Sunday Times (Johannesburg)

18 August 2002

Zambia: We're Dying a Slow And Silent Death

Johannesburg — 'Sometimes people come to me hoping for answers, but I cannot provide them.

These are natural happenings nobody can explain'

In Zambia, women work for a week to pay for two 500g bags of maize - and then eke it out to feed 16 mouths for a week

EVERY other week Jane Siamajele leaves her sickly husband, Boniface, and her year-old daughter Sheila for the Zambezi River.

For the next eight days she will be fetching water from the river to sell to people in surrounding villages who are building houses.

In the meantime, Boniface's other wife, Wendy, will take care of him.

Then Jane will go back home with enough money to buy two packets of mealiemeal that will feed her 16-person family for six meals, spread carefully to last at least a week.

"It is our responsibility as women to fetch water from the river," explains Jane. "But these days we are not fetching for our [domestic] chores. Since famine started, we have to sell it to be able to buy mealiemeal."

On a good day, when there are few women, the water fetches R4. But when the going gets tough, the price drops to R2.

Four rands buy the two 500g packets of mealie-meal that Jane brings home after a week in the wilderness. The following week, Wendy will make the trip.

Often the women have to spend nights in the open and endure the temperamental weather of the Southern Province.

Locals say some women have resorted to prostitution.

Jane and Wendy are part of an army of mothers who leave their families for days in Kalomo, Chirundu and Siavonga districts to forage in the famine-stricken Southern Province of Zambia.

Nearly 800km to the southeast, Faradzi Mungazi shakes like a leaf in the dry and dusty winds of Lumbembe village in Siavonga district in southern Zambia.

Her speech is sometimes incoherent and her voice tired as she tries to tell a painful story of the drought in the Southern Province that has left villages reduced to almost nothing.

She last had a decent meal nearly two years ago. Her 20kg ration of maize ran out two weeks ago. She now survives on wild berries, plants and leaves, which she says are not enough to maintain her frail 70-year-old frame.

Villagers like her have to compete with wild animals that normally feed on the plants.

"We are dying in silence and helplessness here," she says in a hoarse voice. "It is a slow but painful death. Even if we survive, the future does not look too promising. We do not know what will happen to us."

Mungazi's apprehension about the future is based on the knowledge that even the wild plants will soon disappear as their growth comes to an end with the approach of spring.

To the people of Zambia, Mother Nature could not have been more vicious.

Two years ago the Siavonga district was prosperous, well-fed and able to trade surplus stock in the market. That was until floods overwhelmed the fields.

What followed was a dry spell with little or no rain so that even last year's ploughing season was bleak.

In the Eastern Province, initially good rains promised that the harvest would be rich. But when the fields looked promising, the rains stopped and much of the crop was destroyed.

Two weeks ago, a 35-year-old woman and her three-year-old daughter died after eating a wild plant.

Every living creature in Lumbembe is skinny - the children, the cows, the goats; even the pigs.

Last week, the UN Children's Fund warned that famine was damaging the social fabric.

Unicef regional chief Sharad Sapra said: "If contingency measures to stabilise the ability of households to feed themselves are delayed, we should brace ourselves for increased crime, prostitution and abuse and exploitation of women."

Relief agencies have a plan to allocate food rations to th e most vulnerable - the chronically ill, the handicapped and the old. Yet they have had little impact on the situation. Sister Agnes Machishi of Lusito clinic says diseases such as diarrhoea and malnutrition are rife among young children.

"Most people have become prone to opportunistic diseases that would have been easier to treat under normal circumstances," says Machishi.

"The medicine we administer is also useless since most people's immune systems are down."

In Luangwa, communities have resorted to selling their livestock to buy maize.

Describing the situation as nearing crisis, World Food Programme field worker Alexander Rasenzi says even rations given to households are not enough.

"Our current methods look at the most vulnerable groups," explains Rasenzi.

"If no relief and no support is available, we look at who is likely to die first and act accordingly."

Last week the quest for solutions shifted from food relief to genetically modified foods as UN agencies pleaded with sceptical authorities to accept them.

Science, Technology and Vocational Training Minister Abel Chambeshi said aid organisations were compelling the government to take the food or risk losing further assistance. But the Zambian government yesterday banned all genetically modified food imports, including food earmarked to alleviate the hunger crisis.

Chief Penias Sikoongo, whose domain covers nearly the entire Southern Province, laments not being able to offer his subjects hope.

"Sometimes people come to me hoping for answers," says Sikoongo, "but I cannot provide them. These are natural happenings nobody can give a sensible explanation about."

Peter Phiri looks at the dwindling maize reserves of his 11-person family with sad eyes.

Before the drought hit his village, Wanaventi in the Eastern Province, the 65-year-old former Zambian Army soldier had a good harvest and stockpiled some reserves.

But today little is left.

"This is as good as nothing," he says.

"It is only worth three weeks. With the rainy season still far away only God knows how me and my children are going to survive."

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