Jane Sibanda waits until the hunger claws her insides and she is so dizzy from lack of food that she can barely stand it.
Then, ashamed, the 70-year-old forces herself to beg for food from other villagers, who themselves are close to starving.
"I take a few days, postponing and postponing. I put it off until I feel my body can't take it anymore. There are times when I feel as if my insides are coming up into my chest and I know that I've left it too long without eating," said Sibanda, describing how she feels after a week surviving only on wild fruit from the parched bush near her home a few miles from Lupane in southern Zimbabwe.
Neighbor Beby Ndebele said she felt desperate when Sibanda appeared at her door, because she did not have enough mealie meal, as Zimbabwe's cornmeal staple is known, to spare. But she couldn't bear to eat while her elderly neighbor starved, so somehow she scraped up a small bowl.
Sibanda, who remembers a time when she owned plenty of cattle and was a burden to no one, vowed to make it last a week.
As the government of President Robert Mugabe proclaims plans for the "Mother of All Harvests" this planting season, many rural Zimbabweans are teetering on the edge of starvation.
And a new hunger crisis threatens. Despite predictions of a good rain for planting after last year's severe drought and failed harvest, Zimbabwe's economic chaos has left the country with an acute shortage of seeds.
Just a few years ago, Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of southern Africa, exporting grain to its less blessed neighbors. But in 2000, Mugabe began seizing thousands of mainly white-owned commercial farms and dismantling the inequitable pattern of ownership established under the racist government of Ian Smith.
Some analysts, however, argue that the real motive behind the land redistribution was to share the spoils of power with Mugabe's cronies and liberation war veterans in return for their continued loyalty. Government ministers, security officials and ruling party allies grabbed the land and ran the farms into the ground. The nation's richest export industry collapsed almost overnight.
The national harvest plummeted. Production of maize fell by 74% from 1999 to 2004, according to the Washington-based independent Center for Global Development, while in neighboring Zambia it increased.
Now, about a third of Zimbabwe's population depends on humanitarian food aid.
Just as the government plays favorites in awarding farms, it plays favorites when distributing food. For hungry village people, the threat of starvation is terrifying.
With the presidential election due next year, there are reports from rural areas that the state-run Grain Marketing Board, which has a monopoly on the distribution of maize, is selling only to ruling party supporters or siphoning it to party officials, police and bureaucrats who resell it on the black market at inflated prices.
But the biggest problem, according to human rights organizations monitoring hunger, is that the grain board is distributing very little maize at all in many rural areas.
"We have had a lot of stories about political abuse of food," said Shari Eppel, a human rights activist in the southern city of Bulawayo. "But I think one of the biggest problems around food at the moment is that there isn't any. Even if you have got money, there isn't any to buy, and yet this is a very hungry time of year."
Matebeleland, a parched region in the south where support for the political opposition tends to be strongest, is the hardest hit by hunger.
An acute crisis
Food has often been used as political leverage in Zimbabwe, particularly in election season, but this year the impact is severe because of the punishing drought last year and the fact that shops across the country are virtually empty. That means hungry rural families cannot turn to relatives in urban areas to get them through until the next harvest, in April.
The only cushion against political manipulation of maize is international humanitarian aid, but the United Nations' World Food Program and other agencies target only the thin layer of the most vulnerable, leaving many, such as Jane Sibanda, in desperate hunger.
"I vividly remember weeping when I was told I was not one of the beneficiaries at the World Vision distribution center," she said, recalling the registration of aid recipients by the relief group in early November.
"There are some people who got maize who don't deserve it, but I'm afraid to mention their names," fearing they could cast a curse on her or beat her if she spoke out. "I'd rather die of hunger than point out that this person and that person got food unfairly."
The World Food Program and World Vision deny there are opportunities for manipulation of distributions, saying villagers decide as a group who gets aid and who doesn't. They said follow-up procedures were in place to make sure no one needy missed out and that those who didn't need aid were not included.
But manipulation of the maize distribution is commonplace, villagers and human rights activists say.
In the southern village of Mzola, a group of a dozen young Mugabe supporters recently seized all the government maize, which was meant to go to 175 families, according to residents interviewed by The Times. They say that humanitarian aid was manipulated by community leaders with the ruling party, who warned villagers not to report cases in which people who weren't needy were given humanitarian aid.
The hunger problem is not limited to rural areas. In Killarney, a slum suburb of Bulawayo, families are dependent on intermittent aid from local churches, and go hungry when the churches have no food to give. Most are people who lost their homes two years ago during Operation Murambatsvina, or "clean out the filth," when the Mugabe government razed tens of thousands of shacks, leaving at least 750,000 homeless.
Traveling across Zimbabwe, the economic crisis and its fallout is obvious, particularly in the southern district of Binga, one of the poorest and most neglected corners of the country. Transportation is a problem everywhere, but here people usually have to wait three or four days for a passing vehicle.
Waiting to eat
The landscape is red and dusty, with not a blade of green grass. Passing through one village, scores of listless people wait in the heat for a rumored arrival of government maize. They had waited the previous day too.
On top of a hill overlooking a magnificent mountain, a man sat on a broken hand-carved stool in the dirt. He had no interest in the scenery or even the future, because he cannot get food to fill the bellies of his nine children.
Siaviri Muleya, 48, and his wife had just finished a small bowl of mealie meal, the bland white paste made by boiling up ground maize. It was the last of their food. He wore an ancient pair of overalls, so worn they were almost shredded. And he was getting ready to sell his future.
He had a bag of sunflower seeds, which he had hoped to plant for a crop. But desperate, his only choice was to sell it in return for one or two days' food. The family has been living on baobab and other wild fruit. And he begs for mealie meal from his neighbors, who have little to give.
Muleya gets an odd job several times a month, paid in food. But each job pays one day's food supply. He has no goats, cattle or chickens, yet was left out of a recent World Food Program humanitarian registration.
"It really troubles me as head of the family," he said. "I don't even sleep well at night. I lie awake thinking, 'How am I going to get food for my family?' "
At a home for orphans in the town of Nkayi, the children sleep on bare concrete floors without mattresses. Children in threadbare clothes wander around doing chores. In the yard, a child's voice sings enthusiastically but tunelessly.
The pantry had two moldy cabbages and a small bag of mealie meal when The Times visited last month, not enough for a single meal for the 35 children. Yet locals say they have seen bags of maize stacked high in a local policeman's house.
"It's very painful. I feel very sad because I have no power to do anything about it. That's our life today," said one of the orphans, a 20-year-old who asked that his name not be used to protect him against reprisals.
"The youngest sometimes cry for food. But there's no way you can tell them there will be food tomorrow, or we'll get you a good supper," he said. "There's no way to tell them anything except to accept what is there."
When there is not enough food, he goes hungry so that at least the little ones can eat.
"We older ones can stand the pressure. But if the younger ones don't get it, they will spend the night crying for food."
By the time they're 10, he said, the children don't cry about hunger anymore. They learn that it's pointless.
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