Hunger begins to take its toll in Zimbabwe

BONDOLFI MISSION, (IRIN) – Five children have died in Zimbabwe's southern drought-prone Masvingo province from severe malnutrition-related illnesses, according to members of a faith-based mission.

"The children died of starvation last week," said a member of the Catholic-run Bondolfi Mission, a member of the Holy Cross Convent, who did not want to be named. The mission is located in Chivi district. Two of the children died in the Mapanzure area near the mission, and three at a clinic in Mukaro Mission in the neighbouring Gutu district.

"There was nothing the clinic could do to help them – they were severely malnourished," said the mission staff member. The children had not had eaten for a week.

Members of the Bondolfi Mission said they had last seen such levels of malnutrition in the severe drought of 1991/1992. "During that time, humanitarian organisations helped to alleviate the shortages by distributing food aid in communities so the impact was not as severe as were a witnessing now," pointed out the staff member.

Nongovernmental organisations in Zimbabwe are in the process of resuming food distribution after a government ban on their operations was lifted on 28 August. The ban had been imposed ahead of a second round of voting in the presidential ballot on 27 June because of the alleged collective anti-government bias of NGOs.

The most recent data from 2006 showed that 29 percent percent of Zimbabwean children below the age of five were stunted or suffering chronic malnutrition, indicating a lack of nutritious food for a long period of time.

Every evening, children from villages around the mission arrive at the boarding school run by the convent to wait for leftovers. "The situation is very bad," said a nun, and described tear-jerking scenes of children scrambling for scraps and running back home to share with siblings.

"You feel helpless because there is not enough food to go around. You can’t do much. Even adults sometimes join the scramble for the food scraps and leftovers. Just yesterday, an entire village arrived begging for food," she said.

The mission has tried to help, at times inviting mothers to do some work at the mission station. "Only last week we offered six women some work to do in return for grain and one of them fainted because she was too weak to finish the task," said a nun at the mission.

"We have witnessed hunger and food shortages in the past, but this one is the worst. Our teachers cannot also afford to buy food even when they have been paid," commented another member of the mission. "Food costs three times as much as it costs in South Africa and their salaries are too low to buy enough for themselves and their families as it has become too expensive."

A government-sponsored programme to distribute basic commodities at affordable prices is expected to begin this week, according to the mission. Under the Basic Commodity Supply Side Intervention (BACCOSI), government provides food hampers at reduced prices to rural communities.

Expectant villagers

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC), unaffected by the government’s ban on NGOs, has announced the start of a food distribution drive targeting those infected or affected by HIV and AIDS, which will continue for the next nine months.

Trucks loaded with 383 metric tonnes of maize, beans and cooking oil have been dispatched to feed 24,000 people in eight provinces: Masvingo, Matabeleland North, Matabeleland South, Midlands, Manicaland, Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East and Mashonaland West. The IFRC announced that distributions would take place on a daily basis, reaching 260,100 people with monthly food support.

For most of the villagers whose crops failed because of patchy rains and lack of farming inputs such as seed and fertiliser, the arrival of food aid trucks is long overdue as they have struggled for months without aid. A crop assessment forecast by a joint Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Food Programme mission, released in June 2008, projected that about 5.1 million Zimbabweans out of a total population of 12 million would suffer food insecurity by early 2009.

Peter Lundberg, the head of the IFRC delegation in the capital, Harare, appreciated the Bondolfi Mission’s concerns. "This is a critical period for these communities. They have faced months without enough food and, for many families, the situation has deteriorated drastically in recent weeks."

Françoise Le Goff, head of the IFRC’s Southern Africa zone, said people infected or affected by HIV and AIDS were particularly vulnerable to food shortages. "Many of these people are on antiretroviral medication (ARVs). For these drugs to work effectively, people need food. Without a full stomach, many of those on [ARVs] are now choosing to default on their treatment as they can’t cope with the debilitating side effects."

The IFRC said according to health authorities in Masvingo province, one of the regions worst affected by the food crisis, 70 percent of people on ARVs have defaulted in recent months because of food shortages.

A little over 15 percent of the country’s population is living with HIV. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), approximately 1.3 million, or one fifth of all Zimbabwean children have lost a parent; most have been orphaned by AIDS.