Southern Africa

Zimbabwe: Children With a Hunger to Survive

A Zimbabwean boy from the famine-stricken Binga district, 600 kilometrs west of Harare, and his dog eat donated bread, Oct. 13, 2002 (Photo: AFP)
A Zimbabwean boy from the Binga district, 600 kilometrs west of Harare, and his dog eat donated bread, Oct. 13, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The stillness shrouds the homestead like a soft blanket on this sun-drenched afternoon. Twelve children aged 6 to 18 and one infant of 4 months live in this small plot of scorched earth in Zimbabwe. But the sounds of children playing, teasing, and fighting are noticeably absent.

Instead, the children sit listlessly in the shade of the only tree in the yard, shuffling their feet, drawing lines in the sand, and dozing. They look relatively healthy—no bloated bellies or rheumy eyes—but after a few questions it emerges they have consumed only black tea in the past 48 hours. Eight days have passed since they last ate cornmeal.

Ntombiyela Tshuma, 18, has been taking care of her 11 siblings since she was 13. Their mother died in 1995, their father three years later of AIDS-related illnesses.

Ntombi dropped out of school to find work to support the children. In May she gave birth to her own child, whose father stays in Bulawayo, about 45 minutes from the Tshuma children’s home. Neighbors occasionally help out, and the older siblings do odd jobs for food or money.

Two of the younger children attend primary school with the assistance of a nongovernmental organization. There is not enough money to pay fees for the other two children of primary school age. Ntombi’s dream of becoming a nurse ended with her father’s death.

The United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) announced this week that 14.4 million people are affected by the food crisis in Southern Africa. The WFP feared that the crisis was “worsening faster than originally projected.”

About half of those suffering from food shortages live in Zimbabwe, where a combination of the drought affecting the entire region and the government’s controversial land redistribution program has caused serious shortages of all staple food items.

Those with enough money can still buy food at inflationary prices in supermarkets. Those without either wait for WFP handouts or, in theory, buy cornmeal and bread at state-controlled prices through the Grain Marketing Board (GMB).

Human-rights organizations have documented numerous cases of people known to be supporters of the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), or suspected of being MDC sympathizers, being denied maize at local branches of the GMB. Matabeleland, which is considered an MDC stronghold, is receiving smaller quantities of food than are provinces regarded as pro-government.

But even supporters of the ruling party are feeling the crunch. Salaries have not even remotely matched inflation, running at about 122 percent.

The market in foreign currency is running rampant. In March the U.S. dollar cost about 330 Zimbabwean dollars; today it fetches about 650. This has forced shops that rely on imported goods to increase their prices drasti-cally. The state-controlled price of a loaf of bread is about Z$60. On the thriving black market a loaf can cost up to Z$100. For the Tshuma children, like tens of thousands of other Zimbabweans, neither supermarkets nor the GMB are options. Hunger has become a daily reality in their lives.

“We have never had such hunger, and it will get worse by the end of the year,” said Lucia Malemane, the program coordinator of the Umzingwane district of Matabeleland South.

The combination of AIDS and hunger has been lethal during this food crisis. In Zimbabwe, according to information from nongovernmental sources, about 2,000 people are dying of AIDS-related causes every week. This figure is expected to rise dramatically as those most vulnerable and in need of nutrition succumb to full-blown AIDS.

Even the approximately 75 percent of the population not living with AIDS will, however, be affected by the worsening crisis. Most NGOs agree that unless food is brought into Zimbabwe in sufficient quantities, the country will be suffering from full-scale famine by December or January. Then images of children with bloated bellies, hollow cheeks, and heavy-lidded eyes will begin to go around the world.

Children have been hit hard by the food crises. Save the Children, a British-based NGO, has been documenting the effects of the shortages on Zimbabwean children. “We are concerned that the rationale for providing food is whether people live or die, but the whole series of children’s rights are infringed long before they are starving,” said Chris McIvor, program director of Save the Children in Zimbabwe.

Many children are dropping out of school to forage for roots and berries. At Mzintyathi primary school in Esigodini, near the Tshuma home, more than 17 children have dropped out of school in the past few months. At least double that number attend school irregularly. Some are dropping out to pan for gold in the nearby Umzingwane River. Many of these children are being exploited by the businessmen who buy the gold.

Save the Children conducted a brief survey in Binga, near Lake Kariba, to examine the effect of the food crisis on women’s behavior. It found more young women are now engaged in prostitution, many taking food as payment. Women already engaged in sex work are more likely to have sex without a condom if the client pays a better price for “skin on skin” sex. As the crisis worsens, women’s vulnerability increases, forcing them into sex work.

McIvor also said more girls were being forced into early marriages. The tradition of childhood marriages in the Zambezi Valley, where Save the Chil-dren has focused much of its work, saw girls as young as 14 getting married. Now, said McIvor, brides were getting even younger as their families looked to the bride price of cattle and goats for survival.