By Oscar Nkala
BULAWAYO - The Matopos mountain range is the first sign of magnificence to capture the visitor's eye on the drive south down the rough patch of strip road that links Bulawayo and Kezi. One good look at the rolling terrain of huge balancing rocks, poised at impractical angles among toppy peaks and table-shaped granites as big as the National Sports Stadium fully explains why British colonial crusader Cecil John Rhodes chose these mountains for his final resting place, and they become more beautifully inclined on both sides of the worn-out mountain track that now passes for a main road as one sweeps round the heart-stoppingly narrow passes towards the monumental Njelele shrine.
By the time the visitor gets to Kezi, a small, barren little hovel of a town located exactly 70 km from Bulawayo, they may have a camera full with photos of thin donkeys, emanciated cattle, rickety goats, skinny adult humans, malnourished infants, bare-footed school children, grumbling teachers and community leaders who all tell the sad but true story that plays out daily in the gloomy rural villages behind the magnificent mountains. It is not about the tourism dollars that these well-marketed mountains and the many beautiful pleasure sites within them earn the national fiscus, but rather, about the famine that is silently ravaging Matobo and the entire province of Matabeleland South.
In Silozwi village, Onias Moyo said the pre-harvest hunger is now so bad that children may soon be unable go to school because they have not eaten decent meals in months. "Until July last year, we had enough food to survive on but now we have to buy all basic food items. We do not have the money. My family relies on seasonal labour in the neighbours' fields but this year there was nothing of that sort. We used to eat one meal per day but now we go for as long as two days without eating a decent meal. The children can't go to school on empty stomachs," Moyo said.
A nurse at Nathisa Rural Health Centre lamented an astronomic increase in the number of people suffering from malnutrition-related diseases, especially among children aged between 1 and 8 years. "Most of the children suffer from conditions ranging from manageable under-nourishment to severe malnutrition which requires hospitalisation. There is no food in the homes and the little that gets by is hard food, which is not fit for consumption by children. Among adults, malnutrition is widespread but it is more prevalent among those living with HIV/AIDS. They cannot get the special foods they need and often-times they are brought here half -dead. Its that tragic," said the nurse who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Edward Motlokwa, a community development leader in Mbembeswana narrated how the daily horrors of seeking food have stripped the deeply conservative Ndebele community of its main pillars of dignity. He said most people have sold their cattle to unscrupulous city buyers for a pittance to get money for food, a giant retreat on one of the cardinal values of a community where the mere posesssion of a sizeable herd of cattle places one several cuts above the best, earning them recognition and respect.
"Hunger is stripping people of their very symbol of dignity. In our culture cattle are a non-negotiable measure of a man's dignity. A man without cattle is knows he is not a man but here we are, selling that very symbol of dignity to survive for just one day. The (traditional) chiefs may choose to remain silent about this for their own reasons but I want to put it on record that this silent hunger scourge is killing people daily.
It is because of the government's failure that people die like flies every year from a perennial drought condition we have known since we were born."
"Basic geography says Matabeleland South is drought territory and it plays out with visible fatalities every year. But is the government doing anything about it? No, they are busy telling us to write a constitution on empty stomachs. They feed us a diet of empty promises, they pledge sympathies that never go beyond words when all we are asking for are the irrigation schemes, nutrition gardens and self-help projects so that we can fight the hunger ourselves," Mtlokwa said.
A teacher at Mahongola Primary School in the Ntalale Communal lands of Gwanda South told Moroka Media Features that worsening starvation has drastically reduced class attendance rates. She said pupils frequently abandon lessons to join the daily family search for food. "The next time they pop into class they report that they had been sent to some relative or friend somewhere to find food. Others operate as mobile vendors selling vegetables, tomatoes, wild figs and live animals such as chickens and goats. They spend the whole day dragging these animals on leashes from one village to the next looking for buyers. The problem was worsened by the pull-out of non-governmental organisations that used to provide nutri-meal porridge in schools. The feeding programme really helped keep the children in class," she said.
Elizabeth Ndlovu is a community leader from Buvuma, a densely populated community located on the north-western fringe of the fast-encroaching desert that looks set to overrun Gwanda South in the next few years. She accuses the government of failing in disaster planning and asks why President Robert Mugabe has to this day not declared the drought ravaging Matabeleland South a national disaster.
"The failure begins right at the Presidency. If he (Mugabe) is as learned as we are told he is, he would know that we cannot do rain-fed agriculture but we need irrigation schemes. We are only asking government to revive derelict irrigation schemes like Guyu-Chelesa, Jaluhanga, Makwe and many others which need basic infrastructure revamp by way of new pumps, canals and piping. We have other nutrition gardens that have broken down boreholes which only need fixing. We promise not to cry out for more if government can do that for us,' she said.
She says there is a widespread feeling in the communities that parties in the inclusive government have opted to gain cheap political mileage out of the famine rather than help the people. "This disaster was there starring at us as early as January 2010. The political principals, whatever that means, did not miss the opportunity and they swarmed here to make patronising speeches about their endless sympathy with our plight."
"ZANU PF was top-heavy, sending in both Vice-Presidents Joyce Mujuru and John Nkomo, MDC-T did the same with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputyThokozani Khuphe and MDC sent in Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara in a short space of time in March last year. They all made promises which would have turned Gwanda South into a welfare enclave in a matter of weeks had they been fulfilled. We said then that they were lying and now time has vindicated us," she said.
Matabeleland South provincial administrator David Mpofu admitted that drought is ravaging people and livestock in all districts. He said the communities would be better off with irrigation schemes but the incapacitation of government agencies like the Zimbabwe National Water Authority and the folding up of the District Development Fund, stands in the way of successful rehabilitation of the boreholes, small dams and irrigation infrastructure essential to the sustenance of community based food security initiatives.
He said the current famine is a case of hunger in the land of plenty because the food is there but the people are unable to buy it because they have no money. "There was a time when we were looking at the shortages within particular districts but from June last year the situation became the same for the entire province with the only difference being that some households are more vulnerable than others when we look at the sources of income," Mpofu said.
Deputy Labour and Social Welfare minister Andrew Langa said the government is aware of the crisis in Matabeleland South but has no money to provide free food aid. He said they are also having serious difficulties in running the pilot food-for-work programmes launched in some districts mid-last year, which have since collapsed. "Government is doing all it can to assist the people out of the disaster but we have serious financial resource constraints as I am sure you are aware. The national Social Welfare Fund is empty and we cannot sustain anyone on it. That is why people are encouraged to go for the food for work schemes. Many ministries are involved in various ways and will soon be acting to contain the overall problem of hunger and the drought that causes it," Langa told Moroka Media Features.
A drought assessment study conducted early last year by teams from the government and aid agencies revealed that Matabeleland South needs up to 9 000 tonnes of grains per month to survive up to the beginning of the 2011 harvest, at costs running into millions of US dollars. Aid agencies estimate the number of distressed people to be close to 750 000, the bulk of them being children, the sick, the aged and orphan-headed households. They predict an increase in the number of vulnerable households in the first month of this year, a trend widely expected to continue until the harvests begins in March.