Rebecca Chipika, a child of 9, prods a stick into a termite mound to draw out insects. She sweeps them into a bag for her family’s evening meal.
These scenes from a food catastrophe are unfolding in Doma, a district of rural Zimbabwe where journalists rarely venture. It’s a stronghold of President Robert Mugabe’s party and his enforcers and informants are everywhere.
At a school for villagers visited by The Associated Press, enrollment is down to four pupils from 20. The teachers still willing to work in this once-thriving farming and mining district 160 miles northeast of Harare, the capital, say parents pay them in corn, cooking oil, goats or chickens. One trip by bus to the nearest bank to draw their government salaries costs more than teachers earn in a month.
Meanwhile, the country is in political paralysis following disputed elections in March. A power-sharing deal signed two months ago has stalled over the allocation of ministries between President Robert Mugabe’s party and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
Shingirayi Chiyamite is a trader from Harare who brings household goods to the countryside to barter for crops. He says a 12-inch bar of laundry soap exchanges for 22 pounds of corn. He crisscrosses the land in search of the few villages that have corn to spare, hauls his purchases to the highway and hitchhikes back to the city. Some of the corn will feed his family; the rest he sells. He is constantly on the move.
Information is almost as scarce as food. Survival is the obsession.
Cell phones operate only sporadically. State radio has not been received since the district relay beacon broke down eight months ago.
Mhangura, a town of about 3,000 people, has had no running water for months. Power outages happen daily because of a lack of cash to maintain utilities. People walk about three miles to a dam to fill pails or gasoline cans.
Some of the scarce water is used to embalm the dead in wet sand, a centuries-old African tradition to preserve a body until family members gather for the burial.
"There’s nothing here. People are dying of illness and hunger. Burial parties are going out every day," said Michael Zava, a trader in Mhangura.
The hospital that serves the district is closed, and so is its small morgue, so there’s no way of telling how many are dying, Zava said. Children’s hair is discoloring, a sign of malnutrition. Adults are wizened and dressed in rags – they have no cash for new clothes.
Zava said he has seen villagers plucking undigested corn kernels from cow dung to wash and eat. A slaughtered goat is eaten down to everything but hooves, bones and teeth. Crickets, cicadas and beetles also can make a meal.
The food crisis began after 2000, when Mugabe launched an often violent campaign to seize white-owned farms and give them to veterans of his guerrilla war against white rule over the former British colony.
Officials from Mugabe’s party toured the Doma district recently and told the new farm owners that the government could not supply their needs. They were advised to make do with what seed they had left, and with animal manure for fertilizer.
Ordinarily, after harvest the cotton fields are burned to protect the next year’s crop from disease. Not this year. People couldn’t afford to buy new seeds, and were hoping to get another season out of last year’s crop. Instead, the crops came up diseased.
Pasture has been burned by poachers to scare rabbits and rodents into traps. Deer are being hunted for food, and lions from remote parts of the Doma region and Chenanga nature reserve are killing cattle, donkeys and goats, villagers said.
Jackals, baboons and goats compete with villagers for roots and wild fruits.
The wild guava season is over and matamba, a hard orange-like fruit, cannot safely be eaten until ripe. Villagers pick the fruit and cover it with donkey or cow dung, leaving it in the sun to hasten ripening.
Katy Phiri, the grandmother collecting corn kernels, said she put her trust in God.
"There’s nothing else I can do," she said. "I have never gone this hungry before."