HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe: Legacy of a lost generation

News and Press Release
Originally published
HIV/AIDS is tearing Zimbabwean society apart, as WFP's Benson Gono discovered when he met Mamhlope Nyathi, an 81-year-old woman in Nkayi district forced to care for five of her grandchildren orphaned by the virus.
Dakamela Ward, Nkayi, March 6 - Mamhlope Nyathi spends sleepless nights praying and asking God for forgiveness. The Zimbabwean grandmother believes God is punishing her.

In the past four years, four of her eight children have fallen to victim to Zimbabwe's raging HIV/AIDS pandemic, leaving her to care for five orphans, all aged less than 10.

They need to be fed and sent to school, but Mamhlope's deceased sons and daughters left her with virtually nothing to bring-up her grandchildren.

"Why should all this be happening to me? I looked after my own children after the death of their father and up to now I have never had any rest in my life," she says.

Her four remaining children abandoned Mamlhope's hometown of Dakamela in Nkayi district over two years ago and are spread in different cities around the country. None have returned to help.

"I don't know whether they are still alive or they are also dead. People of my age should be cared for by their children. I don't know why God is punishing me?"

Mamhlope, who only survives thanks to a WFP monthly food distribution, is just one of the increasing number of elderly Zimbabwean women forced into a tragic second motherhood by HIV/AIDS.


Grandmothers taking care of orphans is just one of the symptons of an adult prevalence rate which now exceeds 33 percent. Child-headed households, 780,000 orphans and dying teachers are other painful realities.

With an average life expectancy that has plummeted to 42, HIV/AIDS is literally tearing Zimbabwean society apart.

The UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for the Southern African humanitarian crisis, James Morris, came face to face with the consequences on his recent visit to a home-care HIV/AIDS programme in Dzivarasekwa, a suburb of the capital Harare.

"I spoke to two young boys, one in seventh grade, one in fourth grade," said Morris after his visit, "Mom had died this year of HIV. Dad has simply left. Suddenly, these three kids had to fend for themselves."

"17-year-old children should be having one kind of life and it usually doesn't imply being the head of a household."


Zimbabwe's ongoing food crisis, which has left 7.2 million people in need of food aid, has exacerbated the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Food shortages rob the infected of one of the first defences against AIDS-related illnesses and early death - good nutrition. While households like Mamhlope's, who have lost their main breadwinners, are poorer and more vulnerable to starvation.

Even before the current drought, the responsibility for producing, transporting and marketing the family crop had fallen on Mamhlope's frail shoulders.

"The lack of rain has made the situation even worse," she says.

"After harvesting I would normally sell part of my maize crop. But I only managed to get maize seed in January and that was too late and so there are no crops in my fields."


The lack of income from her maize crop means Mamhlope has been unable to pay her grandchildrens' fees at the nearby Dakamela Primary School for the past two terms.

"The school authorities are aware of my plight and they no longer bother to send the children away from school," she says.

"They know that when I get the money I will pay, but at the moment, it is difficult to promise."

In her own and Zimbabwe's current circumstances, Mamhlope is only prepared to make a single pledge.

"I hope that God will hear my prayers and give me more time to live and look after these innocent souls," she says, her frail voice wavering. "I don't want to think about what will happen to these children when I die."

Zimbabwe food crisis: update

  • WFP launched its current emergency operation in July 2002, but nine months later, Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis continues to deteriorate at a dangerously rapid pace

  • There are increasing reports of children dropping out of school and families resorting to ever more desperate measures to cope

  • Levels of malnutrition are also rising, with cases of hunger-related diseases like pellagra ever more frequent

  • According to the latest assessment, approximately 7.2 millin people need food aid in Zimbabwe - an increase of half a million since September

  • In February, 204,000 metric tons of WFP food aid was distributed to almost four million people in 49 out of Zimbabwe's 57 districts.

  • The number of targeted beneficiaries will rise to five million in March
Hunger, HIV/AIDS and Food Aid

HIV/AIDS and hunger are two sides of the same deadly sword:

  • Without good nutrition, the infected are robbed of a key defence against AIDS-related illnesses

  • At the same time, HIV/AIDS deepens food crises, undermining families' ability to feed themselves

  • According to UNAIDS/WHO, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is highest where there is difficulty accessing or affording food

  • In turn, food consumption drops by as much as 40 percent in families hit the infection

  • Ensuring that HIV/AIDS sufferers living in hunger-afflicted regions receive food assistance is a WFP priority

  • Food aid can prolong the lives of HIV/AIDS sufferers. It also allows them to continue to earn income and feed their families
Contact Info

If you require more information on this story or other WFP operations in Zimbabwe, contact:

Luis Clemens,
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