by Marko Kokic in Shurugwi
In the middle of the forest, Peter stands knee deep in cold, muddy water in a pit he has dug. He swirls the water in a wooden pan, hoping it will yield enough to buy the evening meal.
"I have been panning for gold for two years now," he explains, as he sifts through silt in the pan. "I had to leave my wife and four children behind in the village. There was nothing to harvest, nothing to eat. They rely on me to send money home to buy food."
Two years of drought and bad harvests coupled with economic problems have placed some 6.7 million people in Zimbabwe, or 49 per cent of the population, at risk of starvation. Peter is one of thousands of Zimbabweans who have been forced to leave their farms in search of alternative ways to make a living.
However, panning for gold is illegal and Peter risks arrest by the police at any moment. Yet despite the danger, he is not alone. There are many others, mostly young men, engaged in the same activity in Shurugwi district, in central Zimbabwe.
Makeshift camps can be found in the bush not far from a main road. Many of these young people have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS and must provide for what remains of their families.
There are women in the camps too. They carry water from nearby streams that are used in the panning. The food crisis has made them particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, something that threatens to further spread HIV/AIDS.
UNAIDS estimates that the prevalence rate among adults aged 15-49 in Zimbabwe to be 34 per cent. "Some women come here looking for men. Some come from as far as Gweru, which is 40 km away. These women need money, they are hungry and will do anything," admits Peter.
AIDS has decimated families, sapping resources, killing the main providers and leaving the elderly and children to run households. "Everyone in Zimbabwe has been affected by HIV/AIDS. Everyone has lost a friend or family member to the disease," says Emma Kundishora, Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Red Cross.
In response, the Zimbabwe Red Cross is trying to prevent the spread of HIV through peer education, free condom distribution, talking to community leaders and forming Red Cross youth clubs where the issue can be addressed. But for many, it is already too late to talk of prevention.
In a nearby village, 50-year-old Andrew Ndro is suffering from AIDS. Sitting in his hut he tries to stay warm by a hearth. He has trouble finding enough breath to speak, his lungs having been ravaged by tuberculosis. "I have pills to treat the tuberculosis but we do not always have food, and you are supposed to take the pills with food. I tried taking them on an empty stomach but they made me ill," he says.
Outside his home are five mounds of earth, a simple unmarked rock at the head of each. Andrew explains that this is where he buried his five brothers. All five have died of AIDS in the past year. "Now I have to care for my wife and three children, and two of their wives and their seven children," he explains.
Grace Dube is a young mother with two children. She found out she was HIV-positive a year ago. Now stricken with AIDS, she can no longer get out of bed by herself. Her features are slowly withering, but her vibrant eyes tell of the tragedy she faces in what should be the prime of her life.
"When I found out I had HIV, I told my friends and family. I wanted to see who would accept me. Almost no one comes around any more. They think they can get the disease simply by entering our home," she says.
But people such as Andrew and Grace have not been completely abandoned by their community. The Zimbabwe Red Cross (ZRCS) has an ongoing home-based care programme, which helps those who have been infected to live with dignity.
When people living with HIV already have someone looking after them, the Red Cross volunteers help them to understand the nutritional needs and hygiene requirements. "Most do not have someone to care for them, so the care facilitators will wash them and cook for them using what is available," says Tambudzai Tinonetsana, ZRCS Provincial Programme Officer. "Equally important, the care facilitators provide the clients with psychological support and friendship."
Chronic food shortages mean that people with HIV will probably die of AIDS-related diseases sooner. Retroviral drugs remain well beyond the financial reach of the vast majority who need them. These factors make the work of the care facilitators much harder.
"Plenty of the people we care for have passed away. It is painful to lose a friend but we keep doing it. If we did not do it, no one would," explains Red Cross care facilitator, Josephine Oliver. "We have to show the community that we care."
The Zimbabwe Red Cross has recognized the need to assist people living with HIV/AIDS and their families by providing supplementary feeding. Recently, with the assistance of the Federation, some 3,200 households with people living with HIV/AIDS were given agricultural starter packs in time for the planting season. These consisted of maize, sorghum, cowpea and vegetable seeds, as well as fertilizer.
"The idea is to help families become more self-reliant in the long run by supplying them with seeds, which are currently in short supply," says Federation Country Manager, Ben Mountfield, explaining that Red Cross volunteers will soon begin distributing food to over 68,000 beneficiaries under the existing home-based care programme.
The good news is that the rains have begun in Zimbabwe. People look to the sky in the hope that a bountiful harvest will allow them to return to their farms and families.
But the HIV/AIDS pandemic will continue to affect the country for many years to come. Grace Dube understands this, as she stares out of her window, listening to the patter of raindrops on the sill.
"Those with money can help by giving food and shelter to those infected to make them more comfortable," she says.