Double jeopardy for rural Zimbabweans

By Leonard Maveneka/Oxfam America
Sixty-two-year old Leyton Magaya is a diabetic who lost one leg in an accident some time ago. His wife is bedridden and has swollen legs. Magaya does not know what disease afflicts his wife, but he does know that between the two of them, they cannot put in a day's work. They not only need to support themselves, but also their two grandchildren, orphaned a year ago when their parents died of AIDS. Magaya's wife has been to the clinic at nearby Wedza Growth Point several times to seek medical treatment for her legs, but she only received some painkillers. The clinic is perennially short of essential drugs.

A severe drought ravaging Zimbabwe this year has accentuated the plight of rural communities faced with crippling food shortages amidst worsening poverty and a raging HIV/AIDS epidemic. These crises are compounded in a country where public health and social services have all but collapsed.

Zimbabwe's food crisis is made even more difficult because the country is deeply divided politically, following the disputed March presidential elections. The economy is in a tailspin with an inflation rate over 120 percent. More than 80 percent of the population is now poor (up from 65 percent in 19995), and an estimated 70 percent of the workforce is unemployed. Last year the GDP contracted by -12 percent and is expected to shrink even further this year. Internationally Zimbabwe faces growing political isolation and economic sanctions because of its chaotic land reform program and poor governance record.

Many Oxfam-supported grassroots organizations in Zimbabwe have suspended their normal programming this year to concentrate on providing food aid to vulnerable rural communities. This has brought them face to face with the debilitating effects of the combination of famine, poverty and HIV/AIDS. The impact of this deadly combination was brought into sharp focus during a recent visit to Wedza, some 140 kilometres east of Harare, organized by the Association of Women's Clubs (AWC), an OA partner conducting a food relief program.

Although there was a stack of bags of maize at the Wedza Grain Marketing Board Depot, only a few kilometres from Makwarimba village, many of the people had no money to pay for it. At present, Zimbabwe's government-run food relief programs provide people with maize, but only for sale at government-controlled prices at centers.

To help people to buy the maize, the government has introduced a food for work program, where individuals are hired for public works projects and are paid Z$500 (US$9 at the official rate and US .90 cents at the parallel rate) per week. But the program suffers from several weaknesses: the Z$500 is insufficient to buy a 50 kg. bag of maize, which costs Z$850. There are delays of up to three months before villagers are paid. The program does not cover the whole country, but even where it is available, it only benefits the able-bodied, leaving out the sick, the disabled, the old, and orphans who are generally too young to work. These are the groups targeted by the AWC's humanitarian assistance program.

Although Makwarimba is a relatively small community, it has a large number of AIDS orphans, including several children heading households with no regular source of income who are dependent on the goodwill of the community to survive. The program also targets the indigent, including widows, left out of the government's food for work program. "In a normal season, the poor earn extra cash by doing piece work for the better off in the community. But with the drought and the harsh economic environment, nobody is hiring them out," says Mrs Mashozhere (snr), an AWC area trainer in the village.

But providing food aid to the target groups will not solve their problems alone. Apart from assistance from the AWC, the vulnerable groups depend almost entirely on charity from neighbors. For instance, the two child-headed households in Makwarimba are supported by the community, who plough their fields, provide them with seeds, repair their houses and give them food when they can. So the worse off the community gets, the less able it is to help the vulnerable in its midst.

This year's drought follows hard on the heels of another poor agricultural season last year that involved floods followed by a long dry spell. Community coping strategies are now stretched to the limit, and, according to Mr Madora, the village headman of Makwarimba, some households have been forced to sell off major assets such as cattle to buy food. The loss of their draught animals will reduce their capacity to recover next season and will push them into deeper poverty.

Given that Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, has been experiencing recurrent droughts in recent years (at least once in every three or four years), people need new opportunities to earn non-farm incomes. Introducing irrigation would reduce the vulnerability of the communities to the vagaries of the weather. The Makwarimba community plans to fence off and irrigate 32 acres of land as part of its drought mitigation strategy. The AWC has come to the community's rescue and will provide fencing and drill boreholes for the scheme, which is expected to benefit 23 households when fully operational. AWC will also provide seed and fertilizers for an early maize crop that should be in the ground by July this year - a full five months before the rain-fed crop is planted.

Apart from enhancing household food security, the scheme will also improve the community's health status by providing clean drinking water from the boreholes. At present the community relies on shallow and unprotected wells, which exposes them to water-borne diseases.

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