MALAWI — The home of James Mwale smells like a freshly opened pack of cigarettes. It's not much bigger than one either: It has about 5 square meters of floor space, half of which is covered with brown, pungent tobacco.

James* is shoeless. His feet are calloused and he wears a dirty shirt that hangs over his trousers. He keeps looking through the open door, afraid that his neighbors will see us.

"As you can see, I've made this with my own hands," James says, pointing at the tobacco in front of him. By that he means that he planted it, harvested the leaves, and then dried and bundled them. In return, he gets food, soap and a salary that fluctuates according to how generous his boss feels. Last season, James earned 95,000 Malawian kwacha (about 130 euros) for the entire season's work. Market prices are bad and getting worse every year, his boss explains.

James owns practically nothing. His wife left him 16 years ago, shortly after the birth of their son, whom he hasn't seen since. "She didn't want to be with a man who can't take care of her and the baby," he says. "Fortunately, I still have healthy hands and feet so I can work."

After a long day, though, his bones often hurt. Sometimes his employer gives him pain killers, or cough syrup when his chest stings. That way James can return to the field and work the next morning.

"It hurts more"

James is one of countless tobacco farmers in Malawi, a small, hilly nation in southeastern Africa that is reliant on the crop like no other country in the world, deriving more than two thirds of its foreign exchange proceeds from the dried, nicotine-laced plant. The dependence dates back to the 1970s, when the government responded to enormous world demand for the product by actively encouraging tobacco cultivation.

Dalitso Batison, 11, also knows about the physical toll the activity takes. "The cough you get from tobacco is different from a cold," he explains. "It hurts more. There's a stinging pain in the chest."

The boy lives in Malanda, a village in the heart of Malawi. He says he likes going to school and wants to be a teacher himself one day, "to make sure the citizens of Malawi get a better education." But right now he can't focus on studying: After school, he helps his parents with planting, harvesting and drying the tobacco. "It's hard work," he explains.

Dalitso's father, Charles, says he'd like to take the boy out of the fields. "Now rather than in the future," he says. "But my hands are tied. Prices are ridiculously low right now."

Four pairs of gloves

A study carried out by the international children's aid organization Plan International concluded that some 80,000 minors participate each year in the harvest and processing of raw tobacco in Malawi. Like Dalitso, many suffer from painful coughs, headaches and stomach pains: typical symptoms of nicotine poisoning, also known as Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS).

On its website, British American Tobacco notes that research into GTS is still immature. But the company does acknowledge a certain health risk, advising plantation workers to wear protective clothing and avoid processing any wet leafs.

What is this protective clothing? "Yes, they get them from Alliance One," says Charles Batison, holding up a pair of disposable latex gloves.

Preparing tobacco in Malawi — Photo: khym54

Alliance One, an international tobacco merchant, explains that Burley, the tobacco variety planted in Malawi, has a comparatively low nicotine content. The company says it makes sure, nevertheless, to recommend basic safety precautions: Farmers are told to wear long-sleeved shirts and, at the end of the day, to properly wash body parts that have been in direct contact with the leaves. Each farmer is provided with two pieces of soap per year, along with four pairs of latex gloves and four masks.

"Never heard of it"

A call to the health ministry reveals much about how the government handles the risks associated with tobacco harvesting. "Green … what? Tobacco sickness? Never heard of it," Charles Mwansambo, a top health official and trained pediatrician, says. "Send me an email so I can Google it."

John Chrisi, a professor of medicine the University of Malawi and head of the Malawian Medical Chamber, is equally elusive. "Green Tobacco Sickness, you say? In order to be taken serious by scientists, you need proof," he says. "How do you go on diagnosing this Green ... whatever? Antibodies in the blood?"

I point out that even the World Health Organisation sees Green Tobacco Sickness as a threat to children who harvest tobacco. "Well, it's the WHO ... ," says the doctor. "You know, each organization has its own agenda."

Chrisi does acknowledge the health risks of smoking. "That's a fact," he says. "But people in Malawi don't smoke, because they simply don't have the money for it." He also admits that besides being a doctor, he's also a politician. "I need to be careful with what I'm saying," he says. Chrisi made an unsuccessful run for presidency in 2014 but plans to try again next time. He's optimistic about his chances.

Addicted to the revenue

There's little doubt that tobacco has Malawi's political landscape firmly in its grasp. On the bright side, the government has started encouraging farmers to plant alternative crops — soy and peanuts — so as to be less dependent on monocultures and price fluctuations.

A tobacco warehouse in Malawi — Photo: hiroo yamagata

Felix Jumbe, a member of the Malawi parliament, has enough land to plant his own tobacco but chooses not to. "I don't want to bow to this system," he says. The politician doesn't smoke either. "It's not in our culture. As children, we learn that it's something you shouldn't do."

But he has nothing good to say about the "the global non-smokers lobby," which is costing the country dearly, he claims. "If fewer and fewer people buy cigarettes in Europe, then who will pay the tobacco farmers?"

Malawi earns roughly $400 million a year from tobacco exports, a habit it's unwilling to kick. Jumbe takes the opportunity, for that reason, to make a plea for solidarity. His message to the people of Europe? "Smoke!" he says. "It's cold in your countries. It will warm you. Do it for Malawi."

*not his real name