Driving down highways and dirt roads in southern Zimbabwe, one cannot miss the smell of death emanating from the parched veld. Scrawny animals -- donkeys and cattle -- feebly try to hold on to dear life but their corrugated torsos are testimony to the lost war against hunger. Carrion birds swivel in the sky as they circle another rotting carcass.
But the hunger -- and the death -- is not confined only to animals!
Southern Zimbabwe's soils have become powdery as the Kalahari Desert creeps in, supporting only cactus and little else in the form of vegetation. The people of these areas have become resilient; their tragedy only etched in their wizened faces.
The men smile when you greet them and laugh their raucous laughter when you ask about their lot, but the women's usually careless laughter as they play at the village well is missing. It is they who bear the burden of food shortages most. In such situations, men become migratory. They move from one beer party to another and even spend their time at the growth points extorting beer from visitors. But the women have to remain at home with the children -- and the empty pots.
The talk in the region revolves around the rain. Still a superstitious lot, they attribute the persistent droughts to some abomination they committed against their ancestors. Some still consult rainmakers but the rainmakers seem to have forgotten their shrines and the tools of their trade.
But this sad story is not one for rainmakers. Climate patterns have long been mapped which, in Zimbabwe, have indicated that in the past three decades the country has experienced a drought every three or so years. Add to this the international phenomenon of climate change, then we have a real challenge.
Zimbabwe's response to the perpetual droughts has been, to say the least, childish. When a child is crying, another child will give him/her a morsel of his/her own food. The crying child may as well quieten for a while but will soon enough cry again as the pangs of hunger bite. That's what the national response to the perennial hunger problem has been. Give them food hand-outs, has been the response. Give them inputs too, even when it's patently clear the rains won't come.
The basis of this thinking is not far to find. If they are kept poor and hungry, they will continue to look up to you for food hand-outs; they will see you as a god, they will vote for you!
The vote has become the raison d'état of our politics. Everything that our politicians do is meant to secure the vote. This is the reason why food is no longer viewed by them as means of the nourishment of the people but as a means of political survival.
Food hand-outs, which should be a stopgap measure have become a permanent feature of our culture. Everyone knows that giving people food hand-outs and inputs, year in, year out, is not sustainable and is grossly humiliating to the recipients. In recent years, it has become very clear that the source of the hand-outs has not been transparent, just and honest. The food and the inputs are distributed in a certain fashion to suit certain agendas influenced by the need to secure the vote.
One thing that has become clear over the years is that the recipients of these food and input hand-outs are fighting their humiliation although in a manner that might be senseless. In the past few weeks we have read in the papers about how the donated inputs are quickly sold to passers-by. This means the recipients do not value donated stuff; they wish to use something they have earned, something they have worked for. During the height of the land reform programme, new farmers were handed out thousands of litres of fuel to use for tillage. But what did they do? They sold the diesel fuel by the roadside. In their subconscious minds, the fuel was never theirs and besides, why wait for a whole season to make money while one can make it immediately by selling the free-flowing fuel?
The result of the free hand-out system to the new farmers is clear. A new class of farmers has been created which will forever look up to government for farming inputs. The little they grow, harvest and sell is only for consumption, not for investing back into the land. Why not, when government will continue to give them more inputs? Why not when those in power will continue with their open-handedness in return for the vote?
This symbiotic relationship between politics and laziness is at the heart of Zimbabwe's decline. Both the communal farmers who have remained in the barren lands and the peasants who have occupied some of the country's most fertile land, look forward to election years because their rulers will be even more open-handed and increase the price of produce on the market. Civil servants too, look forward to the election year because they will get salary increments and the annual bonus. But all this is unsustainable, and everyone knows it.
We should look at our situation in a more scientific manner and come up with solutions that are long-term. The Tokwe-Mukosi Dam has not been completed 30 years after the first clod of dirt was shovelled! The reason: completing it didn't immediately translate into votes. There are many projects lying uncompleted throughout the country for the same reason, yet the amount of money that has been thrown in the form of inputs over the years could have completed a dozen Tokwe-Mukosi dams.
The whole world is facing a serious food crisis with food prices rising more than 60% in some parts of the world in the past year alone. In our subcontinent 3,5 million people need food aid this year. In Africa as a whole, the number is tenfold or bigger. The trend is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
Can Zimbabwe see this as an opportunity rather than a shackle? Can Zimbabwe turn around its farming sector so that it can feed not only itself but the region and even the continent? Do our farms have to lie fallow or be farmed by half-hearted people simply in the fulfilment of an ideal? Do we realise that food is going to be more valuable than even diamonds, platinum or gold in the very near future?
The truth of the matter is: We create more jobs by correcting our farming sector than through any politically-motivated indigenisation or any JUICEs! We just have to wake up.