Zambia's lost generations

by John Sparrow in Sinazongwe, Zambia
The graves behind Belita Kalula's hut tell a familiar story. Her son, a daughter, and a son-in-law are buried there. Close by lies a second, ailing daughter. Like the others before her she has AIDS and when she dies, Belita will mourn a whole generation.

A divorcee in her 70s, Belita is already caring for her seven grandchildren and her own blind mother in the Sinazonge region of Zambia's Southern Province. With the breadwinners gone, she is penniless and, with the country in the grip of chronic food shortages, entirely dependent on food rations the Red Cross intended to be supplementary.

Alone they are not enough. But the last two harvests failed and the crops she planted for the next one shrivelled when the rainy season ended after just a few weeks. Belita has no other food for the rations to supplement. Her position will worsen in the year ahead.

The plight of her family - and that of a quarter of a million other people the Zambian Red Cross and International Federation are helping in a country where three million depend on food aid - will be reassessed as the Federation prepares medium- and long-term strategies to succeed its current Southern Africa Food Security Operation.

After assisting 1.3 million people in Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe over a 12-month period, the emergency programme is due to end by the middle of this year.

Although food aid has averted the mass starvation which threatened southern Africa, it has done nothing to address the causes of the crisis. Federation fears are being expressed that the success of the international community's intervention could backfire if the impression is left that the emergency is over. The driving force of HIV/AIDS, feeding and exploiting vulnerability, is unrelenting.

Belita cannot remember when times were so bad. Long dry spells which ruin harvests are not new in Sinazongwe. A serious drought occurred in the early 90s, but then the men were there. Her children pulled together, and somehow they coped.

Now the breadwinners are dead. "When the food runs out we go to the woods and search for roots and wild vegetables," she says.

The predicament is even worse for infirm elderly living alone because AIDS has robbed them of their care givers. Although the Red Cross provides food for many, even more are going without.

The need is beyond capacity, and Red Cross workers report that people who once helped lonely elderly neighbours are struggling themselves and no longer able to assist.

The rains which resumed at the end of January ironically did bring some relief. A deluge lured frogs into the countryside and quickly into the cooking pots. But the rain was too late to save the crops and the respite was shortlived.

Food is only one of Belita's problems. HIV/AIDS has done more than exacerbate the consequence of erratic climate. It has thrown her into chronic poverty that now threatens her grandchildren's future.

School fees must be paid, books and uniforms bought, and there is no exemption on the grounds of poverty. Many southern African children affected by AIDS are leaving school as a consequence and, having lost one generation to the pandemic, Africa could lose the potential of the next, deprived of a decent education.

Like many of her friends, Belita's 16-year-old granddaughter, Prisca, stopped going to school when she could no longer pay the fees. Like them she has been jobless since.

"I am sad about it," she says. "I liked school and did well." Once she had hopes of becoming a nurse but today has lost hope of anything. "I think of my parents and feel helpless."

Other girls in Sinazonge have lost more than hope. Authorities report a rise in prostitution. In the coal mining township of Maamba, Dr Isaac Kasaro, executive director of the district hospital and social advisor to the Zambia Red Cross, says AIDS-related poverty is driving women to it.

"Before, you could count the prostitutes on the fingers of your hands," he says. "Now they are all over and the tragedy is there are school-age girls among them." Made desperate by AIDS, they now spread the disease, completing a vicious circle.

The emergency isn't over. It has only just begun.