MASVINGO PROVINCE, Zimbabwe - They look like birds pecking, grain by grain, along the nation's roadsides. Tattered women and children bend to pick up the corn blown from passing trucks. The precious grains are about all there is to eat.
Millions of people across Zimbabwe are on the brink of starvation, largely because of the failure of this year's harvest and the nation's collapsed economy, along with President Robert G. Mugabe's ban on humanitarian aid during the recent election campaign.
On the road from the capital Harare south to Masvingo province, a 3-year-old boy, Slupeth, collects grain with his mother, Esnat, 36, and her sister, Chipo, 26. It takes them half a day to gather a pound of corn, which will make a small dinner.
Half of the boy's hair has fallen out; his skin is scaly, and his eyes runny. The two women are gaunt, their cheekbones sharp, their wrists like sticks. The family ran out of corn in April.
"We were told a truck spilled grain today. Without it we would have nothing to eat," said Esnat, who was afraid of being beaten by government supporters if she gave her surname.
Mugabe recently rescinded his ban on outside aid, but Richard Lee, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, said it would take months to get humanitarian distributions back to full scale.
Only a few of the 1.7 million people who need emergency food aid this month will get it, he said. By November, the WFP hopes to be fully operational. About 5 million people, almost half the population, will need food aid by early next year, the time when food shortages usually are worst, Lee predicted.
The head man in one village in the southern province of Masvingo says he has never seen hunger so bad in his 76 years. Most people in rural areas have run out of ground corn, the staple, along with cooking oil, sugar and salt.
They eat nothing but boiled rape, a leafy vegetable like spinach, and a wild fruit called hacha.
Esnat and Chipo used to do odd jobs for a bucket of maize, but now no one has any to spare. Their neighbors are so short of food that there is nobody left to beg from. In between gleanings from the passing trucks, the family lives on hacha.
Hunger in Zimbabwe also has a political element, many people here believe. During times of food shortages, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, the party that has ruled for 28 years, has used the Grain Marketing Board, the state-owned monopoly grain distributor, to punish opposition activists at the village level and to reward loyalists.
A senior Grain Marketing official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that down to the district level, food distribution has been run by the army, the Central Intelligence Organization, the police and the district administrator.
"It was more like a campaign tool. Those who were actually supporting the opposition were getting nothing because the CIO wanted to give the grain directly to their supporters," he said. "They wanted to fix the people who were supporting the opposition."
One diplomat who saw a distribution of food several months ago described a Grain Marketing truck surrounded by ZANU-PF youths wearing party T-shirts and bandannas. "It was clearly a ZANU-PF food distribution, not a GMB distribution. The two are merged into one," the diplomat said.
With the election over and the food handed out to supporters, the silos are empty, the board official said. And the harvest was 5 percent of the expected level in some areas.
In the villages, the hunger is so severe that few talk of anything else. In one, the head man - the traditional elder and ZANU-PF official - who identified himself only as Isaac, said that in previous droughts there were shops to fall back on. But with no harvest, empty shops and no transportation to go and buy elsewhere, people are forced to eat raw wild fruit.
"In my life I have never known a situation as serious as we are having now," he said.
Mugabe's international food aid ban was also politically motivated, some villagers believe. During the presidential campaign before the first round of voting in late March, Mugabe wanted to put pressure on areas that favored the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said a 52-year-old villager named Edward.
Most people in his village, traditionally a strong ZANU-PF area, voted for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, but switched back in the runoff election June 27, after the ruling party conducted a violent campaign for votes.
"We suspect that [Mugabe] wanted people to feel the pinch so that they would vote for ZANU-PF," Edward said.
He and his four children live on boiled greens.
"I feel bad. I feel that I should be able to do more for my family," he said. "I should be able to feed them, because I can't let my family die."
Zimbabwe used to export grain, but after Mugabe's forced eviction of white farmers, which began in 2000, agriculture collapsed, leaving the country reliant on imported food and humanitarian aid.
The grain board official blamed corruption and poor farm production. Even with Mugabe now forced to share power with the MDC, hungry Zimbabweans face a long wait, he said.
"The coffers are empty," the official said. Tsvangirai, now the prime minister-designate, "is starting from nothing."