December comes and William’s family manages to plant a small crop of maize and a half acre of tobacco, though many farmers are so busy looking for ganyu that they ignore their own fields. Migrant workers take longer hours for even less food at the end of the day. Gilbert stays at his doorway for long hours giving out handouts to the crowds of people asking for food. William’s family mills their last sack of grain and Trywell announces that they will only eat once each day at supper.
The pressures of a famine year stretch beyond one bad harvest, as looking for food in the short term prevents many farmers from planning ahead to the crops that they will need in the future. As each day becomes more difficult, Chief Wimbe (through Gilbert) must pick up the slack that the lack of government aid has left. This makes conditions worse all around as the entire district runs out of all sources of food.
The next evening, Trywell gathers the whole family for their one meal. Usually mothers and fathers do not dine with their children of the opposite gender in Malawi, to keep the relationships as polite and respectful as possible. Yet on this night, all of the Kamkwambas sit around one table. William’s sister Doris brings the hand washing basin to each person and William’s mother brings just one large bowl to the table. It contains only one blob of nsima and some mustard greens, all of which is eaten in a matter of minutes.
Kamkwamba describes another facet of Malawian culture in the separation and respect between genders and ages. It is another thing that must be sacrificed to the demands of survival, yet also serves to bring the Kamkwamba family closer together in this time of trouble. They all must share and rely on each other in order to survive this time of famine.
Matters get even worse for the Kamkwamba family when Agnes gives birth to another daughter. Children in Malawi are supposed to respect their parents by not asking them questions, and it is always taboo to speak of a woman’s pregnancy, so that the mother-to-be will not become the target of witchcraft. William had noticed his mother getting rounder in the belly, but said nothing. When the daughter is born, Trywell and Agnes tell the children that the new baby had been bought at the clinic.
The arrival of another child should be a time of celebration, yet during the famine it is simply another obstacle to coming out even in terms of the food available and the food necessary for the family. Magic is again seen as an evil influence that might harm pregnant women or newborn children, rather than a benefit to the Kamkwambas’ lives.
Trywell and Agnes are obviously worried about their family’s situation, and are too preoccupied to give the new baby a name for days. The rates of child mortality are high in some Malawian villages, so some families name their children to reflect the poor circumstances that they are born into. Even William’s uncle Musaiwale (meaning “don’t forget”) was originally named Mdzimange (meaning “suicide”). Yet William’s parents seemingly stay hopeful, finally naming the new baby Tiyamike, meaning “Thank God.”
Trywell and Agnes have incredible perseverance in the face of adversity. Kamkwamba retains this hopeful demeanor in the book, focusing on the positive when he can and describing his hardships with an optimistic look toward a better future. Kamkwamba believes that this optimism is more beneficial in the long run.
When the Kamkwamba family has half a pail of flour left, Trywell announces that they are going to start a new business. Agnes makes small, sweet corn cakes to sell at the market in the hopes that they will make enough profit each day to eat themselves. William stays in the kitchen, smelling the wonderful aroma of sweetcakes, though he doesn’t get to lick the remaining batter from the pot as he did in better days. Trywell sets up a stall and they sell the hot cakes for 3 kwacha each – often selling out in only 20 minutes. They take their earnings each day to a friendly trader named Mr. Mangochi, and buy enough flour to eat dinner and make hot cakes the next day.
Trywell again reinvents his life for the good of the family, turning to a new food stand business when farming is no longer enough to sustain them. Despite the difficulties and hard work involved in setting up this new business, Trywell and Agnes are able to adapt to the new circumstances of life and use the materials at hand to contribute to the ultimate wellbeing of the family. This in turn benefits the community as well, as the Kamkwambas’ hot cakes are a source of food for those who cannot afford their own flour.
One Sunday as Agnes takes her sweet cakes to the market, she notices two young men talking to Annie in the yard. Annie is not supposed to talk to boys without permission, but she explains that these boys are teachers from the private school in Mtunthama and just need directions to a friend’s house down the lane. Agnes agrees to let Annie escort them. When Agnes gets home from the market that afternoon, Annie has still not returned. Agnes finds a note in Annie’s room saying that she has married one of the teachers and that she is safe.
During famine time, the regular rules of polite behavior are somewhat suspended. While Annie might never have spoken to boys on her own in the normal regulations of Malawian behavior, Annie’s own future is threatened by the famine. She must find a way for herself to survive without depending on her family to arrange a marriage or continue to pay her school fees when even buying food is becoming too expensive.
Trywell returns home and flies into a rage when he hears that Annie has eloped. Trywell and Agnes had been very proud of Annie and her studies in high school, and had scraped together her school fees despite the famine this year. Leaving with the strange man means that Annie can never live at home again. William later finds out that the teacher’s name is Mike, and that Annie and Mike met months before, fell in love, and arranged for Annie to run away.
Kamkwamba inherited his reverence for education from his father, as Trywell put his daughter’s school fees above the possibility of having a little extra money to buy food during the famine. Still, the conservative values of rural Malawian culture mean that Annie cannot return home after staining her good reputation by having a relationship with a man.
Normally, Malawian girls ask the boy they like to visit with their family over several weekends before the boy will propose marriage. The girl then talks to her mother about the match, the mother speaks to the father, and the father speaks to his wife’s brother. This uncle will then meet with an uncle of the groom and arrange the dowry price for the family. The groom’s family also pays for all the wedding ceremony and reception costs, making marriage a very costly prospect for young Malawian men. Mike and Annie did none of this, only sending a letter three weeks after they ran away letting the Kamkwambas know where to collect a small dowry of a few hundred kwacha. Trywell becomes depressed after Annie leaves, though William is selfishly glad that they now have one less mouth to feed.
The normal process of a Malawian marriage proposal is intensely involved with the potential bride and groom’s families, but these demands of etiquette fall apart when the famine takes precedence over everything in the Kamkwambas’ daily lives. However, the cost of a marriage is also prohibitively expensive for many rural men in a good year. Annie’s marriage is a sad blow to the Kamkwamba family, but it is also a reminder that her departure might make it easier for the other Kamkwamba siblings to survive.
A week later, Agnes sends William to the ADMARC one town away to see if rumors of maize at a reduced price are true. William heads off at 5 am and gets to the ADMARC by 6:15, but the line is already all the way down the road. William notices how tired and weak from hunger everyone looks. Some in the crowd obviously haven’t eaten in weeks and the line simply steps over those who collapse in the heat and exhaustion as babies cry.
With the maize scarcity, many villagers cannot afford to ignore even the hint of food. Kamkwamba details the horrific conditions of famine, explaining these scenes of starvation and despair with full emotion, in contrast to the educational descriptions of farming or hunting earlier in the book. At this point, any food at all is a matter of life or death.
As the morning continues, men sell their place in line for outrageous prices, preying on those who look the hungriest. William is glad he has a hot cake from his mother to keep him going, but is very hungry himself. As morning turns to afternoon, people begin pushing toward the door in a rush to try to ensure that they get some of the limited supply of grain. William is shoved towards the door and begins to surf the crowd rather than fight the mobbing. He finally makes it into the ADMARC, shocked at the quiet and fresh air after the press of the people outside. Right after William gets in, the guards at the door prevent anyone else from entering the ADMARC.
Even though everyone is facing the same hunger, Kamkwamba recognizes that people have to do what they can to make sure that they and their loved ones survive. He rejects the malicious people who prey on others’ hunger, but does not condemn those who are simply trying to get by.
William has four hundred kwacha in his pocket, enough to buy 25 kilos of maize. However, the officials at the ADMARC tell him that that price will now only buy him 20 kilos. William tries to argue, but finally accepts, because any maize is better than no maize. The workers filling the buckets cheat William out of even more maize by under-filling his pail, but William has no other option than to rush out of the ADMARC and protect what maize he can from the throng of people attempting to buy maize – or, even worse, kill William and steal his maize. William furiously pedals home with the maize, finding that it is only 15 kilos of grain. That will at least feed his family for another week.
The government again shows that they will not act in the best interest of the people by cheating William of about ten kilos of maize. At this point, the Kamkwambas are simply concerned with making it through the next week, so they are forced to accept whatever the government offers. Surviving within such strict limits makes it hard for William to think about anything other than his next meal, stunting his dreams to improve his family’s condition.
Soon, people in the village begin selling their possessions for food. William watches the line of people lugging all their worldly belongings to the market, as Khamba, thinner than ever, sits on a blanket beside him. William eventually follows the line of people to the market, finding that the usual commerce of the village has been replaced with the business of survival. Most people have no money to buy anything that the starving villagers are trying to sell.
Kamkwamba keeps Khamba in the narration as a sign of the many luxuries that he had to give up during this time. When people are at the point of selling their possessions, there is nothing to spare for a dog. Rather than focusing on making their lives better or making a profit for their families, the trading center is only for the buying and selling of food – the business of surviving one more day.
Many in the village try to protest the high prices of imported maize brought in by traders, but it does no good. William even sees a man trying to sell his two young daughters in his desperation. Thieves are more prevalent than ever, stealing maize from women returning from the market. The maize mill stands almost empty, the floor picked clean of any scrap of maize flour or corn chaff that might offer food. By mid-December, no one has any more maize to mill.
Though recognizing that people do what they have to for survival, Kamkwamba has little respect for thieves or price-gougers in the midst of the famine. Again, his philosophy seems to prioritize actions that do not actively harm others even if he is not in the position to help others. As undignified as it might have been to scrape maize remnants off the floor, it is even worse when there are no maize scraps at all.
Christmas was usually William’s favorite day of the year, with the fun of the Christmas pageant at church and the delicious food of the rainy season, such as flying ants. Christmas morning brought real brown bread with margarine and sweet, milky tea. But the real treat of Christmas is meat for Christmas dinner, even for Malawians who cannot afford meat at any other time of the year. Yet on Christmas 2001, nothing goes right. All the Kamkwamba’s chickens die from a disease that renders them inedible, and the church cancels the pageant.
In a usual year, Christmas offers a bright spot of good food and rest before the start of the true hunger season. Though the material things that mark Christmas in Malawi may be different, Kamkwamba describes the fellowship and warmth between friends and family as very similar to an American Christmas. With the famine, even the spirit of Christmas is ruined as no one has the energy to celebrate or do anything beyond survive through the day.
After an unsatisfactory Christmas lunch of a blob of nsima, William goes to visit Geoffrey. Geoffrey now looks for ganyu each day instead of working on the farm, and is continuing to lose weight from overwork and anemia. William has no way to help Geoffrey, too busy with his own fields. William then goes to see Gilbert, finding Gilbert’s house surrounded by people looking for a Christmas handout from Chief Wimbe. Even Gilbert’s family has no chicken for Christmas, but they at least have nsima and beans.
William’s relationships with his friends also suffer during the time of famine because William has no resources to ease his friend’s troubles. Geoffrey is on the edge of the survival equation, about to fall off. While Gilbert may be doing better than the majority of the village, he has the added pressure of taking care of others because of his status as part of the chief’s family. This time of starving exacts a price from every part of William’s life.
With Geoffrey and Gilbert busy with their own troubles on Christmas, William goes to see Charity at the mphala. William and Charity brainstorm ways to get a good Christmas meal, eventually settling on seeing if a local butcher will give them the skin of a goat that is normally thrown away. At the butcher’s stand, Charity gets a skin by pretending that he is making a drum.
William and Charity are resourceful even in this depressed and starving state, showing the true resilience of their spirits. The scheme to get a goat skin distracts the boys from their hunger more than actually satisfying them physically.
William and Charity take the goat skin back to the mphala and start to burn the hair off. William is so hungry that even that smells good. Once the skin is scraped completely clean, William and Charity boil it in a pot of water with salt and soda to make the skin tenderize faster. After three hours, Charity tests a chunk of skin. It is sticky and tough, but the boys start to feast on it. William throws some goat skin chunks to Khamba, and is surprised to see Khamba revitalized somewhat by the food. When their jaws are sore from chewing the leathery skin, William and Charity save the rest of the skin chunks to eat tomorrow. William decides that this was enough of a celebration for this Christmas.
As with the birds he used to hunt, William has gotten this goat skin on his own and is under no obligation to share it with his family once the skin has been taken to the mphala. Just giving some of the skin to Khamba is a sign of kindness, though it is also an acknowledgement that this food is really only fit for dogs anyway. During the famine, actions that would never otherwise be acceptable during normal life in Malawi are instead judged on a different scale of survival.