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Sunday, 29 December, 2002, 17:36 GMT
Eyewitness: Behind Africa's famine
Child in Zambia
Millions of Africans face severe food shortages
The BBC's Alastair Leithead travels through southern Africa to discover why the region is in the grip of a potentially devastating famine.

There are a mixture of strange and conflicting emotions associated with witnessing and reporting on a humanitarian crisis like that currently unfolding across southern Africa.

My first, surprisingly, were cynicism and doubt.

It was pitiful watching the old woman thinly slice a bowl of roots and barbs, dug up to fill the stomachs of the hungry

How could these people possibly be short of food when the land was so green, the rain so heavy, Lake Kariba in Zambia so big?

Was this just aid agencies justifying their own existence by over-emphasising poverty and dressing it up in the clothes of famine - were they simply courting the media and using us to legitimise their business plan?

And was it not in the African governments' best interests to play along and watch rich countries pay for their social welfare?

But like the plough turning over last year's failed crops, you must cut through the surface and peer beneath, to uncover the true scale of this disaster.

Vital aid

People are not dying of hunger, but people are at the stage where they would die if the truck and train loads of aid were not being distributed to those most in need.

The harvest is due in March at the very earliest, May for most, but the small round grass-topped mud huts sitting on stilts that keep the village maize reserves good between harvests are empty - there is nothing to eat.

It was pitiful watching the old woman thinly slice a bowl of roots and barbs, dug up to fill the stomachs of the hungry.

Eight hours of boiling removes the toxins, but also the nutrients - they are merely stomach packing to take your mind off eating until tomorrow.

Bleak Christmas

It was an unusual Christmas morning, arriving in the village of Monjo in Malawi.

Barren maize field
Maize cannot be harvested for months

The jeeps turned into a little settlement of a hundred mud houses and the children came running - as delighted to see us as they would have been to see their Santa Claus, bringing them the maize and the protein that would stop their little bodies being blown up like balloons and turning them fat from hunger.

Their singing was spontaneous and enthusiastic, the music a fabulous grinning chorus of harmonies.

But the meaning of the words sent a shiver.

This was no Christmas song: "Hunger is all over the country," they sang, "hunger is all over the village, hunger has surrounded all the households", and, "This is the modern hunger, how can we eat?"

The chief was grateful for the food sacks supplied by the aid agencies who had taken us to the village, but he kept talking about a bore-hole, and that when he had that he could irrigate some of the fields and keep the maize growing even if the rains failed.

And that, of course, is the key to tackling this crisis - the aid is a stop-gap to prevent people from dying, but a long term solution is the way forward.

Countries in crisis

Rushing from country to country and spending only a couple of days in each, was a challenge simply to find out the truth under the surface as quickly as possible.

But on reflection, a picture emerges of this hunger in southern Africa.

Zambian woman holding roots and barbs
Only long-term planning can prevent future famines

It is a new kind of famine, the landscape may be lush, but poverty runs deep, and HIV/Aids has robbed communities of the coping strategies that have brought them through drought before.

And each country has its own individual crisis - its own explanation for why it has not been able to cope.

In Zambia, the delayed dispatch of food aid as genetically modified maize had to be removed from the silos, in front of the hungry people, and replaced by non-GM food.

In Zimbabwe, the political crisis playing out through economic collapse and evidence of aid being targeted away from pro-opposition areas.

In Malawi, the selling off of the country's grain reserves just before the drought, the money unaccounted for, the IMF and World Bank accused of giving bad advice and making things worse.

In Lesotho, where 31% of adults are HIV positive, an increasing number of orphans pressure the traditional family group and the whole structure of society is being remoulded.

Unfortunately, my initial cynicism on the famine was unfounded - there is real tragedy here, and while food aid patches it up and keeps people alive, long term planning - irrigation, development and poverty reduction - are the only ways to prevent this from repeating itself every time the rains fail.

Key stories

Horn of Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

Ways to help



See also:

27 Dec 02 | Africa
04 Dec 02 | Africa
Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

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