Witnessing Poverty Firsthand

By Darah Protas

Seated underneath a tree between two thatched huts, College junior Daniel Turton watched as a mother and her two children approached him and took a seat next to him. A baby desperately suckled on her mother's empty breast as a young boy rested at her feet with his head on her thigh. In comparison to the size of his head and feet, his curved legs - which protruded out of his tattered shorts - looked gaunt.

Like nearly everyone else in Zimbabwe, the mother and her children suffered from malnourishment. In an attempt to briefly assuage their hunger, Turton handed out cookies and water to the starving villagers.

"His tiny, deformed legs seemed like twigs that could barely support the weight of his body," Turton recalled. "It was heartbreaking [to watch the breastfeeding] because you could see this child’s hunger and persistence.
Nutritionally, this woman’s body couldn’t provide and the child couldn’t get what it wanted or deserved."

Although Emory does not have a study abroad program in Zimbabwe, Turton visited the country when he was studying abroad in Capetown, South Africa, last semester. Despite his friends’ many warnings, he traveled with a political opposition activist and an Austrian journalist and witnessed firsthand the hunger, poverty and disease that pervade in the country.

In addition to risking exposure to cholera and having to survive in a country with virtually no food, gasoline or clean water, Turton risked being arrested and detained in Zimbabwe because his traveling companions were government targets. According to Turton, Zimbabwe has been charging journalists as criminals in order to suppress stories from getting out about what is actually happening in the country.

Despite the many dangers of traveling to Zimbabwe, Turton said he took the risk "out of sincere desire to learn more about [him]self and the human condition."

One of Turton’s traveling companions, Brahm Hanekom, is the head of an organization that works to aid African refugees. Hanekom wanted to visit Zimbabwe to set up contacts for future delivery of food and aid and to document the severity of the situation. Hanekom could then use the evidence of suffering to put pressure on the South African government to help the Zimbabwean refugees. Hanekom asked Turton to come on the trip to videotape the interviews and to take photographs.

"The situation in Zimbabwe doesn’t make headlines in the U.S. like the Gaza situation or the president," Turton said."But it is of extraordinary importance not just for humanitarian reasons but because the country is on the verge of collapse and none of us should be taken by surprise if this happens."

Starvation, Past and Present

Although Zimbabwe is currently in the midst of economic devastation and a cholera outbreak, it used to be the breadbasket of Africa. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Zambia and Emory economics professor Gordon Streeb, agriculture was the backbone of Zimbabwe. Then the government began implementing land reform legislation in the nineties, which handed farmland over to officials who knew nothing about agriculture.

Streeb said that this was the point when the economy began to decline and hyperinflation set in. The economic decline, coupled with President Robert Mugabe’s oppressive rule, drove out investors. By this point, not only was Zimbabwe not growing its own food, but it was also not importing food due to a lack of investors.

When Turton was in Zimbabwe, the rains had already come, and the crops should have already been planted. But there was not money for fertilizer, so the crops were never planted.

"People are hungry now, and it’s going to get worse," Turton said. "They should be harvesting in April, but there won’t be anything to harvest."

But some hold a different view of Zimbabwe’s future. Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, the director of the Institute for Developing Nations, has trouble imagining Turton’s prediction for the future of Zimbabwe.

"It’s hard to imagine things getting worse," Nilsson said. "People are literally starving. People are digging up roots to eat and boiling grass just to have something in their stomachs."

What Money Can’t Buy

Not only is food scarce, but the food that is available cannot be bought with Zimbabwe currency. Zimbabwe’s money is nearly worthless, and if one wants to buy food, they must exchange their Zimbabwe money for U.S. dollars or South African money. People can exchange their Zimbabwe currency for foreign currency on the streets – the main venue for Zimbabweans to exchange money because banks are close to being nonexistent.

"Last week Zimbabwe published a one billion dollar bill as a new piece of currency," Ranchod-Nilsson said. "That buys two loaves of bread."

Francis Musoni, an Emory graduate student from Zimbabwe, helps his parents obtain foreign currency and food whenever he goes back to Africa. Although Musoni was able to leave his homeland, his parents – among many others – are not able to because leaving the country is a complicated and expensive process. In order to leave Zimbabwe, Musoni said, one must provide the government with proof of a legitimate reason for leaving, enough money to support themselves and their family, a place to stay, and a visa, which cost between 500 and 800 USD, more than most Zimbabweans cannot afford.

When Musoni worked as a university lecturer in Zimbabwe, he was making 50 USD a month. Combined with his wife’s salary of 30 USD a month, they were barely able to afford enough food each month.

According to Ranchod-Nilsson, teachers have stopped going to school because they aren’t being paid and children are too hungry to attend.

"There has to be a massive infusion of aid to get them healthy to the point that people can work and children can go to school," Ranchod-Nilsson said.

In Zimbabwe, goods are hard to come by. Turton gave something, whether it was food or money, to everyone he met. He even gave a soldier his own shoes and wore flip-flops for the rest of the trip.

"We brought cash with us knowing we wouldn’t keep it," Turton explained.
"They’re willing to take anything because they can’t get anything."

This shortage of food and other goods is not new to Zimbabwe.

"I remember when I was there seven years ago you couldn’t buy basic things like socks and underwear and clothing and the like, not to speak of food,"
Streeb said.

A Diseased Country

Toilet paper is also nearly impossible to obtain in Zimbabwe, Musoni said.
This is a problem for those infected with cholera and suffering from severe diarrhea.

Because of the mass amounts of fluid lost through diarrhea, cholera victims often die of dehydration. Cholera is relatively easy to treat; it requires simply replenishing the body’s water supply via intravenous fluids or orally consuming water. However, the country’s water supply is contaminated, and the healthcare system has collapsed, which prevents people from receiving treatment. As of last Friday, the cholera outbreak has killed 2,225 people in Zimbabwe, according to the Associated Press.

According to Streeb, when the government took over the country’s water supply, it was poorly managed. The water supply became contaminated with sewage, causing the cholera outbreak. Along with that, the healthcare system was collapsing.

"The health situation has totally spiraled out of control," Streeb explained. "And on top of that, it’s a country with a very high HIV/AIDS incidence. And so it would be hard to have a much worse situation in terms of the health conditions and the ability to deal with the health crisis."

Streeb estimated that one-third of Zimbabwe’s population has left the country, many of whom are the more intelligent and professional people like doctors, which adds to the country’s problems.

When Turton visited a hospital in Zimbabwe, he learned that the hospitals do not have enough food to feed their patients or the proper drugs to treat illnesses.
"People are dying in their homes and on the streets because they are being turned away from hospitals," Turton said.

The hospital conditions are so desitute that the government sent out orders to all medical facilities instructing hospital workers not to speak to the press, Turton said. But two hospital workers that Turton met allowed him and his friends to interview them. They all went back to the homes of the hospital workers, closed the blinds and conducted the interviews.

"Of course you’re nervous and under stress the whole time," Turton explained. "The government is trying to control what information gets out. .
I could have been detained."

Streeb said he thinks Mugabe is to blame for the country’s severe decline.

"It is traditional to point fingers, but most of those things are covers for what has happened with the destruction of the agriculture sector," Streeb explained. "Once the economy began to spiral down and the Mugabe regime became more and more repressive and brutal, it drove out investment."

But Musoni said that he does not think Mugabe should shoulder all the blame, adding that Mugabe has "lost control of virtually everything in Zimbabwe."
""He is being pushed around by people who have become more powerful than he is," Musoni said.

During his trip, Turton interviewed many soldiers and police officers. One of the soldiers told Turton that he received instructions from the government to go into rural opposition areas before the upcoming election to intimidate the villagers and force them to vote for Mugabe. The soldier, who used to be a school teacher, beat the villagers and forced them to chant Mugabe’s party’s slogan, attend political rallies and vow allegiance to the current government.
Throughout his trip, Turton said he felt an air of defeat among all the suffering.

"The situation is so desperate; people are so famished and their dignity has been stolen from them," Turton explained. "There is this resigned feeling."

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