Austin Zimbna, at IDI's farm initiative in Rural Lilongwe.

IDI Farm Site

At home, in Canada, I watch the weather with curiosity, often with wonder, and sometimes with annoyance. When it rains, I enjoy the sound of it on my metal roof. When the sun is hot, I spend time on the dock by the lake, or I seek the shade of a tree. When the snow is blowing through the woods, I wrap my face in a scarf and venture into the cold, feeling oddly delighted. The weather brings change to my environment, but where I live, and for my life, those changes offer varied experiences, but are rarely cause for concern. It is true that a blizzard can be a dangerous thing on a highway, and some have experienced the destruction of their homes by flooding, but the weather, for the most part, is an otherwise passing thing, which I have little reason to look to with desperation or with fear.

During my brief time in Malawi last month, I watched the sky with a different kind of interest. In the South, where the floodwaters had not yet receded, the clouds were foreboding, threatening further devastation and loss of life to those who were then struggling to recover from the floods of the previous month. In Lilongwe district, a cloud in the distance inspired hope, and its departure was deeply disheartening. During the three weeks that I was there, I saw much of the maize begin to wilt before it had fully matured. My friend, Samuel, continually expressed the need for “just one more good rain.” It never came, and now, a month later, many farmers’ crops have wilted and will yield very little. In Malawi, the simple formation of a raincloud can mean life or death for the vast majority of the population.

Samuel’s concern was little for himself; a sizable section of his farm site takes advantage of a lower elevation, bringing him closer to the water table, and his access to a well enables him to manually irrigate the sections of his land that are now becoming otherwise dry. His concern is far more for the many farmers in the area whose access to water, in the absence of rain, is severely limited. Through his organization, The Innovative Initiative Development of Malawi (IDI), Samuel hopes to provide training and resources to Malawians in desperate need of better farming techniques, and the development of resilience in the face of annual concerns of both flooding and drought.

Together with his team, Samuel is working tirelessly to offer Malawians an alternative to malnutrition and hunger. Although their priority is to offer change that is sustainable and far-reaching, the immediate needs of individuals now struggling to survive the coming months is impossible to ignore and IDI is offering support both to communities in the South who have been severely affected by the flooding, and those in rural Lilongwe who now face the annual crisis of diminished or depleted food stores.

For those who feel compelled to support Samuel and IDI in their efforts, donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, based in San Francisco. To ensure that every dollar of your donation goes directly to IDI, please make your donations through

The following images and video were taken at IDI’s farm site in rural Lilongwe:

Cooking pots and firewood are in short supply in Bangula, Malawi's largest IDP camp.


Much of the water from the Shire river has receded since the flooding began this past January. Many of the villagers who sought refuge at the IDP Camp in Bangula, Nsanje district have now ventured to return to their homes, but most remain. The Camp occupies the grounds of the ADMARC depot where, during the dry season, the large canopied structures typically house harvested crops such as millet, pulses, sorghum, and cotton. Currently, along with the tents neatly arranged along their periphery, these structures house approximately 4640 of the original 6620 villagers who initially sought refuge from the floods. They now wait either for the water to recede or for much needed support in rebuilding what has been washed away.

The camp at Bangula is the largest Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Malawi and faces significant challenges in its operation. Isaac Falakeza, a retired School Master and the man responsible for managing the camp, shared that although they were initially distributing food household by household, it soon became clear that the food available to them would run out before all of the households received any. Instead, Falakeza, along with the other organizers working with him, made the decision to distribute the food in gross amounts to each of the 62 villages represented in the camp. It is still not enough to adequately feed everyone present, but it was the fairest solution available to organize who are struggling with inadequate supplies. Falakeza reported that in addition to food shortages the camp has received only 86 pots to support the 2026 households in the camp, and, although there is a limited supply of Nsima flour there is no provision of vegetables. Firewood for cooking is also a large problem as is the complete absence of lights, which leaves the camp in darkness during the night.

Owing largely to Falakeza’s careful organization of the camp, they have managed to survive without any cases of cholera or measles, which in other camps have, according to Malawian newspapers, arisen in the last few weeks due to cramped conditions and poor sanitation. Despite the surprisingly low amount of support that appears to have reached the camp, Falakeza has been diligent in prioritizing these issues and preventing any outbreaks.

We visited the nearby village of June, where we spoke to several individuals about the day the flood waters arrived. One boy, aged 9, recounts how quickly the water came. Without hesitation, he lifted his younger brother and ran through the rising water to a nearby tree, hoisting him into one of the lower branches before the water had risen to head-level, forcing him away from the tree so that he had to swim to where he could also pull himself from the water. Homes were leveled and, in some cases, swept away entirely. Those who have returned to where their houses once stood, have constructed temporary homes out of thatch, or begun the slow process of rebuilding.

Life in the IDP camp is far from ideal. Although some individuals have ventured to form a market along the road running adjacent to the camp, most survivors have nothing to sell and therefor have no income. As the swell of media and government attention begins to slowly subside, the prospect of continued support grows dubious. The floods, which came on the 12th of January, were earlier than expected and now that March has arrived, a month previously known to be the most prone to flooding, residents of the South are not fully confident that dry ground lies in their near future.

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Samuel Magombo and the Innovative Development Initiative (IDI) is committed to assisting the relief effort during the aftermath of this severe flooding. While most stakeholders have concentrated their efforts to affected areas in the South of Malawi, IDI is responding to this issue by seeking funding to provide food and non-food items to the people internally displaced and seeking support in Salima District area outside of Lilongwe, Malawi. IDI’s goal is to raise $6,700 by March 30th so that IDI can serve at least 3,000 lives by providing maize flour, cooking oil, protein rich food, and water purification devices to remote communities around Naliwomba. Additionally IDI will use this support to provide farm inputs for winter-cropping, providing on site trainings and ensure that the community has developed resilience and be able to cope in the next years.



We met a woman while walking along the flooded path into the village of Naliwomba. She was walking carefully but comfortably, a bundle balanced on her head and a gathering of her skirt held in one hand; the water was to her knees where she stopped to speak with us. She lifted her free hand as she spoke and gestured in various directions explaining the damage inflicted on Naliomba during the rains of the previous weeks. As villagers waded around us, some stopped to listen while others only glanced and continued walking. Amidst descriptions of the land and homes that had been washed away, the crops lost and the impact on their lives, she gave an account of the passing of the chief.

The man was sleeping in his home when a flash flood swept through the village. After part of his wall began caving in, he awoke to find the water rising steadily against his door. He tried to escape but the force of the water was too strong. It swept in and the remainder of the wall fell collapsed. His body was recovered several meters away.

Women stop on the flooded path to discuss the conditions of Naliwomba.

Women stop on the flooded path to discuss the conditions of Naliwomba.

The village of Naliwomba lies near Lake Malawi and although they have never experienced flooding to this extent, they are subject to flooding every year. After three months there has still been no response from government or non-governmental organizations, and so the residents of Naliwomba can only wait for the floodwaters to fully recede and hope that they can somehow manage to procure enough food to survive the coming months. Following the death of their village’s chief they are temporarily leaderless and will need to assemble in the near future to designate their new chief who will face the challenge of navigating the difficulty of the current crisis and its impact on the coming years.

At the time when the floodwaters were highest, many of the residents of Naliwomba relocated temporarily to the primary school while waiting for the water to recede. As a result, classes were halted and, due to the remaining water surrounding the school, the flooding of paths, and the overall difficulty of life for residents of Naliwomba, classes have not yet resumed.

Despite the present dispersal of students, we managed to meet with one of the teachers of the school and discuss the situation with him. His assessment of the situation was unpromising. He is unsure when classes will resume. We walked with him through the school yard, approaching the end of dry land and wading through the floodwaters toward the partially submerged pump that marks a borehole, currently useless. He then led us to the home of a young boy who shared an account of his experiences with us. Afraid to return to the school, he told us of the sunny day when, during class, the students suddenly realized that a growing flow of water was sweeping across the school yard. The students fled in time but he, and others have been left traumatized.

Floodwaters have covered a large part of the schoolyard and left the borehole fully submerged and unusable.

Floodwaters have covered a large part of the schoolyard and left the borehole fully submerged and unusable.

The problem of flooding in Naliwomba is annual and though it has never been this extensive in the past, there’s no way of knowing the impact of flooding in coming years. An immediate response is necessary to help them survive the coming months, but initiating programs that foster resilience is imperative for that survival to continue on in the years to come.

The Innovative Development Initiative’s (IDI) immediate response to residents of Naliwomba is to provide food for those most in need, households that may not otherwise survive. Concurrently IDI is assessing the land and plotting out areas that will be most suitable for growing wintercrops in the coming months when the floodwaters will have receded but the watertable will still be high, a time when most Malawians, dependant on the rain for sowing, are unable to plant. This will provide an opportunity for the people in Naliwomba and surrounding villages to harvest their own food and have a better start in the year next.

In addition to being involved with IDI’s support, I had the privlege of hand-delivering a stack of letters to students of Naliwomba Primary School written by the grade six students of Daerwood Elementary School in Selkirk, Manitoba in Canada. After telling the Daerwood students about the situation in Malawi, they were eager to reach out in some way. Many offered the pencils they held in their hands, some made bookmarks, and before long they had all written words of encouragement. We hope this will be the beginning of a long-term correspondence.

I hand out letters and pencils to children in Naliwomba.

I hand out letters and pencils to children in Naliwomba.

Tomorrow, we leave for the South. The flooding in the South has been far-reaching and the threat of Cholera, Measels, and Malaria is steadily rising as water-safety, sanitation, and protection from mosquitoes is increasingly dubious in the camps that have become home to the 300,000 people displaced by the floods. The tragedy that so many have endured in the South is catastrophic. But equally as distressing is the tremendous suffering that has happened in the neglected corners of Malawi, where there has often been no media attention or government response, places like Naliwomba, and many other communities along the lake and the Shire river.

It’s overwhelming to consider the full breadth of devastation, and we’re really only capable of perceiving a small fraction of that devastation, but Samuel reminded me this morning that courage is of the utmost importance. Pressing forward is imperative because, as Samuel noted, to do nothing means that people will die. Expressed so frankly this truth might sound bleak, but if the lives of others depend on our actions or inactions, I would rather be encouraged to know that I am in a position to save lives than be overwhelmed by the fear that I am not capable of rising to such a profound responsibility.

A resident of Naliwomba walks along one of the few paths no longer flooded.

A resident of Naliwomba walks along one of the few paths no longer flooded; only a lingering trickle continues to run down its length.

I offer my heartfelt thanks to the wonderful grade six students of Daerwood Elementary School who took the time to reach out, and my ongoing thanks to those who have supported IDI’s response to the flooding in Naliwomba. For those who feel compelled to be further involved in IDI’s support of Naliwomba, please click on the following link:

Chilota resident with maize flour received from begging.

Chilota Food Distribution

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On February 25th, 2015, thanks to the generous support raised during my Dollar a Day Diet this past summer, in addition to the considerable funds raised by Rohit Gupta, Samuel Magombo and I were able to distribute maize to eighty households in the village of Chilota, Lilongwe. Although our initial intention, in accordance with the chief’s directive, was to focus all of the support on a select group of villagers most in need in help, it became quickly apparent to both Samuel and the chief, that the need for immediate food relief was felt by a much broader percentage of resident, and that the maize we had procured was capable of reaching beyond the initial fifty households. Each of the eighty households that were, in the end, reached are comprised of an average of six people.

Chilota lies within the district of Lilongwe, just outside the city of Lilongwe. The villagers are now entering the most crucial time of the year when the previous year’s supply of food has been depleted, and their small crops of maize, though ripe with promise, will not be harvestable until the end of the month. At this time, many Malawians face growing hunger, malnutrition, and the threat of death.

The aid provided this past week by The Innovative Development Initiative is an immediate response to an immediate issue. We are hoping that the small provisions will be enough to carry them through the coming weeks until their own crops are ready to be harvested. However, it is clear that unless a solution is provided for long-term change, the residents of Chilota, and the other 80% of Malawians living in villages like Chilota, will face the same threat of death in the following year and the years to come. IDI’s commitment to long-term change is of primary focus, and although the immediate need for relief cannot be ignored, IDI’s more enduring support to the village of Chilota is through employment at IDI’s now developing farm center nearby.


The Lean Month

The impetus for my sudden journey to Malawi was the unprecedented flooding in the South. I haven’t yet traveled to the South, but that is to come. However, having arrived only a few days ago, I’m reminded that apart from the flooding, Malawians have also entered what is known as “The Lean Month”, which, in reality, stretches from as early as December until the end of March. The land is now lush with greenery and the promise of abundant food covers the landscape. From the greatest fields to the slightest slivers of available land, healthy stalks of maize rise up with certainty and forthcoming grace. Without looking any further, one might assume that Malawi is a land of abundance. But this is The Lean Month. The promise of maize is everywhere, but it will still be five weeks before any of it can be harvested. Until then, eighty percent of Malawians will face hunger as the previous year’s stores are depleted and their new crops are not yet mature. Some turn to begging, most will endure days without food, and many will not survive.

I came here in response to the flooding, but to regard the flooding as the soul tragedy of Malawi would be to ignore the annual scarcity that the vast majority of Malawians are now experiencing. As floodwaters in the South draw the much-needed support of aid organizations otherwise distributed throughout the country, the Malawians in less affected areas are now left with far less help. By no means do I want to diminish the devastation of the flooding, and for now, I’m in no real position to even say much about it; but nor do I want to become subsumed by any degree of sensationalism at the cost of ignoring the systemic and recurring struggles that Malawians endured before the floods, and which they will continue to endure in years to come.

In the village of Chilota, within the boundaries of the capital city Lilongwe, I sat with a group of women and children in the shade of the chief’s house. Some of them picked unhurriedly through a pile of okra, removing the leaves from the stalks and placing them in a broad, shallow basket. A woman wandered by with a small bowl of nsima flour, which I am told she had received from begging. Moments later, a bowl of prepared nsima and a small bowl of stewed leaves was placed in the center of the group of women and children and I was told that this would be shared among them all as their mid-day meal. It was barely enough food to feed two adults; I counted eight children and three women.

Matias Weluzani of Chilota reveals his diminishing frame. In the absence of the aid that he has depended on in past years, Weluzani has endured several days without food. His small crop of maize outside his house will not be ready for consumption for several weeks.

Matias Weluzani of Chilota reveals his diminishing frame. In the absence of the aid that he has depended on in past years, Weluzani has endured several days without food. His small crop of maize outside his house will not be ready for consumption for several weeks.

In July and August of this past year I spent thirty days eating less than a dollar of food per day. I did this in an effort to raise awareness and support for Malawians struggling to survive each year, especially during The Lean Month. Annually, the average Malawian household of six people lives on $0.62USD per day. This means that many people live on less. Also, due to the seasonal nature of crops, there are times in the year when even for those earning the average, their day-to-day earnings are much lower. During my “Dollar a Day Diet” I remained far more privileged than the vast majority of Malawians, in part because my dollar per day still afforded me more food, and in part because this was a decision that I made freely, and one I ultimately had the freedom to “unmake”.

A sample of a dollar's worth of food in Canada.

A sample of a dollar’s worth of food in Canada.

The cost of living in Malawi is unexpectedly high. We could be tempted to assume that living on $0.62USD per day in Malawi is feasible, but in a country that has suffered continual economic troubles, especially within the last two years, our assumptions would be far from true. $0.62USD is roughly enough to buy food for two meals for six people. Being that $0.62USD is the average household income it stands to reason that there are a great many Malawians living on far less. Even from my own experience of eating a dollar of food per day, the challenge I often faced was choosing between the consumption of sufficient calories, and the consumption of necessary nutrients. Eating only rice and beans, my hunger was satisfied. But the absence of fruits or vegetable in my diet concerned me, and I often chose to eat less in order to include simple things like onions, garlic, or carrots. For Malawians this choice is often not available and the limitation of their diets, both in regards to caloric and nutritional values, is costly.

Annually in Malawi, at least two hundred people die from hunger or malnutrition. Thousands more are hospitalized but ultimately survived. 80% of Malawians are dependent on aid to survive The Lean Month. These numbers are, admittedly, sensational, but that does not discredit them. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the immense scope of hunger in Malawi. Some part of our brain goes into a panic because it is unable to solve this staggering problem; and rather than trying to cope with the problem, which is ultimately beyond our ability to solve, we are likely to duck away from it altogether. This is understandable.

It takes courage to look at the numbers and recognize what they mean. It takes courage to not avert our gaze. It takes courage to ask what, if anything, our responsibility is in response to the suffering of others, whether to those living immediately next to us, or those living thousands of kilometers away. I have never come to a clear answer. The questions of poverty and wealth, of privilege, class, and responsibility, often leave me feeling overwhelmed. I have felt paralyzed. I have resigned to passivity. But paralysis ultimately unnerves me, and I have found that passivity relies on dissociation and an ignorance of things that should not be ignored. It is not always clear what my response should be, but I believe it begins with a willingness to look at what is rather than ignoring it. It is only when we are willing to look at what the reality of a situation that we are able to respond appropriately to it.

My work in Malawi is in association with an organization called the Innovative Development Initiative of Malawi (IDI), headed by Samuel Magombo. Together with his team Samuel is working tirelessly to offer Malawians an alternative to malnutrition and hunger. Although their priority is to offer change that is sustainable and far-reaching, the immediate needs of individuals now struggling to survive the coming months is impossible to ignore and IDI, in accordance with their mandate to save lives respond to current issues of marginalized Malawians is offering support both to communities in the South who have been severely affected by the flooding, and those in rural Lilongwe who now face the annual crisis of diminished or depleted food stores. In the coming week the money raised during my Dollar a Day Diet this past summer, will be distributed in the village of Chilota to those most in need. My thanks goes out to all those who contributed to that initiative.

For those who feel compelled to support Samuel and IDI in their efforts, donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities, based in San Francisco. To ensure that every dollar of your donation goes directly to IDI, please make your donations through my champion page, which can be found here:


Lost Connection

After a little over a year, I’m returning to Malawi. I’ve entered the strange, liminal realm of airports, where I’ll remain suspended for the next forty hours. I’d like to reflect on the current crisis in Malawi, where recent flooding has displaced an estimated 300,000 people, killed 276, and affected the lives of more than one million. Instead – even though it won’t be long until I’m in the thick of it – Malawi seems like a distant idea, a dream I once had, or something I read about casually one evening. I remain most keenly aware of myself, of airport terminals, and of the fog in my head.

The idea of connectedness in this world is one that has challenged me with unanswered questions for at least the last dozen years. I hear about the islands of plastic floating around in the ocean, the war for oil, or the deforestation of the Amazon; and I carry on with my life, attempting to live consciously, but often just wandering along in bewilderment. From 1991 to 2001 they cleared somewhere between 415,000 and 587,000 km² of the Amazon. That’s about the size of Manitoba, or Spain. They do this to raise cows. The consequences are extreme and diverse, but what comes most immediately to mind is the disruption of weather patterns, not only in South America but also in far off places.

I believe that connectedness is a beautiful and essential thing. My connectedness to trees in the exchange of air is a beautiful thing. The affection I share with my beloved is a beautiful thing. The way that winter leads into spring is a beautiful thing. But what happens to connectedness when developed nations demand more beef, for example, and less developed nations respond by depleting the world of its rainforests? Consequences are felt, and not most immediately by the developed nations who are the cause of it.

It’s been suggested that the disruption of weather patterns even as far away as Africa is, in part, a result of deforestation in the Amazon. Connectedness in this circumstance seems less beautiful and less fair. When the lunch choices of millions of North Americans ultimately results in the loss of crops, by drought or floods, for millions of Malawians, our unavoidable connectedness then suggests a blatant disconnectedness in our consciousness. The connectedness happens no matter what. A person consuming a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant in Winnipeg, Manitoba is potentially inducing the deforestation of the Amazon, which is certainly affecting the lives of individuals living in that area, and potentially disturbing the weather patterns in countries as far away as Malawi. This leads to loss of crops. Loss of crops in a country like Malawi often results in loss of life.

This is just one possible outcome. Eating a hamburger in Canada doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody in Malawi dies. But the gross consumption of beef globally, does have global effects, including loss of life. We are not always conscious of the connectedness between our actions and seemingly distant and unrelated consequences; but they happen whether we are conscious of them or not. I’m not necessarily advocating for veganism, or a hundred-mile diet, or even necessarily for the complete preservation of the Amazon, but I am advocating that we raise our consciousness, at least enough to understand how our decisions impact the people nearest to us, and hopefully enough to understand how those same decisions ripple out to affect people in other parts of the world. From that place, we might begin to decide whether or not we want to import our foods, consume meat, or protect our forests.

Malawi is facing the worst flooding in their history. This has had an immediate impact on the lives of many Malawians. But what remains to be seen is what will happen next. Even as the rains continue to fall, I wonder how much more land will be destroyed. How will this land be recovered? Beyond those who have died in the floodwaters, how many more will die of Cholera, Malaria, and other diseases? How many will eventually die of starvation? The present moment is connected to the next, and so on, and so on. A year from now, there will be Malawians still recovering from what began a little over a month ago as the season’s first promising rains. A year from now there will be many Malawians who were unable to recover.

I’ll be spending three weeks in Malawi with my friend Samuel Magombo working on the Innovative Development Initiative of Malawi. We’ll be spending time documenting the devastating effects of the flooding as well IDI’s response, not only to the present crisis, but also to ongoing issues of agriculture, hunger, and sustainability. If anyone feels compelled to participate in IDI’s work, donations can be made through Groundwork Opportunities.