How did it come to this?

children_pick_up_corn.jpgChildren pick up corn kernels spilled from lorries on a roadside south of Harare.
Ten years ago, Zimbabwe was self-sufficient in food. Today more than two-thirds of its population needs food aid, many are dying of hunger a

Juliana Tafirei will probably die, while the pills that could save her
life lie on her bedside table. The drugs arrive each month with a batch
of Red Cross food aid at her small conical house in the village of
Muzondo in Masvingo, a sprawling agricultural province of about 1.3
million people, 300km from Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. But there
are a lot of mouths to feed and the food runs out after a couple of
weeks, three at best. After that, Tafirei and her six children eat only
every other day, a meal consisting of a few boiled wild vegetables and
sometimes a cup of maize begged from neighbours.

That is when Tafirei, 36, stops taking the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs
that prevent HIV from developing in to full-blown Aids. On an empty
stomach they are, as one health worker puts it, like digesting razor
blades. "We don’t each much. The food they give us doesn’t last. The
children get hungry. It is hard to tell them they cannot have food when
they can see it sitting there," says Tafirei, lying in bed eating a
small plate of beans, her only meal of the day. "When I eat I feel a
bit better. But when I get hungry, I’m really, really weak. I can
hardly walk. I’m taking ARVs. Without any food I don’t take them
because it’s very painful."

But intermittent use of the drugs, combined with immune systems
weakened by a lack of food, makes ARVs virtually useless over time.
Then Aids takes a grip.

Tafirei is not alone. The United Nations says that this month it will
feed seven million Zimbabweans, more than two-thirds of the population
still left in a country where drastic shortages have driven millions of
the most able across the border to work illegally in South Africa. But
new foreign food aid has all but dried up as the western financial
crisis bites and donors hesitate to pour in more money to alleviate a
crisis of President Robert Mugabe’s making. So rations for most people
have been cut to about 600 calories a day, less than the minimum
required to keep an adult alive.

There is little relief in sight with the worst harvest in decades
expected this year, mostly as a result of Mugabe’s land seizures and
economic policies. The numbers dying are rising steadily. A silent,
almost unseen, cull is underway.

Zimbabwe is not Ethiopia 25 years ago. The dead are not dropping in the
street. Many of the women wondering where the next meal will come from
for their children are still well rounded. Few of the children are
skeletal, although their extended bellies are testament to chronic
malnutrition, and in parts of the country – near the eastern border
with Mozambique and parts of Matabeleland – starvation has taken hold.
But the gnawing hunger that plagues people in great swathes of Zimbabwe
is compounded by collapsing immune systems. With that comes disease.
Children get sick quicker. Hospitals have no medicines and, frequently,
no doctors and nurses. So the children die.

The food shortages have helped cholera take a hold in Zimbabwean towns
and villages, killing more than 3,300 and infecting nearly 70,000. The
numbers keep rising. And the graveyards are being filled ever more
quickly by Aids in a country where one in four are infected with HIV.
Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are receiving ARVs. Millions are
not, and they are among those dying in the largest numbers. No one can
put a figure on it but in town after town, health workers speak of
sharply escalating death rates.

"It’s all down to food. Without food, Aids comes. Cholera comes. The
weak ones die. Any disease, they die," says a senior state health
worker who declines to be named because of a government ban on talking
to foreign reporters.

"In the rural areas most people are malnourished but I have also seen
starvation for the first time in recent weeks. Only a few cases, but I
didn’t see that before. They died of starvation. There have been food
shortages before and neighbours always helped the poorest. But no one
has anything to spare any more."

Aids upset the traditional family model years ago, robbing many
children of their parents and imposing a new kind of family headed by
grandparents or teenagers looking after younger siblings and cousins.
But working-age men and women were still around in sufficient numbers,
bringing in a salary or working the fields, to help out the most
destitute in the village or township. Now even that support mechanism
has collapsed in many places as the economic crisis has driven those
who could work to South Africa or Britain in search of any kind of job,
or to Harare, to deal in the black market.

In parts of rural Masvingo, working-age men – and quite often women –
are a rarity. As the number of available adults shrinks, the mothers
and grandmothers who remain find themselves looking after eight, 10,
even a dozen children. With that has come a constant struggle to find
enough food.

Rosina Chimbewa is 69. She had 15 children: six are dead. They left 10
grandchildren who live with her in a tiny house in a poor suburb of the
town of Masvingo. The eldest is 13-year-old Samantha. She is a serious
girl who sits bolt upright next to her grandmother with her hands on
her lap under a poster of Jesus with his eyes raised to the heavens.
She takes on a lot of the responsibility for looking after the other
children, preparing their one meal a day of maize and boiled
vegetables. She says they cry because they want more.

"There’s nothing for today," Samantha says quietly. "We are waiting for
our grandmother to find something. There are days when we don’t eat.
There’s nothing to be done about it."

Her grandmother winces at Samantha’s comments. There is food from the
Red Cross, she says, because the children were orphaned by Aids, but
it’s not enough. "I used to have a market stall but now I’m old and
can’t move so we rely on the Red Cross and well-wishers. But we haven’t
been receiving food aid for three months and it’s difficult. So we had
to ask the neighbours for some mealie meal (maize) and they sometimes
help. But they don’t have much food themselves," she says.

"Hunger is painful. It never goes away. I look at the children and I
know if I feel it, they can feel it. In the first days they would cry
and ask for food but they saw they were putting me under stress and so
now they just sit and look."

When what little money there is goes on food, everything else is
sacrificed. The children stop going to school because there is no money
for pencils and books and uniforms. Many of the schools are closed in
any case because teachers’ pay is worth so little they don’t bother to
go to work or have gone to South Africa to earn rand as waiters and
taxi drivers.

The Zimbabwe Red Cross is using foreign donations to feed about 260,000
people infected with HIV or affected by it, such as Aids orphans. One
such recipient is Tambudzai Savera in Masvingo. It is hard to imagine
that the 42-year-old woman can last much longer. Her face is drawn, her
eyes close constantly and she works hard to get out a few words to
explain that she feels ill and is hungry. Savera’s daughter, Rudo,
props her mother up in bed and says she has stopped taking her ARVs.

The Red Cross delivers 50kg of maize, 5kg of beans and some cooking oil
every month but that has to feed Savera and four children, providing
them with little more than 1,000 calories a day. Savera used to make a
living selling vegetables but her health and the general economic
situation means she isn’t making money any more, so she rents out the
stall for 50 South African rand (£3.50) a month. In South Africa that
would be enough to buy another 10kg of maize, a litre of cooking oil
and a few extras. But the Zimbabwean authorities have been imposing 90%
duty on food crossing the border, and then there are the transport
costs and the vendor’s mark-up. So a packet of maize has more than
doubled in price by the time it reaches Masvingo or Harare and the 50
rand don’t go very far.

Even food aid can create its own problems. People who were once seen as
the most vulnerable and a source of sympathy – the men and women on the
awful ARVs, the children orphaned by Aids – are now sometimes viewed by
their desperate, hungry neighbours as at an advantage. Sometimes they
come knocking and those who have previously relied on their kindness
find it difficult to turn them away.

Matthew Cochrane, a Red Cross official in Johannesburg who has just
returned from Zimbabwe, expects the situation to deteriorate. "It’s not
suddenly going to fall off the edge," he says. "You’ll see a steady and
steep decline. It’s frustrating going through the country and seeing
how healthy the soil looks. But there’s a lack of seeds and fertiliser.
A lot of seeds that got planted were poor quality ones and even those
farmers who get good seeds aren’t getting fertiliser. At first glance
the crops look healthy but then you realise the plants are about 3ft
shorter than they should be at this stage."

Last year’s harvest was the worst since independence in 1980. Zimbabwe,
which used to be more than self-sufficient in food, produced only about
a third of its needs. This year is expected to be even worse.

A Zimbabwean health official grimly observes that people are dying from
the effects of hunger despite being billionaires – "No," she gasps,
"Quintillionaires!" – and then briefly allows herself a guilty laugh at
the absurdity of it all. Some of the dead did have trillions and
quintillions of Zimbabwe dollars in the bank but it was virtually
worthless in a country with inflation running somewhere above 10
sextillion% and a newly issued 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar note losing
almost all its value in a matter of days.

The growing food shortages have played an important part in burying the
national currency. With less food coming in to the cities, prices
surged. The government tried to curb inflation by imposing price
controls. But all that did was empty the supermarket shelves as local
producers refused to sell at loss-making prices and importers stopped
importing because prices were less than goods cost to buy.

The black market quickly took over. Food was shipped in from South
Africa and sold illicitly for US dollars and rands. Underground
supermarkets sprung up in warehouses and garages. The government swore
it would never allow people to deal in US dollars but faced with a
burgeoning parallel market and with no solutions of its own, the
authorities first agreed to let some shops and then all businesses
trade in foreign currency. In the past few weeks, the entire economy
has gone over to American dollars and rands. Zimbabwe dollars have all
but ceased to be traded.

That has made life a lot easier for those who can lay their hands on
foreign currency. Some families receive rand from sons and daughters
working in South Africa. Cash is flowing again and the supermarket
shelves are filled. But the bulk of Zimbabweans have been virtually
shut out of the cash economy.

In rural Masvingo they are back to bartering. A day’s labour on someone
else’s crop is worth a cup or two of maize. What little property people
owned is sold off, although that is getting harder with fewer people
buying.

Idah Mbizvo, 50, gets no food aid at all. She is looking after six of
her own children and three grandchildren at their home in the village
of Vuranda in the Chivi district of Masvingo. She has kept them alive
by selling off most of what she owns, and from what one of her sons
brings in by panning for gold."I don’t even remember what meat is," she
says and laughs. "For us there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
This is the worst period of my life. We had 10 goats but we sold them
so we could get maize.

"Now everything is gone and the children are not getting enough food.
They are unhappy. They go to school barefoot with torn clothes. They
should have something decent but we can’t afford it. Now everyone wants
to be paid in rand. Where can I find rand? I can’t find even one rand
to buy them books or pencils.

"I don’t think we’ll be able to send them to school any more but I’m not so worried about that. Food is the worry now."

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