tackles hunger in Zambia through climate-resilient agriculture programs.

Mr. and Mrs. Ilwange live in Senanga, Zambia, with three other people.

12 p.m.: A typical day in Moonde’s life is never easy. Each morning, she wakes up early to help her husband wash up before preparing his breakfast. He’s elderly and disabled, with little movement in his feet, so she has to oversee the household. She tends to her cowpea field, stopping by throughout the day to weed and scare crows away. At night, she’ll use whatever nuts she has and grind them into a mush for dinner.

Moonde takes care of her children, grandchildren, and husband, who is disabled.

“I’m looking after everyone in the household,” she said. “I encounter many challenges—including labor costs and medical services, since my husband is disabled. Now, we must face the drought.”

Moonde was only able to harvest a fraction of what she planned for.

Some farmers harvested three times less than they had expected.

3 p.m.: The day culminated with a beautiful send-off—a heartwarming and surprise performance from the ladies of Kaande Camp.

Mrs. Makina lives in Kaande Camp with many women who are widowed or live alone.

Led by the 62-year-old Mrs. Makina, a crowd of women began dancing, chanting, and singing in Lozi, the regional language. They clapped and twirled in their bright blue skirts, each with the matching words “Educating Women Means Educating the Entire Nation” printed on them. Kaande is a completely women-founded and women-run community. Many are widows, but they’re not all old: young mothers danced beside grandmothers.

Support the Project

Families in Zambia are facing an uncertain future. Only months after a dangerous cholera outbreak, the population is now facing a national drought emergency. Take action to help farmers like Mrs. Makina and many more.

Donate Now

Mrs. Makina sings and dances alongside the other ladies in the Kaande Camp.

Mrs. Makina had prepared a feast for us. A table was laid out with cornmeal cake, pumpkin fritters, okra relish, a bowl of caterpillars, nshima, and the most delicious of all: sausages made completely of cowpeas. It took her hours to cook the food.

Mrs. Makina spent all day preparing food, from cowpea sausages to pumpkin fritters.

The community welcomed us with what little food they had. Most are facing the long summer months with absolutely no food or money stored away.

“We used to see rain as early as October,” said Mrs. Makina. “Now, there has been very little rain and it’s March. Children are going to school on an empty stomach with nothing to eat.”

A young girl in the Kaande Camp eats corn. She and her family have little to eat this month.

Action Against Hunger in Zambia

Action Against Hunger’s climate resiliency program in Zambia is designed to mitigate and prepare for the impact of climate change over the next ten years. In the Western Province, Action Against Hunger is building a climate-smart network that will help farmers grow drought-resistant crops like cowpeas.

Action Against Hunger teaches farmers in Zambia how to grow drought-resistant crops.

Our teams work alongside community members to strengthen irrigation systems; facilitate the planting and harvesting of crops; and build awareness around resource management, food preservation, water storage, and more. Staff will also work to strengthen the local economy and connect farmers to broader financial networks.