Food shortage threatens Zimbabwe's poor

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe -- A few miles south of the empty luxury hotels in this once-dazzling tourist spot, dozens of gaunt young men survive by scavenging food from the town dump.

Allan Sibanda, 23, has been coming here on and off for the past five years, scuffling with baboons and vultures for the least-rotten scraps. Since midsummer, garbage has been his sole source of food, he said.


"I think a lot about the way I'm living," he said, watching the horizon anxiously for the next rubbish truck. "I am suffering."

Despite plentiful rains, the specter of starvation haunts thousands of Zimbabwe's poor, and even the well-off are running short of food because of low crop yields. Needy households will face "serious difficulties" feeding themselves in the coming months, the U.S. Agency for International Development warned in its most recent report in August.


If the report's authors had met the bony squatters outside Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city, they might have used the phrase "utter misery" instead.

Tembeni Mzizi, 28, lives west of Bulawayo in a doorless hovel fashioned from mud and scavenged bricks. Late on a summer afternoon, she said her four children - ages 11, 9, 7 and 7 months - had last eaten the day before. The family's only income comes from chopping the wrist-sized brush surrounding the small shantytown and selling it as fuel.

Mzizi inspected the meager family larder: a splash of cooking oil, three handfuls of beans and a few greens wilting in a bowl.

Less than a decade ago, Zimbabwe was an economic powerhouse whose cornfields fed much of southern Africa. This year, in the wake of land seizures that lowered crop yields, it produced only four-fifths of the corn it needs to feed itself, according to USAID. The 435,000-ton shortfall made the national staple scarce at any price.

Even if the country imports huge amounts of grain, as it did last year, relief agencies say few consumers would be able to afford it. Prices rise weekly, sometimes hourly. October's inflation rate soared to 1,070 percent, the highest in the world - a legacy of economic collapse that some experts worry will spread to neighboring countries.

"There could be widespread famine here," said John Makumbe, a professor of politics at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. "I think we could have 60 to 70 percent of people desperate for food by February."

Malnutrition, a lack of doctors and a 20 percent HIV infection rate are killing at least 3,000 people per week, according to Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health. Government critics say the real numbers are much, much higher.

"If you care about poor people dying in great numbers, then Zimbabwe is a story that should have the attention of the world," said David Coltart, a member of parliament from Bulawayo.


Even Zimbabweans with money find there is little if any cornmeal to buy. Store shelves are bare in urban centers like Bulawayo, Harare and Victoria Falls. While some patches of corn can be found in rural areas, the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe estimated in July that the country's fields are producing 60 percent less grain than they did in 2000.

The roots of the decline go back more than two decades, when Zimbabwe was a former British colony called Rhodesia and Robert G. Mugabe, now president, was a guerrilla leader fighting white rule. After his 1980 victory, he promised to give land to blacks without driving out the rich whites whose commercial farms formed the bedrock of the economy.

In the years that followed, however, black Zimbabweans - whose ancestors lost the best farmland to white colonists - remained landless. Blacks also grew poorer as Mugabe spent resources on high government salaries and, starting in 1998, a four-year war in the Congo that cost Zimbabwe more than $1 million per day.

Mugabe's hold on power began to slip. Armed groups of veterans demonstrated and demanded land. In 2000, Mugabe began to deliver. Government trucks transported veterans and their supporters to white-owned farms across the country. Dozens of white farmers were killed in the takeovers.

The invasions transformed 3,000-acre spreads into a patchwork of tiny subsistence farms.

Erik German writes for Newsday