Eating earth in hungry Zambia

by John Sparrow in Sinazongwe
Weak from hunger herself, Rhoda Siamena sought to pacify her malnourished child whose incessant crying disrupted Sunday church in a southern Zambian village.

She placed the infant at a withered breast and tried to suckle her, and for a moment the girl fell silent. But Rhoda's breasts were dry and, with no relief from her hunger, the child cried even louder. For two weeks she had survived on little more than vegetation gathered from the countryside, the only food her family could find.

Now Rhoda, a gaunt mother of four in her late 20s, took desperate action. With nothing else to mollify the child, she broke clay from the wall of the church and fed it to her.

Severe food shortages and chronic poverty, compounded by a driving force of HIV/AIDS, have brought southern Africa to the brink of famine. If outright starvation has, for now, been averted by the global response of food aid for an estimated 14.4 million people, the dangers remain. In Zambia, where malnutrition continues to grow steadily and a third consecutive failed harvest would seem inevitable in March and April, close to three million people already need food assistance.

Renny Nancholas, coordinator of the International Federation's Southern Africa Food Security Operation, says there is an urgent need to rethink the emergency's time scale. The Federation operation covering Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, as well as Zambia, aims to assist 1.3 million people over a 12-month period due to end by the middle of this year.

"Due to the erratic climate, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and political factors, food shortages are expected to continue to grow. We are providing vital relief to the most vulnerable population in the short term, but we must look closer at medium and long-term planning as well," Nancholas says.

Evidence from Rhoda Siamena's home region, Sinazongwe in Southern Province, backs him up. Life has always been hard here and villages like Rhoda's are not new to food shortages.

Except that this crisis is not just about shortages. It is about the erosion of ways with which people once coped, a failed struggle of traditional mechanisms, and a long-term prospect of devastation brought on by the march of AIDS. The pandemic has changed the pattern of disaster in Africa and sabotaged the process of recovery.

Some 80 to 90 per cent of the Southern Province population appears to be affected by the crisis, and, as elsewhere in the country, the Zambian Red Cross and the International Federation are increasing both their caseload and food rations. Countrywide, 143,162 people will be receiving food from Red Cross general distributions, while targeted operations will assist another 112,000 - those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS and malnourished children under five.

Recent United Nations statistics showed that life expectancy in Zambia had fallen to 40.5 in 2000. In Sinazongwe, it is easy to understand why. HIV/AIDS is the main culprit, feeding and exploiting vulnerability, reducing the agricultural labour force, removing the breadwinners, removing the community's capacity to assist its weakest members.

Rhoda and the women of her village struggle on stoically. They do not wait around for the international food aid that keeps them alive but is not enough to dull their hunger. They walk all day in search of something to bridge the gap and ease their children's malnutrition.

Now they are working the fields again. Rain came at last at the end of January, giving the women hope. They dig into parched earth, planting maize from the food aid, sacrificing a meal in a desperate attempt to claw themselves from the crisis.

If ever a picture were false it is of Africa waiting with its hand out. No struggle was ever greater, no people more determined.

The maize and sorghum seed they had was planted as usual as the rain began last November. It ceased before the end of the month, enough to germinate the seed and set plants growing, but not enough to sustain them. A long dry spell followed, stunting, scorching and shrivelling what in March and April would have brought a harvest.

The new rain will change little. The women's hopes will be dashed. Even if the maize germinates, what is left of the growing season is too short to produce a harvest. A very tough year lies ahead.

Rhoda knows that. Yesterday at dawn she set out from the village, her youngest child on her back, and walked several hours to the shore of Lake Kariba. There is sometimes work there in a few small fields that are irrigated. She was in luck and through the heat of the day she weeded. She was paid with a handful of pumpkins and then hurried home, arriving just before sunset.

She was content. She had enough food for an evening meal, and to see them through tomorrow. At least her child would not be crying.