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Tuesday, 16 July, 2002, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Eyewitness: Zimbabwe's hunger
Distributing food aid
Food aid has become vital for many Zimbabweans
As southern Africa grapples with a looming famine, British Red Cross worker Catherine Mahoney, who has just visited Zimbabwe, describes a harrowing situation resulting from the combination of drought and Aids.

In the clinical sense, starvation has not set in yet in Zimbabwe. But the signs are there: look into people's eyes, feel their arms, or look towards their swollen bellies and you know it is on its way.

Last week, I travelled two hours outside of Harare in Zvimba, to meet the Zimbabwe Red Cross homecare team.

Their task is mammoth. They provide care, counselling, food, and health education to over 100,000 people affected by the Aids epidemic.

Existing, not living

A whole generation of parents is being wiped out by Aids.

All over the land, grandmothers are trying to raise thousands of small children with no food, no income, no medicines and no answers. Over a third of these children have HIV or Aids themselves.

Lawrence and his grandmother, Agnes (Pic: Red Cross)
Grandparents play a vital role in raising Aids orphans

We arrive unannounced at a beautifully clean dwelling way off the main road. The stunning setting seems ironic compared with the tragic scenario we find inside the house.

A very thin, lifeless family of seven greet us.

They have been borrowing tit-bits of food from neighbours for the past few weeks, but the neighbours are finding it hard to feed themselves now: this family had eaten nothing all day when we meet them, and had only eaten a handful of porridge the day before.

A little girl is sitting on the floor of the hut, lost to everything around her. She looks about a year old, but she is three-and-a-half.

Helger has Aids, so does her four-year-old brother Lawrence, who sits very still next to her.

Both of them are covered in sores. They are mute, deaf, and do not seem to see, in the true sense of the word.

This is no life they are living: they are just existing. Their mother died of Aids at the end of last year.

Bleak picture

Their father is also dying of the disease, along with his own younger brother, his brother's wife, and their tiny 18-month-old baby daughter Bridget.

Six members of one family, all condemned by the virus that is sweeping across Southern Africa, with only the 54-year-old grandmother, Agnes, left to feed and care for the whole family.

This is no tragic "one off"; this is a snapshot of the whole country.

Zimbabwe is facing a major famine that will affect half of the country's population.

A grandmother and her grandchildren receive a Red Cross food basket (Pic: Red Cross )
Aid can make a difference

The situation will not, in media terms, be another Ethiopia.

The world will not even have the chance to balk and turn away from harrowing images of people lining up at feeding centres: people in Zimbabwe will die quietly in their beds.

I have travelled a lot with the Red Cross over the years, but seldom have I seen such a bleak picture as that which I encountered last week.

Now in its third year of drought, the country has very few food stocks left, and very little money with which to buy any.

Just over six million of the country's 13 million population will need food before September, by which time, say experts, the famine will hold the country in its deathly grasp.

Sticking plaster

It seems there is no way to stop the inevitable: 42% of people who are able to earn, or work the land, are crippled with HIV or Aids.

Add to that the fact that food prices have risen by between 400 and 1,000% in the past few months.

This means buying food is not an option for most people.

Farms still in production can only feed their workers, and have no more to sell outside.


Only 5% of the food needed to keep the country afloat has so far arrived. The worst-case scenario is already taking place.

The Zimbabwe Red Cross are trying to put a sticking plaster over the situation.

At the moment they estimate they need about 15m Zimbabwean dollars (about US$270,000) every month to distribute enough food and medicine: at the moment they only have one million Zimbabwean dollars (about US$18,000) every three months.

Forget politics

We left a large food basket with every family we visited.

It only contained the basics, but is a matter of life and death for many families. It contained oil, local staple mealy meal, sugar, salt, peanut butter and beans. It costs 2.50 (about US$4).

Back pocket change, I bet, to the vast majority of us.

We can make a difference. We can give to Zimbabwe Red Cross, one of the only impartial, indigenous agencies working right across the country safe in the knowledge that it gets to the most needy.

People received the food with disbelief and extreme gratitude.

It makes you feel uncomfortable, shamed. These people cannot help themselves now.

They are relying on the rest of the world's humanity. We must put aside any political judgements about the country in which they happen to live, see the disaster for what it is, and do something before it is too late.


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See also:

11 Jul 02 | Africa
19 Feb 02 | Africa
09 May 02 | Africa
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