Florence Kusema is proud when she shows off her maize fields - impeccably planted in straight lines and neatly weeded. She and her family, who live in Zvimba district, north-east of Harare, are one of 3,500 households that received seeds and fertilizers from Zimbabwe Red Cross through the International Federation food security appeal launched in July.
She planted in two stages as she was lucky enough to get hold of some seeds at the beginning of November, despite the seed shortage nationwide. She planted 15 kilos of Red Cross seeds at the start of December. If the rains come, she will have two harvests - one at the end of February and a second in March.
Florence worked hard preparing the fields for planting, but three of her cattle were stolen in mid-November and sold before the thief was caught so she had to get paid labourers to plough the second plot.
That was a tough blow for a family whose income depends entirely on the annual harvest. Last year they did not make any profit. The crops were just enough for their own consumption, and only lasted until November. It will be a struggle to survive until the next harvest.
"I feel this year is going to be better than last year. It rained at the right time," Florence says optimistically. "I truly hope for a better year."
But the forecast is grim. According to the Zimbabwe National Early Warning Unit (NEWU), maize has experienced moisture stress in most parts of the country, which has slowed crop development. The weather has remained mostly dry since Christmas, with just occasional drizzle. The harvest will recover only if adequate rain falls soon.
Early agricultural projections are also alarming, both in terms of the amount of land planted for food and that planted to produce the cereal seed stock for the next planting season at the end of 2003.
According to the latest study of the Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC), which includes representatives of both the Federation and the Zimbabwe Red Cross), only 38 per cent of the area planted with maize last year has been planted this season. Serious shortages of seeds and fertilizers have further hampered planting, and most aid agencies have faced problems in procuring these items in time for the rainy season.
Although it is too early to predict precisely, the poor rains during the first part of the planting season and the gloomy rainfall forecast suggest a poor outcome for the harvest in March and April and increased problems finding seeds and fertilizers for the following planting season.
According to the VAC report, the overall situation is deteriorating nationwide. The effect is least felt in those areas where food aid has been present for a number of months, suggesting that the response from the international aid agencies has had a positive impact.
Despite the bleak outlook, Florence is determined to hold her head up high. She continues to work in her fields with her 17-year-old daughter, Nollyne, and Klement, her 13-year-old son, weeding the maize and planting the cow peas they also received from the Red Cross.
She is not one to give up. Like other people targeted by the Federation's food security appeal in Zimbabwe, she is HIV-positive. She lost her husband to AIDS in 1996, and the disease also claimed the life of her youngest child.
"There was so much stigma around the disease then. People shunned us. Something had to be done," says Florence.
She received assistance from the Zvimba Red Cross at the time, and was instrumental in forming a self support group with others living with HIV/AIDS.
The group, of which she is the secretary, meets once a week to feed children orphaned by AIDS and to make soap to generate some income. The members - supervised by Red Cross home-based care volunteers - not only provide each other with vital psychological support, but also take turns to care for those who fall ill because of AIDS-related diseases.
Florence has done the impossible before - changing her community's attitudes towards those living with HIV/AIDS. She is not about to let a bad weather forecast get her down.
"See," she says confidently, looking up at the sky. "See the black clouds. It is going to rain."