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Zimbabwe's food crisis is escalating

Millions are hungry, and the number is growing. A collapsed economy, bad harvest and politics are cited.

September 27, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MASVINGO PROVINCE, ZIMBABWE — They look like birds pecking, grain by grain, along the nation's roadsides. Tattered women and children bend to pick up the smattering of corn blown from passing trucks. The precious grains are about all there is to eat.

Millions across Zimbabwe are on the brink of starvation, largely because of the failure of this year's harvest and the nation's collapsed economy, along with President Robert Mugabe's ban on humanitarian aid during the recent election campaign.

On the road from Harare, the capital, south to Masvingo province, a 3-year-old boy, Slupeth, collects grain with his mother, Esnat, 36, and her sister, Chipo, 26. It takes them half a day to gather a pound of ground corn, or maize, which will make a small dinner.

Half of the boy's hair has fallen out; his skin is scaly and his eyes runny. The two women are gaunt, their cheekbones sharp, their wrists like sticks. The family ran out of corn in April.

"We were told a truck spilled grain today. Without it we would have nothing to eat," said Esnat, who was afraid of being beaten by government supporters if she gave her surname.

Mugabe recently rescinded his ban on outside aid, but Richard Lee, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, said it would take months to get humanitarian distributions back to full speed.

Of the 1.7 million people who needed emergency food this month, only a minority have gotten help, he said. By November, the WFP hopes to be fully operational. About 5 million people, almost half the population, will need food aid by early next year, the time when food shortages usually are worst, Lee predicted.

The head man in one village in the southern province of Masvingo says he has never seen hunger so bad in his 76 years. Most people in rural areas have run out of ground corn, the staple, along with cooking oil, sugar and even salt.

They eat nothing but boiled rape, a leafy vegetable like spinach, and a wild fruit called hacha.

Esnat and Chipo used to do odd jobs for a bucket of maize, but now no one has any to spare. Their neighbors are so short of food that there is nobody left to beg from. In between gleanings from the passing trucks, the family lives on hacha.

Hunger in Zimbabwe also has a political element, many here believe. At times of food shortages, the ZANU-PF party, which has ruled for 28 years, has used the Grain Marketing Board, the state-owned monopoly grain distributor, to punish opposition activists at the village level and reward loyalists.

A senior board official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, said that right down to the district level, food distributions, the only source of maize, had been run by the army, the Central Intelligence Organization, the police and the district administrator.

"It was more like a campaign tool. Those who were actually supporting the opposition were getting nothing because the CIO wanted to give the grain directly to their supporters," he said.

One diplomat who saw a distribution of food several months ago described a Grain Marketing truck surrounded by ZANU-PF youths wearing party T-shirts and bandannas.

"It was clearly a ZANU-PF food distribution, not a GMB distribution. The two are merged into one," the diplomat said.

With the election over and the food handed out to supporters, the silos are empty, the board official said. And the harvest was 5% of the expected level in some areas.

South of Harare, the countryside gets drier. The landscape is dusty, with red earth and dried yellow grass. Huge oval rocks protrude majestically, balanced one upon another like some geological magic trick.

In the villages, the hunger is so severe that few talk of anything else. In one, the head man -- the traditional elder and ZANU-PF official -- who identified himself only as Isaac, 76, said that in past droughts there were shops to fall back on. But with no harvest, empty shops and no transportation to go and buy elsewhere, people are forced to eat raw wild fruit. He requested anonymity, fearing repercussions.

"In my life I have never known a situation as serious as we are having now," he said.

An 80-year-old woman, Tsungirirai, caring for nine grandchildren, feeds them nothing but green vegetables. She has run out of salt and cannot sell her last few cattle because she needs them for plowing. She recently sold her last goat to buy food.

"There's nothing I can do. I feel as if we are on the road to death. We can't survive eating only vegetables," said the woman, who disclosed only her first name. "Sometimes I cry when I'm on my own in my little hut. Sometimes the children see me crying. The young ones cry with me. The older ones say, 'How will crying help?' "

Isaac, the head man, says villagers come to him for help, but all he can do is send them to the Grain Marketing Board depot, even though he knows there is nothing there.

"I feel so much embarrassed. It's very, very hard," he said. "If you see the sorry state of the people, sometimes you want to cry."

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