The ravages of drought are evident to anyone traveling through Zimbabwe. The carcass of a dead donkey lies on the road, while skeletal dogs tear at its intestines. The majestic Save River, once deep enough for hippos to wallow in, can now be crossed by foot. Government estates, however, are green with winter wheat and maize, irrigated by reservoir water. In contrast, privately owned commercial farms, which should have provided about a third of Zimbabwe’s maize, have melted into the surrounding dry bush. Food aid from abroad must now make up for these lost harvests.
Famine anywhere is a tragedy, but when it is caused by a country’s government it is an unspeakable crime. This is what makes the starving millions in Zimbabwe different from those in other Southern African countries enduring famine. Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of the region. President Robert Mugabe’s chaotic land-reform policies and the widespread illegal farm invasions he encouraged make the government partly responsible for the famine, which it is now exploiting for its own survival. To give food aid in a politicized environment is complicated; it is the ultimate political weapon, and something the government needs to control at all costs to maintain its position.
Mealie-meal is the staple food of Zimbabwe. A white powder made from ground maize, it is used to make a thick porridge called sadza. Maize is becoming increasingly rare. In the capital, Harare, a seething mass of people queuing for maize can easily be mistaken for a riot. The main way of getting mealie-meal in Zimbabwe is through the government-controlled Grain Marketing Board, where maize can be bought at controlled prices. The government, conveniently, has kept a monopoly on importing maize, and very few import licenses have been granted to nongovernmental organizations. Anyone who supports the political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), or anyone who does not support Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is not sold food.
Felix (who doesn’t want to use his last name for fear of retribution) is typical of people who have been unable to get mealie-meal because they don’t have party cards. Although he works as a gardener in one of Harare’s affluent suburbs and earns above the average wage, Felix’s children recently went for three days without food. “You know, to get mealie-meal in Zimbabwe it is now very tough,” Felix says. “To get it you first have to get a ZANU-PF card. But even at the Grain Marketing Board, people are not getting maize, so people are dying of hunger.”
The second way of getting food is by registering in a government “food for work” program. Traditionally, in times of drought, families with no harvest and no money to purchase food perform public labor–for example, repairing rural roads–in return for food. In many instances MDC supporters have not been allowed to register for food-for-work programs.
There is also a third way of getting food, which is from international food aid programs. The largest such program is the United Nations World Food Program, which contracts with local organizations to distribute its food aid. The catch is that NGOs used by the WFP need to be registered by the Zimbabwean government.
Christian Care, one of the NGOs that give out WFP food, reluctantly agreed to let me travel with them to food distribution points. Courage Chirove, a refreshingly down-to-earth aid worker, drives me to the village of Rimai. Hidden among bushes and trees, it is miles away from a paved road, not to mention a town. When we arrive, people are patiently waiting for food to be distributed. Some of the women have walked four miles; they will walk back the same way, gracefully balancing kilos of maize and beans on their heads, and with children tied around their waists. The signs of malnutrition are beginning to be visible in the children in the waiting crowd. Their bellies beneath ragged T-shirts are slightly distended; their twiglike arms are shrinking to bone. Their eyes are large in their faces. When asked, most of the children say they eat just one meal of sadza a day.