Zambia has been hard hit by the southern Africa food crisis. Some 2.3 million people are facing hunger and general food distributions have been held up for months following a government decision not to accept GM food and the consequent search for replacement stocks.
Food supplies are now arriving in the country, but reaching beneficiaries in many remote villages is still a big logistical challenge. To solve the great difficulties posed by the region's un-developed road system and the arrival of the rainy season, more than 200 all-terrain M6 trucks were donated by the Norwegian government to the International Federation through the Norwegian Red Cross.
With the onset of the rainy season, 118 of these powerful M6 trucks have become a life-line for remote communities across the vast Zambian outback. In an effort spearheaded by the UN World Food Programme, Red Cross is working alongside many other aid agencies to ensure that as much food as possible now reaches remote populations who could not be accessed otherwise.
For the villagers in Sianyoolo this day is something to celebrate. Today a convoy of four trucks will be arriving with 400 bags of maize. There is a great need for the food assistance in this village where people have nothing left from the last harvest. They live 125 kms from the nearest town Siavango, and there are no jobs.
"Look at me" says Cheembo Mulongo, an elderly lady who is not able to tell exactly how old she is. "I am skinny and the same goes for my children and grandchildren. Very often we have to skip meals or go and collect weeds just to get something to eat, so we are really looking forward for those trucks to arrive."
As she speaks, the convoy is still far away.
During the most important months of last year, the Zambezi valley did not get a single drop of rain, which is the main reason for the poor harvest and the consequent lack of food. But today there is torrential rain and within minutes the dusty gravel roads have changed into deep and dangerous tracks, filled with water and mud.
The convoy leader jumps out of the Land-cruiser and inspects a river crossing where the bridge has collapsed. He asks the drivers to cross carefully - one at the time. Lemmy Mutembo changes into the lowest gear and drives slowly down the steep track into the riverbed. The depth of Lusitu river is at that moment below one meter and not a problem for the all-terrain vehicles, but each one is carrying a load of five tonnes of maize and the driver has to use all the engine power to climb up on the other side.
Alexander Kasenzi is director of Harvest Help, a Zambian relief organization, taking care of the distribution in this district. "If it was not for the Red Cross trucks we would have big problems getting the food out to remote villages like the one we are heading for today. Earlier we had to hire commercial trucks, but that was a very bad solution. Very often they gave up halfway and just dropped their load of maize somewhere - and that meant that many people in need did not get any help," he said.
Originally the M6 trucks were made for military use, but now they have a been given a peaceful and humanitarian task. All the drivers are hired locally and for some of them this is more than just a good job - it is a mission.
"Despite the fact that I am paid for what I am doing here, I also feel that I really do something for my brothers and sisters. It hurts to see how they are suffering from hunger and for me it is a privilege to deliver the food. When we meet people along the road they clap their hands and wave to us" Lemmy explains as he leads the convoy on.
Finally after six hours drive the convoy arrives in Sianyoolo. The villagers - old and young - rush to the local school, where the trucks will be off-loaded. A group of about 20 women have been waiting there for hours - when they see the white trucks coming in they start dancing and singing.
Tabita Kariba - a young mother dressed in a bright red kanga - is smiling, when she says:
"Those trucks bring joy - now we will get something to eat again."
Some of the men in the village start carrying the 50 kilogram bags of maize into one of the classrooms. During the off-loading some of the maize is spilled on the ground - immediately some old women and small kids rush to the place to pick it up. With their bare hands they comb the soil in order not to lose a single grain.
According to Harvest Help 70 per cent of the rural population need food support, but for months they have not received anything. In October, WFP had to withdraw 15,000 tons of GM food, a donation from the United States. The Zambian government made it clear that it did not want genetically modified food to be distributed due to fears of negative long term effects.
After several obstacles the operation is now in full swing. In Zambia, WFP and Red Cross are supplying 2.3 million people with food. Two of the trucks have now been off-loaded and are on their way back to the headquarters in Siavango after the mission of the day. Tomorrow they will bring hope and joy to another village.