The UN estimates that in the first quarter of 2009 more than 5.1 million people, nearly half the population, will require food assistance, although many humanitarian workers privately fear the extent of malnutrition may be deeper than first thought, a worrying situation that has surfaced in the past few days after a severe funding shortfall resulted in a cut in food rations to below the minimum monthly requirement.
Preparations by food relief agencies for the impending crisis were compromised by President Robert Mugabe's ban on their operations - for alleged political partisanship - as he fought for his political life during a presidential run-off that he eventually won, although the high levels of violence and intimidation made the international community dismiss the poll as unfree and unfair.
The ban disrupted the vetting process of potential beneficiaries and the delay in distributions are causing rising levels of frustration among those in need of emergency food assistance.
Effort Ncube, 54, whose extended family includes his four children, eight grand-daughters and several other relatives, has survived on the roots and wild fruits available in Matabeleland South Province for the past four months.
"The donor agencies are taking long, and already, as it is, we are facing death due to hunger, but some villages have benefited from food donations. But we have been assured by the relief agencies that we will be benefiting soon," he told IRIN.
Ncube's family has borrowed relief food from people in the neighbouring districts of Ntepe and Gwanda, who have received the reduced food rations from World Vision, a Christian relief and development non-governmental organisation (NGO).
"Once we get our rations then we will pay back what got from the neighbours, but the rations are taking too long to come," Ncube said. World Vision is covering six of the seven districts in Matabeleland South Province.
Making up for lost time
Rations have been cut to below the recommended monthly calorific minimum in response to dwindling food supplies, as international donors have failed to heed a US$140 million emergency appeal by the UN World Food Programme (WFP). At current rates, WFP has sufficient food supplies to last until the end of December.
Each person now receives a monthly ration of 10kg of maize, 1kg of beans and 0.6 litres of cooking oil, in a bid to stretch resources. Recipients were previously given 12kg of maize and 1.8kg of beans.
"We are still vetting some communities and verifying information that we have, and because of the magnitude of the crisis and the objective of feeding all deserving cases, the vetting process has not been easy due to the numbers involved," Wilfred Sikhukhula, director of World Vision's Humanitarian Emergency Aid, one of the relief agencies falling under the US-funded Consortium for Southern Africa Food Security Emergency (C-SAFE), told IRIN.
"We are making up for the lost time. The process should have started long before the situation got so bad, but we were not on the ground [because of the government ban]. The need in the country currently is overwhelming," he said.
"We have had a situation where communities are doing whatever they can to access food, and that in some instances includes them inflating the number of family members ... we have to go through the figures and rectify where there are anomalies before we can commence the feeding process," Sikhukhula said.
A WFP official working in the province, who declined to be named, told IRIN that the exaggeration of family sizes was becoming commonplace, as "people, out of hunger, believe if they inflate the numbers they will get more and they will not starve in future."
The strict processes used to determine need are not readily understood by the beneficiaries, and the wait for food assistance often translates into accusations of favouritism by humanitarian agencies.
"The relief agencies are selective - how did they decide which village to start with, and which people to give the food to? Some people, who are deserving, were removed from the list and were told that they will not get any food," an irate Martha Sibanda, 49, in the Dongamuzi area near Lupane, the provincial capital of Matabeleland North Province, told IRIN.
Relief agencies use a standard procedure for determining who should receive food first: top of the list are households headed by children, the elderly and the chronically ill, followed by single-parent families, households with orphans, and families with a high dependency ratio.
Next in line are beneficiaries that include families with no fixed or temporary income, families with no ownership or custody of assets with a market value that could be exchanged for cash or barter, and those without remittances from national or international sources.
A little is a lot
Raviro Mahara, 46, a single parent of three children in Chirumanzi district, about 120km southeast of Gweru, the Midlands provincial capital, went on a fruitless 100km journey on foot searching for maize. She had left her children with no food, apart from a small stock of the wild fruit known locally as hacha.
"I had been away for four days looking for maize-meal for my three children and myself, but could not get it because where it was available, it was being sold in foreign currency, which I did not have," Mahara told IRIN.
In desperation she submitted her name, with other people from her district, to an NGO operating in the area and after three days was called to a local shopping centre, where staff from the NGO provided each family with 20kg of maize-meal, two litres of cooking oil and 10kg of maize seed.
"It was such a relief. Without that help from the NGO my family would have definitely starved. Considering the size of my family, and given that we have to depend on what has been given to us almost exclusively, the food aid is not much, but that little makes a big difference," she said.
Without the donation, her final option would have been to slaughter one of her two remaining cows, but it would have left her without draught power for the main farming season, which has already begun.
Rugare Gadaga, 60, who lives in the same area, also received a donation from the NGO. "I just hope this is the beginning of good things to come. For months, officials from the district headquarters have been sending word that we will soon receive food aid from the government, but promises don't drive our hunger away," he told IRIN.
"I wonder why the same government that purports to be disturbed by our plight has been barring the NGOs from distributing food to us, only to reverse that position when some people have starved to death," he said.
Gadaga's son, Samuel, 30, has a job as a supervisor at a Gweru factory. His salary of a few dollars a month, which is continually eroded by the inflation rate of 231 million percent, supports his five children and his father.
"Urban life is now so stressful, and I am struggling to keep my head above the water, fending for my family. After every two weeks I am forced to look for 20kg of maize to send home, and my prayer is that the NGOs continue with their work, for that will lessen my burden," Samuel told IRIN.
Fambai Ngirande, spokesperson for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, the NGO umbrella body, told IRIN that the distribution of food "though still coming in small measures, is refreshing".
"People have nowhere to turn to but NGOs because the government, even though it is supposed to play the leading role in ensuring food security for affected communities, is proving to lack capacity or will," he commented.
"It should be remembered that relief operators are overwhelmed, and are constrained by the lack of resources and politically motivated disruptions as the food crisis deepens daily."