James Black paid a high price for three cobs of maize. After accusing him of stealing from their field, four men launched a vicious attack. Ignoring the farm labourer's protestations of innocence, they bound him, beat him bloody and dragged him down a dirt track. Then, using a razor, they sliced off his ears.
When a friend found James, one ear was stuffed in his pocket. "It is the hunger," he says now in simple explanation. Desperation has collided with hunger in Malawi, the once-bountiful nation now at the heart of southern Africa's looming famine. The consequences have been terrible.
Since Christmas, several thousand people have died - some from cholera, others from accelerated Aids, others again from pure starvation. Famished villagers started eating wild leaves, tree stems and even sawdust to fend off the gnawing hunger.
The social fabric of a nation known as the "warm heart of Africa" has been torn asunder. Farmers waiting for harvest are sleeping by their crops to fend off thieves. Those caught have been treated mercilessly.
Hands and ears have been chopped off, legs have been hobbled. Children as young as seven have been doused with paraffin and set alight. Others have simply been hacked to death in the fields. One woman in the eastern town of Kapiri was presented with a basket full of maize some weeks ago. When she pulled back the cobs, she found her husband's head.
The brutality has shocked long-term residents. "This is a whole new phenomenon. It is inhumanity borne of desperation," said Sister Catherine Dwyer. A chronic shortage of maize, the nation's staple food, is behind the madness. Last year's harvest was a disaster; alarmed aid workers are predicting that this year it will be twice as bad.
The UN estimates that between 3 and 4 million people - up to 40 per cent of the population - will go hungry. "If we don't get resources immediately, we won't be able to do anything come August. You're looking at tens of thousands of deaths," said Paul Harvey of Concern Worldwide. The response from Western donors has been limp and unenthusiastic. They say that although the crisis was sparked by erratic rainfall last year, the government bears a heavy responsibility. Controversy centres on the sale of the Strategic Grain Reserve - Malawi's …