(Vatican Radio) Zimbabwe is one of several Southern African countries affected by the El Niño weather system that’s led to unusual weather patterns and 21 million people in need of food aid.
In some of the worst-hit parts of the country, between a half and two-thirds of households are going hungry.
The situation is expected to get even worse in the coming months as the ‘lean’ season started months too early after crops failed in the devastating drought.
Caritas is feeding school children and poor farming families in some of the worse hit regions. But – as Caritas Internationalis communications director, Patrick Nicholson, who recently travelled to some of those areas, explains: a lot more assistance is needed from outside the country to prevent hundreds of deaths by hunger…
Listen to Linda Bordoni’s interview with Patrick Nicholson:
“When you travel through Zimbabwe you just see field after field of burnt-out straw, all the maize fields completely bare and all the granaries empty” Nicholson says, “and this is in a period when they should be full”.
He says that as we move into what is traditionally the ‘lean’ season in December and January when you would expect people to have less, they are going to be in a real desperate situation: “they’ve run out of food months ago, they’ve spent all their money, they’ve sold all their cattle, so they are going to have no resources, no safety net to fall back on to be able to feed their families”.
Nicholson says unfortunately many of these people are turning to negative coping mechanisms in the desperate attempt to survive and he speaks of one woman he personally met who had become a prostitute living in a terrible situation: “she was HIV positive, some of her children were HIV positive and rest of the family was affected, and the amount of money that she could earn was insufficient anyway”.
Other negative coping mechanisms include sending children out into the forest to forage for food, wild berries and mice instead of sending them to school, or the large numbers of people who are leaving the country to seek work in places like South Africa.
“So as well as the drought and the El Nino effect, you have a complete economic crisis where civil servants aren’t being paid, employees in mining companies haven’t been paid for years, and the whole country is at breaking point” he says.
Nicholson speaks of how tragic it is to witness the devastation of what was a rich and fertile nation – “the bread basket of Africa – which has not become the “basket case” of Africa.
He explains that there was an injustice in terms of land rights, but the result of the reforms has been that the farms have all collapsed.
“The reasons for this are still problems with land ownership, kleptocracy, and corruption on a massive scale” he says.
Nicholson says about one third of the population is currently food insecure – a phenomenon that has peaked from June and July onwards: “that’s 4.5 million people – so there’s a big gap in terms of what the country needs to be able to feed itself and what it’s got”.
“It really needs international aid, it needs support from outside the country otherwise we are going to be seeing people really, really struggling to eat” he says.
Nicholson talks about the Caritas School programme in Zimbabwe thanks to which schoolchildren get a meal a day “which is great because it means the children come to school, it means that when they are at school they can concentrate, it means they are healthy”.
“We are also helping vulnerable families by transferring cash to them over their mobile telephone networks” so they can buy food, they can pay for school fees or medical fees, and part of that is to keep them from leaving their farms and keep them from turning to negative coping mechanisms and, importantly, they can plant for the next season.
Nicholson speaks of the Caritas appeal which was launched earlier this year and says the organization is having huge problems in obtaining funding for Zimbabwe.
“The appeal is only half funded – for example in one place I went to – Gokwe – instead of feeding 7,000 people we can only feed 300 people. The schools we went to – it was extraordinary to see these incredibly poor children whose clothes are held together by bits of wire – and the teachers were saying ‘these are the lucky ones’ because these are the 7 schools we are feeding. The other schools in the neighborhood aren’t getting any food at all, so these are really lucky children” he says.
Nicholson reiterates his appeal to everyone to support the fundraising campaign for Zimbabwe and for other countries across Southern Africa where the El Nino effect is pushing people onto the edge of survival.
He points out that possibly all the other emergencies around the globe at the moment are possibly overshadowing the crisis in Southern Africa. He also speaks of a certain complacency that has set in as we have become ‘used’ to seeing people in Africa going hungry or not having enough food to eat.
“The one thing we need to do is to change the conversation: we can’t just give aid to hungry families in Africa, we have to ensure they can feed themselves, we have to give them the right to food and that means real changes in the way the food system around the world is governed” he says.
The people of Zimbabwe, Nicholson concludes, are special: so full of humanity that despite the dire circumstances they are able to celebrate their lives and their loved ones and communicate the joy of life.
Click here for further information on the Caritas campaign for Zimbabwe.