Families battling hunger and malnutrition in rural Zimbabwe

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Bulilima, Zimbabwe: After two successive meager harvests, 79-year-old Solomon Ndebele is down to feeding his grandchildren amajodo – a plain tasting melon traditionally fed to donkeys in better years.

Ndebele says the poor harvests actually go back five years, during which time he has been forced to sell all his chickens, goats and cattle to keep his last born son’s two boys and girl alive. With no reserves to fall on, Ndebele and his wife, 79-year-old Ntombana Mpofu, are running out of options.

The drought had forced the mother of the children, Ndebele’s daughter-in-law, to run away in February 2017 in search of employment. A week earlier, her husband had returned from Botswana with a terminal illness. He died later that month, leaving the two near octogenarians to look after the three children, Melody (aged 13), Mthulisi (aged 10) and Taboka (aged 5).

We got nothing from the fields for the last two years,’’ Ndebele said at the family homestead in Tjena village, Bulilima district, in Matebeleland South province.I have sold everything.’’

Ndebele says his daughter-in-law ran away at the height of food shortages in February as it became clear the latest harvest would be a write-off and after months of chasing low-paying piece jobs, selling vegetables and trying to barter.

He says the family is now down to one meal a day, consisting mainly of isitshwala, a thick porridge made from maize meal, and whatever vegetables they are able to get, and amajodo. Other times, they beg from neighbours.

Like many others, the family’s water source is the nearby riverbed, where the children get water through sand-abstraction, a method in which wells are dug near or in the river bed to tap the sub-surface water flow.

The lack of adequate food and unsafe water makes children like five year-old Taboka vulnerable to malnutrition. Through funding from the European Union, UNICEF has been supporting health centers in Bulilima district to undertake active screening of children. Through the programme, Taboka was screened by staff from nearby Matjinge clinic and although he wasn’t diagnosed with malnutrition, regular active screening will ensure that Taboka’s nutritional status is monitored and any signs of malnutrition detected early.

But circumstances were not so favorable for two year-old Eric Phiri. He was admitted to Plumtree District Hospital after weeks of suffering from general weakness and poor appetite. He had been weaned from breastmilk at 11 months because, according to his mother, he had stopped breastfeeding.

Eric was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition but the hospital admitted him in order to treat an underlying illness. After a week, he had recovered sufficiently to be discharged. Thankfully, Plumtree hospital is among district hospitals in Zimbabwe that have benefitted from supplies of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) procured by UNICEF. Upon being discharged, Eric was prescribed RUTF and continued the treatment for malnutrition at home.

According to the government, more than four million Zimbabweans were in need assistance through March 2017 after an El Nino induced drought had slashed crop yields across the country and killed thousands of livestock in drought prone areas like Bulilima. The drought was followed by extensive rains which destroyed crops and infrastructure and displaced hundreds of families.