Desperate measures in times of hunger

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A mother of four in the rural Midlands gave her husband custody of her children, after divorcing him three years ago, because the failing crops on her two-acre plot meant she would be unable to feed them.

“I had no choice but to take the children to their father (in Harare). . . There is so much hunger in Shurugwi, and getting food for them is a real struggle,” said Tariro Moyo (38) who lives with her parents in the village about 85km southeast of Gweru, provincial capital of Midlands.

The father of the children, all of school-going age, has since remarried and earns a small salary as a mechanic at a struggling company in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town about 30km south of Harare, where he lives in a two-roomed cottage. His new wife is not keen on having the children.

“I know life will be difficult for my children but they could have died if I had remained with them. The father will see what he can do to ensure that his children get food and attend school,” Moyo said.

The husband’s salary will not stretch to pay for school fees and the children will be expected to sell sweets and vegetables to contribute to the household income.

Moyo was allocated the two-acre plot by her father after the divorce, but a prolonged dry spell has put paid to any maize harvest this year.

Like hundreds of others in her community, she relied on monthly supplies of barley, millet and cooking oil from a non-govermental organisation, but distributions stopped in early March 2011 because the budget had been exhausted.

The US-based Famine Early Warning Systems Network has forecast that about 1,7 million people will need food assistance ahead of the main harvest, which usually begins in late March.

Moyo has only been able to produce a small amount of maize in the past two years and has survived on piecemeal jobs.

“Like the other villagers, I have totally become dependent on buying food from local shops because we have not been harvesting much from the fields. It is raising the money that is difficult. The lucky ones have relatives in urban areas, who are working and can send them money every month-end,” she said.

The children often went to school on empty stomachs and had a single evening meal of sadza (thick porridge made from maize-meal) and some vegetables. She said most households in her area were in the same position — there was no cash, and most people survived on barter.

A joint report by Unicef and the government, A Situational Analysis on the State of Women’s and Children’s Rights in Zimbabwe: 2005-2010, indicates that “between 220 000 and 250 000 rural households in Zimbabwe live in extreme poverty and are food insecure. These households include between 620 000 and 700 000 vulnerable children.”

Nationwide about 3,5 million children were living below the poverty line.

Samuel Tabvure (52) lives in Nharira village in Chivhu district, about 180km southeast of Harare, where he looks after his ailing elderly mother and a sister who was diagnosed with HIV last year.

“Both of them need good food but they are surviving on sadza and vegetables most of the time. Whenever I take them to the clinic, I am advised to buy them nutritious food but I am not working and can therefore not buy the required foodstuffs, not even cooking oil,” he said.

The family of nine requires 50kg of maize-meal each week costing $18, or $72 every month.

The Grain Marketing Board (GMB), a state-run cereal distribution monopoly, has been moving grain to the local depot and is selling maize-meal and grain more cheaply.

“The process of buying from the GMB is too long and tiresome. You have to register your name with the local village head. After that, you should show the Zanu PF leaders your party card and wait for your turn, which for some of us seems to be taking forever because we are suspected of supporting the opposition,” said Tabvure.

There have been allegations that Zanu PF has excluded supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change from accessing maize at GMB depots, and has been hampering efforts by humanitarian organisations to provide food assistance.

“The plight of children makes my heart bleed. Their performance at school is clearly affected because they attend school hungry, and over the past four years there have not been any free food handouts in this district,” Tabvure said.

“Poor harvests are bad news, particularly for rural people,” Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist and former chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce said.

“Prices of maize–meal and other foodstuffs will go up,” he said, “but these people don’t have dependable sources of income, yet they will not have options but to go to the shops for their food.”— Irin