Hunger – the main problem

BY A SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT About 15 years ago I drove around a corner on our farm and found a body lying in the middle of the dirt road. I only just managed to stop in time and discovered that it was a teenaged girl who, when I tried to help her up, appeared to be confused and weak. She seemed

to have fainted so I took her to our local clinic.

Every time the clinic sisters asked her what was wrong she repeated the word ‘nenzara.’ Real hunger was so far from my mind at that time that at first I thought she was using it to cover something else. Maybe the girl was pregnant? But the sisters questioned her more and it turned out that she really hadn’t eaten for a couple of days. I was appalled that such a thing could happen in the midst of plenty.

As we investigated further, we discovered that her alcoholic grandmother spent what little money there was on drink. It was easy to solve that particular hunger problem and the girl received a basic food allowance every month.

It was the first time that I’d heard the Shona word for hunger used in its real sense.
When I was hungry I often used to say “Ndafa nenzara!” But not any more.

Hardest of all is feeling so helpless when faced with hunger on this scale. Wherever I go I see it. It’s etched in deep lines on thin worried faces. It’s in the large round eyes of the children that peer so hopefully into my car. It’s the oedema and bronzed skin and hair of kwashiorkor and it’s the child who says that he is nine when I thought that he was about five. Nenzara is now right next door in the family of the gardener who has five children and is paid the minimum wage. (20 loaves of bread a month)

A friend of mine chatted to a young man outside her bank recently and he told her that ‘hungriness is the main problem.’ As a result of that conversation and cognisant of Audrey Hepburn’s advice that ‘for a slim figure share your food with the hungry’ she has started feeding a few people from her home. She has an interesting clientele. They include one neighbour’s domestic staff, street boys, the messenger from the office down the road and an unemployed domestic worker and her three children who stay across the road where her oldest son works as a caretaker.

There is one man who comes for lunch who is known locally as ‘the war vet.’ He was sounding off to the others about how it was all going to get better when all the whites have finally left the country. ‘Then we’ll start again,’ he’d said confidently,

My friend’s cook is quite a fearsome fellow and he bellowed that there was to be no talk of a political nature if they wanted to be fed. But as she served the so-called war vet she heard her cook say to him, “Kana varungu vakaenda hapana chaunowana kana kupiwa sadza raurikuwana hauriwani!” (If all the whites leave then you won’t get even this sadza for lunch!) The war vet still comes for lunch everyday and has been heard to say with exquisite politeness that perhaps not all the whites should leave!

I watched a food program in operation. A thin but handsome young man carefully picked up the few spilt beans that were on the desk of the interviewer and put them in his sack. Typically the gesture of a tidy mature woman, it was poignant in one so young. He has one child, his wife is dead and he’s HIV positive. It was only because of this that he’s classified as ‘chronically ill’ and qualified for what is called extra food aid. Otherwise the church would not have been allowed to give him more than general food aid. That is 25 kilos of maize, a litre of oil and a couple of kilos of beans.

There’s a bizarre twist to the cruel decree that allows extra food aid only to the chronically ill. The stigma attached to an HIV positive status has not only been booted out of the closet it’s become a passport to survival.

Anna is 23, her husband is ill and her five-year-old son has TB. The baby has kwashiorkor and has just come out of the feeding unit at Harare Hospital. She’s been told that the child needs milk every day and eggs. They may as well have said Beluga caviar and fois gras, because her husband has no work. He fishes with little success in the polluted, weed choked Manyame River but is really too weak to walk that far.

The very old and destitute don’t qualify for extra food – which amounts to some peanut butter, mahewu, rice, kapenta and more beans. I watched a Grandmother leave. She’d lost her livelihood due to the ban on vending and she looked after six orphaned grandchildren but didn’t qualify for extra food because they were all well. The logic is worthy of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

We don’t yet see those Biafran or Ethiopian stick people in Harare but what we do see are the ramifications of hunger. A largely malnourished population, children who die of kwashiorkor and starvation, people who quickly succumb to diseases such as TB and Aids and the premature death of the elderly. I fear that we’ll not hit the headlines until we can produce the stick people to feed the media.

Some people seem numb. I first saw that numbness on the faces of the North Korean crowd who welcomed Mugabe to that country in the 1980’s. His visit was widely covered on local TV and I watched horrified at the expressionless faces of the thousands who lined the streets of Pyongyang. They chanted ‘Mugabe, Mugabe, Mugabe’ and waved little flags but their faces were dead, totally devoid of expression. They looked like wind up toys or programmed automatons. Is that what fear does to people? Fear combined with hunger and deprivation is a deadly mix.

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