Zimbabwe: Farm animals bartered to stave off hunger

LUPANE, 30 September 2008 (IRIN) - In Dongamuzi village, in the Lupane district of Zimbabwe's Matabeleland North Province, Jestina Moyo, 56, is making a deal she knows is unfair, but she also knows she has little choice but to barter one of her few remaining cows for six buckets of maize to feed her family.

As in many other villages, people like Moyo have steadily seen their livestock depleted this year as animals are exchanged for grain in a bid to survive the acute food shortages.

There is an air of despair in rural areas. This year's elections brought widespread political violence on top of worsening food shortages, which the UN estimates will see more than 5 million people of the country's 12 million population requiring food assistance in the first quarter of 2009.

In the bitter election contest earlier in 2008, President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party banned non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including those distributing food, from operating for nearly three months on allegations of political interference. Although the restrictions have been lifted, hunger still stalks the country.

Moyo exchanged her cow to feed her eight orphaned grandchildren and a sick relative in her care. "After pounding the maize, the mealie-meal [maize-meal] I will get will only last a month, as I have to make porridge for the children before they go to school and I have to cook lunch and dinner. The amount is too little, as I am taking care of a sick nephew who has to eat frequently throughout the day," Moyo told IRIN.

"These people are taking advantage of the food shortages to rip us off. The exchange is not fair but I have no choice, as there is no grain throughout the whole district; but this is a rip-off," Moyo said, watching the cow being loaded onto the truck that will take it, along with many others, about 200km southeast to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city.

So far this year she has bartered six cows for either food or money to pay her grandchildren's school fees. "At the beginning the year things were better because villagers were selling the cows for cash, and this allowed us to buy more grain amongst ourselves, but the whole village has nothing now and we have to get the grain from outsiders, who only want to exchange the maize for livestock," Moyo said.

She said one bucket of maize was now equal to four live chickens or a goat, while five buckets of maize were where negotiations started for a cow.

Livestock was also being exchanged for soap, cooking oil, flour, sugar and salt, which are not available from shops.

Zimbabwe's annual inflation rate of more than 11 million percent has made the local currency all but worthless, and although many city residents have resorted to using foreign currency, in the poor rural areas the only items of value people possess are their animals.

"Villagers are losing a lot of their livestock to these people from urban areas who are ripping us off, and as long as the hunger issue is not resolved we will continue losing our livestock," Moyo said.

"President Mugabe and [Morgan] Tsvangirai [leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)] should come up with their unity government, so that we will have food on the table. You should tell them we are starving, and if nothing is done we will all die," Moyo told IRIN.

Zimbabwe's political leaders agreed to a power-sharing deal on 15 September, but the formation of a unity government is being stalled by bickering over ministerial posts.

Thomas Ncube, 58, who also lives in Dongamuzi, told IRIN he had exchanged all his goats and had nothing left to barter with. "The people who are selling maize are refusing cash, saying the Zimbabwean dollar loses value fast and they only exchange the grain with livestock, and most villagers have become poor from exchanging their livestock for grain."

The misfortune of the villagers is providing George Ncube, who has a lucrative business touring the countryside bartering farm animals for maize, and then sells the livestock to city abattoirs and butcheries.

"We [dealers] are providing a service because the people will die of hunger. We are exchanging items; there is no robbery, as the exchange is done on a willing-buyer, willing-seller basis, and if one is not happy then they do not become part of the deal," said Ncube.

The MDC parliamentarian for Lupane North, Njabuliso Mguni, told IRIN the food shortages in his constituency were reaching critical levels. "The food aid agencies are returning, but not all villagers qualify for food aid, and that leaves quite a large number on the verge of starvation, and they are now resorting to selling off and exchanging their livestock for survival," Mguni said.

Zimbabwe's main harvest will only be gathered in March 2009, so the prospect of the food security situation improving anytime soon is remote. Making matters worse is that small-scale farmers have no access to vital agricultural inputs, such as fertiliser and seed.

"We are less than a month into the farming season and already there is no fertiliser or maize seed being made available to villagers," Mguni said. "And I foresee all this repeating itself in future."