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Hunger road trip of rural Zimbabwe

Children eating [Pic: Matthew Cochrane - IFRC]

Aid worker Matthew Cochrane tells the BBC News website about the Zimbabweans he met while visiting the country's south-east Masvingo province.

He works for the International Federation of Red Cross, which was not included in the recent government food aid ban - lifted last month - because of the agency's unique operating status under international law.

Read Matthew's account of his road trip and the people he met:

SUNDAY 31 AUGUST 2008

My first impression driving through Masvingo province is how dry and bare it is.

Who is climbing in the tree?

The countryside is brown.

Riverbeds are full of rocks and sand.

Supermarket shelves are also bare, apart from a couple of boxes of tea.

Masvingo is about three-hours' drive from the capital, Harare. My colleagues at the local Red Cross branch in Masvingo town visit people living with HIV/Aids in their homes. They also look after children who are considered to be vulnerable as well as those who have been orphaned by the disease.

Tendai

Living close to the clinic is an HIV-positive mother, Tendai.

Zimbabwean Tendai [Pic: Matthew Cochrane - IFRC]
Tendai longs for the day when she can provide for her own child again

She welcomes us into her very small room that she shares with her daughter-in-law and her five-month-old granddaughter.

Tendai has been living with HIV for the past three years.

She has been receiving anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment but now without food it is having an extraordinarily effect on her life.

She explains she often has to go for three or four days without anything to eat. And because the body needs food to absorb the drugs, she now regularly has to be hospitalised because her body cannot cope.

If she has nothing to eat, she suffers from chronic nausea, headaches and diarrhoea.

Map of Zimbabwe showing Masvingo province

The last time she was admitted to hospital, her brother came and offered to look after her son for her as he was in a better position to look after him.

Tendai misses her son but knows he is being looked after well.

She is visited everyday through by Red Cross volunteers, who bring food when they can, although it is not always possible and even they have to go without.

Tendai tells me how she longs for the day when she can provide for her own child again.

MONDAY 1 SEPTEMBER 2008

First thing Monday morning, we visit a child-headed household - a 16-year-old girl and her two brothers, aged 14 and 12.

Their youngest brother, who is now 10, was adopted by a family living in Harare after their parents died in 2002 from an Aids-related illness.

In the past, before the food crisis got so bad, they received food from organisations like the Red Cross but now because of a lack of funding they do not.

They tell me that they ate yesterday as the local pastor came to see them and gave them some beans.

As far as my colleagues know, none of the children are HIV-positive.

Otellia

We say our good-byes and then travel to Chivi, which is about an hour's drive from Masvingo town, to meet a woman called Otellia.

Zimbabwean Otellia [Pic: Matthew Cochrane - IFRC]
Otellia says she is unable to walk if she takes her tablets on an empty stomach

She has three children.

Last year her husband died.

Soon after he passed away, she started feeling unwell herself and after going to the local clinic she found she was also HIV-positive.

We come across her walking along the road from her home. She tells us she was on her way to one of her neighbours in search of a pinch of sugar so she can make herself a cup of tea - all she would have had that day.

Like Tendai, when she has nothing to eat the ARVs affect her badly.

Sitting - exhausted and weak - against the wall in her small home, Otellia tells us how she is unable to even walk if she takes her tablets on an empty stomach.

Dry barren land in Chivi, Masvingo [Pic: Matthew Cochrane - IFRC]
Otellia's nearest source of water is now nearly three miles away

Despite her situation, she is proudly dignified and speaks overwhelmingly about her appreciation for the support she does get.

She has a vegetable patch but because she has been so ill lately she has not been able to plant any seeds and tend to them.

But as she says, even if she is strong enough to, there is no water anymore.

Her family's nearest source of water is nearly three miles (4.5km) away - a trip her children or kind neighbours make for her these days.

A lack of rain and access to agricultural inputs has left many thousands of people in this area without the means to grow their own food, as they used to do; and on top of that, even those with money are unable to buy much in the local stores because their shelves are mostly empty these days.

Siziwe

After leaving Otellia we travel further up the road to visit a lady called Siziwe, a single parent with three children.

Zimbabwean Siziwe [Pic: Matthew Cochrane - IFRC]
Siziwe cares for 12 children altogether

She also cares for another nine Aids orphans from three different families. The children are aged between five and 12.

The impact of the food situation is well illustrated by her extended family.

Siziwe tells me that they often go hungry for four days at a time.

She used to be able to afford to send seven of the children to school but now because of the rampant hyperinflation and the high and ever-increasing cost of life in Zimbabwe she can only pay for three.

But as she explains, sometimes they can't even make the journey to school because they're so weak from hunger.

I am taken aback by Siziwe's extraordinary strength and humility.

On the way back to Masvingo we come across some children in the trees along the side of the road - it is hard to tell if they are picking the fruit to supplement their diets or whether they are just playing.

TUESDAY 2 SEPTEMBER 2008

On Tuesday I visit one of the Red Cross's supplementary feeding centres in Mwenezi, where more than 200 children are given a daily meal, Monday to Friday.

The children, all aged five years old and under, come from households that have been identified as vulnerable homes - most are looked after by an older sibling or by parents who are very ill with HIV/Aids.

The children wait patiently, talking and laughing amongst themselves, for their lunch of sadza [porridge made from maize meal] and beans.

After the children have eaten we sit on the floor and play and chat.

Lucky

The provisional manager, Lucky, calls round to the feeding centre.

IFRC provincial manager, Lucky  [Pic: Matthew Cochrane - IFRC]
Volunteers in the Masvingo area look after 2,000 people living with HIV

I ask him for his view on the impact of the feeding programme and he says that the local health authorities are really optimistic about the children who are able to benefit from it.

As lunch is wrapping up, a few children from the local school appear - they enter the area quietly and sit to one side away from the little ones, waiting to be called over.

Apparently they ask their teacher if they can leave their class to come and wait for the leftovers and she allows them to. Although they're older than five and not considered to be so needy, they are allowed to come and have some food after the little ones have eaten.

In this part of Zimbabwe, almost 2,000 people are living with HIV and about 650 vulnerable children are looked after by the Red Cross.

Musa

Musa - one of my colleagues working in the field - describes the current food crisis, as "severe".

IFRC district project coordinator, Musa  [Pic: Matthew Cochrane - IFRC]
Musa describes Zimbabwe's current food crisis as "severe"

And most worrying for her is the fact that because so many of her HIV-positive patients are unable to eat a proper diet, they are now beginning to stop taking their ARVs.

She tells me how they blame the pills for how they are feeling; not the lack of food.

She goes on to say that in the past six months, at least 30 of her patients have died.

One thing that will stay with me from this trip is how proud and dignified people were.

Not once did anyone ask for help.

But their main topic of conversation was food and climate change as the seasons that enabled them to always live in this land are not the same anymore.

I found the severity of it and the way it is affecting so many, who are already so vulnerable, extremely dispiriting.




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