Hunger stalks rural Zimbabwe as food aid dwindles

CHIRUMANZU, Zimbabwe, – Maxmore Mhazo brightens as he talks about how food handouts from aid agencies have saved lives at his Zimbabwean village, but he is worried by the dwindling size of the portions.

"Many of us would be dead were it not for these donations," the 74-year-old retired mine worker said as he and scores of others in Chirumanzu lined up for food packages distributed by British aid agency Oxfam and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Each got 10 kg (22 lb) of maize, a pint of cooking oil and a bar of laundry soap, but that was less than they had received in the past three months because of the strain put on donors trying to fight Zimbabwe’s multiplying problems.

"We are doomed without this programme," Mhazo said at the village in central Zimbabwe.

The food crisis is due to the collapse of the agricultural sector and economic meltdown, exacerbated by political deadlock between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition.

An estimated five million Zimbabweans, about 40 percent of the population, are surviving on food aid.

Donors expect that number to grow, but they are also diverting money from food aid to fight a cholera epidemic that has already killed over 2,100 people and their appeals for more funding are not being met in full.

Although the southern African nation has had good rains during the current growing season, many farmers did not receive enough seeds or fertiliser to enable them to grow enough maize, which is the staple.

"All indications are that the next harvest is going to be worse than the last, so there is urgent need for action," Peter Matoredzanwa, Oxfam’s country director in Zimbabwe, told Reuters in an interview.

He added that up to one in five of those getting handouts could go without this month as a result of the funding problems.

ALARM

The WFP, a U.N. agency, sounded the alarm this week when it announced that it was $65 million short of the $140 million it wanted to raise in an emergency food appeal for Zimbabwe.

The crisis has been worsened by the diversion of money to fight the cholera outbreak. The disease, normally preventable and easily treatable, has spread from urban to rural areas.

"When the epidemic started, OCHA (the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs) predicted a total of about 60,000 cases up to April, but we already have over 40,000 cases and now expect that figure to go beyond 60,000," Matoredzanwa said.

In Chirumanzu, desperation is setting in.

About 9,000 people eligible for handouts have been cut off and many have resorted to bartering livestock for grain. About 250,000 people in the area and two districts in the central Midlands province are being fed through the Oxfam programme.

"I have no option but to exchange my goats for maize meal, otherwise my family dies," said a distraught Jacob Moyo, who has five children and is responsible for the care of an elderly mother.

"It pains me, having to trade in my livestock, but what can one do? I hope I won’t have to barter my cattle as well."

Many Zimbabweans believed that a power-sharing agreement between President Mugabe and main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai might lead to an economic recovery and prevent a humanitarian disaster.

But a four-month deadlock over the control of key ministries has dashed many of those hopes. High-level talks are due to resume next week under pressure from regional leaders.

"When the deal was signed in September, we were hopeful but not anymore. This deal has taken too long. I have no reason to believe it will get back on track," Moyo said.