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.

Cronyism suspected

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.