Zimbabwe

First came the drought, then the cyclone

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Residents of Zimbabwe’s Manicaland province battle to find their next meal

By Nadia Samie-Jacobs

MANZWIRE, MANICALAND PROVINCE – Ennia Simango holds her 9-month-old daughter, Fadzai, in her arms. She’s worried, because she’s just been to a nutrition screening site, where the village health worker has weighed and measured the baby, and told her that unless the infant is fed a balanced diet, she will soon be in a state of malnutrition.

It’s a problem the 36-year-old mom does not know how to solve, because food is hard to come by. It saddens her as a mother, because she says she is aware the food she gives Fadzai is not sufficient, but she is not in a position to provide much else. Often she goes to bed hungry herself, and this affects her breastmilk supply.

Ennia and the baby are referred to their local clinic, where Fadzai will be given Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food. It’s a life-saving nutrition supplement supplied by UNICEF, that can be eaten straight from the sachet, and doesn’t require heat or water to prepare – that’s key because Zimbabwe is caught in the grip of a crippling drought, and lengthy power outages are a daily reality.

UNICEF Zimbabwe is supporting life-saving and preventative treatment to over 650,000 children and women who are at risk of malnutrition. With assistance from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), UK Aid and the Government of Sweden, the programme is supplying therapeutic food (RUTF) micro-nutrients and vitamin A supplementation.

On the day we meet Ennia, she is at a food collection point in Manzwire township. She has walked almost 12 kilometres to get there, accompanied by her husband, Anyamadzao, the baby, and Ennia’s 9-year-old son, Tauwerei. Here, the family collects their allocation of split peas, sorghum and cooking oil. The allocation is made up according to family size, and is meant to last them for one month. Ennia’s name is ticked off a list and she is handed the food. She smiles for the first time that afternoon, and her face lights up.

Ennia says she will prepare porridge and cook the split peas until it’s very soft, to feed to the baby. She smiles and says Fadzai loves the split peas, but unfortunately it runs out very fast, and she is unable to buy more.

Ennia’s story reflects the multiple difficulties faced by Zimbabweans, particularly in rural areas. As a mother of six, she has many mouths to feed. She didn’t have much of a childhood herself, as she gave birth to her first baby when she was just 11-years-old. The family has planted seeds around their homestead, but thanks to two consecutive seasons of poor rainfall, there was no harvest. The ground around Ennia’s home is brown and solid, with cracks in the mud. Greenery sprouts here and there, but she says it’s impossible to plant anything edible. While heart-breaking, Ennia’s story is by no means unique.

Manicaland province, where Ennia’s village is located, is in the east of Zimbabwe, neighbouring Mozambique. It’s a beautiful, mountainous area filled with trees and shrubs, but the scenery belies the painful truth: this province has been brought to its knees by the ongoing drought and resulting food shortages. To make matters worse, in March 2019, Cyclone Idai hit the area, washing away bridges and roads and leaving nothing by weeds, where community nutrition gardens once were. The lack of food is apparent, and everyone is hungry. For people like Ennia, who survive on what they plant, it’s been a devastating time.

Humanitarian aid agencies have had to step up their programmes across Zimbabwe.

“The drought has led to food insecurity and currently, it is estimated that 1.1 million women and children require humanitarian nutrition assistance. Ninety-eight-thousand children under 5 years require immediate life-saving nutrition assistance,” says Dr Paul Ngwakum, UNICEF Zimbabwe’s Chief of Health and Nutrition.

“The economic meltdown has caused financial barriers, so the people who are already vulnerable cannot always come to the health centres, and the fact that they have limited nutrition has consequences on the health outcomes, especially for women and children under five. But there are other issues. Because of the drought we have reduced water supply and recurrent power cuts. And when you have no water there is always the chance of outbreaks of diarrheal diseases. In addition, because of no power, we cannot run refrigerators, so you cannot keep the basic supplies – including vaccines – in good condition,” he said.

Back at their homestead near Manzwire township, Anyamadzao makes mats out of reeds. Each mat takes him 10 days to produce. He sells them in neighbouring villages, for under US$2 each. For that amount, he can buy a single two litre bottle of cooking oil.

Because of the economic situation, the family’s had to make the tough decision to remove one of their children from school. Tauwerei is the one who is being kept at home, because the family can’t afford the tuition fees and uniform. Tauwerei completed Grade 5 before leaving school. After the long walk with his family, he looks tired and listless. He eats a banana and a few mouthfuls of potato crisps, then perks up and tells us he dreams of being a pilot. His favourite game is football and he admires the player, Christiano Ronaldo.

Currently, the impact of the drought, cyclone, diarrheal diseases and the economic meltdown is affecting 6.7 million people in Zimbabwe. This includes 3.2 million children, who will need humanitarian assistance in 2020.