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The IoS Christmas Appeal: Mugabe's disgrace: Starvation threatens millions in Zimbabwe

Our special correspondent in Zimbabwe reports from Matabeleland North on the desperate plight of families facing malnutrition and disease. Here's what you can do to help

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Mercy, picking mulberry leaves to eat, is one of five million Zimbabweans in desperate need of food aid now. You can help

Mercy, picking mulberry leaves to eat, is one of five million Zimbabweans in desperate need of food aid now. You can help

The future for children in Zimbabwe is bleak, and getting bleaker every day. A country which once fed itself, and exported food to its neighbours, is on the verge of mass starvation. A cholera epidemic is raging out of control, and health professionals expect an equally deadly outbreak of malaria to follow soon.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 5.1 million Zimbabweans will need food aid by the end of the year. That is more than half the people remaining in the country, with another three million having fled abroad, mainly to South Africa. But the WFP is being forced to cut the ration, because it is short of funds, leaving the most deprived to dig for roots or strip the trees to survive. More than once, labourers have fainted from hunger while unloading consignments of WFP food. A weakened population has no ability to resist the diseases, including anthrax, now springing up.

Though these disasters have been worsened by the disintegration of a health system that was once among the best in Africa, Zimbabwe's economic collapse underlies everything. The official annual inflation rate is 243 million per cent, but independent economists calculate that it is actually 2.8 quintillion – a quintillion is one followed by 18 zeroes.

Doctors and teachers whose monthly wage does not buy one square meal are leaving their jobs to forage for food like everyone else. Poverty drives people to the cities in most Third World countries, but in Zimbabwe there is migration to the countryside, where there is a chance of growing something to eat. As the year ends, the surge of hope following the September power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition has turned to despair, as the deal has failed to have any impact on people's lives. This weekend, there were reports that the constitution will be amended to implement the agreement, but progress has been fitful and fundamental disagreements remain.

The first sight that greets visitors who fly into Harare is that of people tilling public land beside the airport. Even where doctors and teachers are still working, they are defeated by the lack of basic materials such as dressings, surgical gloves, books and writing materials. Harare's hospitals have stopped functioning, and schools around the country are shutting down.

Last week Catherine Bragg, a senior UN aid official, said school attendance had plunged from above 90 per cent to below 20 per cent. A total of 1.6 million, roughly one in four children, have lost one or both parents, the highest proportion in the world. That is almost entirely due to HIV/Aids, but now it is the young who are dying. "We are not too far away from seeing children being carried off by hunger," said Rachel Pounds, country director of Save the Children (UK). Chronic malnutrition under the age of five stunts children physically and mentally for life.

But Zimbabwe's people are amazingly resilient, she adds, and a little aid goes a long way. In the parts of the Zambezi River valley where the organisation works, villagers who have been living on roots and leaves share handouts of maize meal with their neighbours. When seeds are distributed, they will see that family members who did not qualify receive some.

Save the Children is feeding 140,000 people in the area, but another 45,000 are losing out, because the WFP does not have enough food supplies. The communities decide who qualifies for help, but the distinction between the desperation of those in category A, who will receive food first, and those in category D, who will rarely if ever get supplies, can seem microscopic.

Take 13-year-old Thandi Munkuli, who was digging up makuli roots in Matabeleland North province with her mother, Mary. Her family is certainly category A: her father has been in hospital for two years, probably suffering from Aids, they have no livestock, and can no longer grow their own food. "We used to beg for seed from friends and relatives, but they do not have enough for themselves," she said. A simple way to gauge deprivation in Zimbabwe is to ask when someone last had sadza,the staple food made from maize meal. The poorest cannot afford enough meal to make the stiff mash that is considered essential to life. Instead they have to make a watery porridge that gives very little nutrition.

For Thandi and the two other children in the family, the answer was three days previously. "We have been living on makuli since then," she said. The potato-sized roots are white, crunchy and utterly tasteless, yet small children have been seen to grab and eat them as soon as they are dug up, without even cleaning the dirt away. Though the roots have no nutritional value, they fill empty stomachs. But they can be dangerous: some carry toxic parasites, and can be so poisonous they need to be boiled for hours to make them edible. Many other wild fruits give people stomach cramps and diarrhoea, yet are still eaten. This contributes to the spread of cholera, as does the movement of people in search of food.

No rations have yet been distributed in Thandi's area, but if and when they arrive, she and her family will be entitled to them. But Mercy Shumba will not, even though she has not had sadza for a month. Sometimes all she eats is a stew of mulberry leaves, boiled up by her great-grandmother, Zandile Nkomo, who has never known such hard times in all her 74 years.

Mercy, who thinks she is seven – she has no birth certificate – lives in a dilapidated mud and thatch house, 20 minutes' walk from the nearest track. The mulberry leaves came from a tree planted by an absent neighbour, next to a mango tree which had been stripped of its fruit by Mercy and her six-year-old cousin, Nesta, too desperate to wait for it to ripen. "I feel sad and weak all the time," said Mercy. She is the oldest of Mrs Nkomo's five great-grandchildren, four of whom sat with her on a mat. The youngest, seven-month-old Sibongile, looked unnaturally quiet in her great-grandmother's arms, and her sister, three-year-old Patricia, had the greying, turning to ginger, hair that is a clear sign of severe malnutrition. They were so listless that no one cracked so much as a smile when their only chair toppled over and I sprawled in the dirt.

Mercy used to go to school, a walk of several hours. "I liked the Ndebele language lessons, but I was finding it difficult to learn, because I was so hungry," she said. Her education would have come to a halt anyway – her school has been closed since August.

"What we try to do," said Ms Pounds of Save the Children, "is to improve children's chances of survival, and then to get them some kind of education." If anyone sounds deserving of this, it is Mercy, but her family is in category D, for two reasons. One is that there are two able-bodied adults in the household. Mrs Nkomo's two grand-daughters, the children's mothers, go off in search of food each day, taking Mercy's disabled three-year-old sister with them. Since each of their five girls has a different father, it is not hard to guess how they earn the maize meal and cooking oil they bring back.

The second reason the family is seen as less wretched than some is that Mrs Nkomo still has two cows. "If I sell them to buy seed, or slaughter them, we would not be able to plough our plot," she said. "We don't have any seed now, but perhaps we might get some." Barter has almost entirely replaced cash in Zimbabwe's rural areas, but this does not make country dwellers immune from the effects of economic collapse. One goat used to be worth 50kg of maize meal, but now fetches only 10kg – another reason why owners don't want to sell. But anthrax has flared up in Matabeleland North, threatening to leave people like Mrs Nkomo with nothing. Even worse, hungry people have eaten the infected meat, spreading the disease to humans, at least three of whom have died. Once again, given the collapse of administrative systems, the outbreak may be hard to contain.

"I am just waiting for God to do whatever he can, because I have lost all hope," Mrs Nkomo said.

Save the Children is seeking to set up emergency feeding centres for children under five. Even the severely malnourished can be brought back from the brink with Plumpynut, an enriched mixture of peanut butter, powdered milk and sugar.

The work of agencies such as Save the Children was suspended for months during the violent election campaign. When Ms Pounds and her staff resumed operations, conditions were infinitely worse than before. Zimbabweans do not deserve the fate that has befallen them. If they are to be given any hope this Christmas, it will have to come from us.

Some names have been changed

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