Zimbabwe's starving millions: 'We never suffered like this'

BULAWAYO – Moses Nkomo, a 72-year-old grandfather of 10, cannot imagine how he would have survived without food handouts from relief agencies in Zimbabwe, where more than half the population faces hunger.

"I have been surviving on handouts since November last year," said Nkomo, a resident in Makokoba, one of the oldest and poorest sections of the country’s second city of Bulawayo, while waiting to receive food
hampers from the aid group Oxfam.

He is among the nearly seven million people in Zimbabwe who need food aid, according to the United Nations, which has sent a top-level humanitarian team to find ways of curbing the food crisis and a devastating cholera epidemic.

Zimbabwe has suffered chronic food shortages for nearly a decade, but the severity of the crisis has grown so quickly that relief agencies are struggling to keep up with the soaring need for aid.

The UN’s World Food Programme estimated in June that about five million people would need aid. Last month they revised the estimate to 6,9-million.

Nkomo is one of 4 000 residents in his neighbourhood registered to receive a food basket that includes ground soya, the staple cornmeal, salt and peanut butter.

Only a lucky 280 receive the handouts.

In past years, rural families bore the brunt of food shortages but now townsfolk are feeling the pinch, as many have no means of livelihood in a country with unemployment at 94%.

Last year food had disappeared from store shelves. Now shops are fully stocked but demand payment in foreign currency — something ordinary Zimbabweans simply don’t have.
 

As Nkomo awaits his turn, 63-year-old Queen Dube receives her rations at the front of the line, with her granddaughter helping carry the donated goods.

"In the past things were good," Dube says. "Things were not this difficult, we never suffered like this. Never.

"Although the white man’s government exploited us and harassed many people, at least they made sure we were never hungry. This new government must work for the good of people."

Long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister this month in a unity government with President Robert Mugabe.

He has called for a massive increase in investment and aid for Zimbabwe, which has been hobbled by stunning hyperinflation that has left the local currency worthless and the economy in shambles.

In a country where 1,3-million people have HIV, many households are headed by children or grandparents because the parents have died or are ill. Those families are the first to benefit from aid, but not all will
receive.

Simon Bhebhe, an 84-year-old grandfather and former teacher, is furious.

"Despite the fact that I have been registered to receive food since November last year, I have been again told that there will be nothing for me today," Bhebhe said.

"My name is not appearing on the list again."

Bhebhe said he spent 15 years in prison for resisting the white-minority Rhodesian government, and now said he survives from "hand to mouth" as his son — who was the family’s breadwinner — died last June.

"I sell goats to make ends meet, but life is difficult. For goodness sake, I fought for this country," he fumed.

"Now it’s time to move forward and put our political differences aside. I am glad that Morgan Tsvangirai is now in government and I hope he can work with Mugabe," Bhebhe said.

"Now my advice to the new government is that they must put the lives of the ordinary men on the street first as priority number one."

James Sithole, a local councillor in Bulawayo, said that so many people now need food, aid agencies just don’t have enough to go around.

"Here in Makokoba, this is where you find the poorest people in Bulawayo if not in the whole country. Due to scarcity of resources, not everyone will receive food," he said.

As the hours tick by, the winding line disappears and the packed 30-tonne truck is left empty. Most of Makokoba still wonders when they will eat.

Meanwhile, South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has convened the body’s finance ministers this week to devise a plan to help the country out of the crisis. – AFP