Zimbabwe still waits in vain for rain

The three siblings have prepared their plot for the planting season. It is almost one acre and they are proud of their work. Still, they have not been able to plant the maize seeds they received from the Red Cross in October, because the soil is not wet enough to nurture the plants. Like many others in Zimbabwe, they are waiting for the rain.
Fortune, 23, Lovejoy, 15, and Indra, 11, live on their own in the district of Zvimba, just west of Harare. The mother of the oldest two died from AIDS in 1993, and then their father married their aunt who came to take care of the family.

Vulnerable children

The father died in 1995, and the aunt, who is Indra's mother, died four years later. She had been a client of the Zimbabwe Red Cross home-based care programme, and the children have been in Red Cross care since her death. They are among the 7,430 other orphans and children made vulnerable by AIDS benefitting from the programme in Zvimba.

Fortune is a migrant worker, which takes him away from home for months at a time. He pans for gold from time to time, or other odd jobs to provide for his sisters. He is kind to them, but they do not rely on him as he does not always keep the right company and has had problems with the law.

So, mostly it is down to the two sisters to keep things going and to take care of each other. Lydia, their Red Cross care-facilitator and neighbour, keeps a close eye on them - they receive food aid from the Red Cross, as well as money for school-fees.

"But I store their food for them at my place,"explains Lydia. "So they are not an easy prey whenever they go to school or leave the house."

Although life is hard, the sisters have a positive attitude. They are doing well at school, and say they are not too worried about living alone - they are used to taking care of each other.

Training for life

"It is a big job to look after my sister, but it is also a good training for life,"says Lovejoy matter-of-factly. "And hopefully, we will have rain soon."

The Mudede family lives only a few houses away from the Lovejoy and Indra, and are also clients of Lydia. Constantine has been sick for three years and is unable to work, so his wife Cecilia tries her best to provide for the family. She sews floor-mats out of rags and empty food aid bags, but business is not as good as it used to be.

"There is economic hardship these days. People have more important things to think of, and are not concerned about mats,"she says sadly.

Their four sons, who are aged from four to 13 years old, do their best to help their mother, and the older ones are quite good at operating the sewing machine. The family is trying to raise money to pay casual labourers to plough and prepare their field so they can plant the seeds they received from the Red Cross, because Constantine is too weak to work in the fields.

"Our hope lies in the seeds. If the rain comes,"says Cecilia. And she is optimistic. "If things remain as they are, and we continue to receive food aid from the Red Cross until the harvest comes, then we are happy."

But the forecast is bleak. It is already late December, and throughout the country one can see empty fields. Very few people have managed to plant maize yet due to the lack of rain. Come January it will be too late to plant as it will be too close to autumn and the cool weather will prevent the maize from growing.

Disaster looms again

Southern Africa has already suffered two consecutive years of drought. Some 14 million people faced starvation last year, which prompted international aid agencies to intervene with a massive food operation in Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Famine was averted in the short term, but disaster may still be looming due to bad rainy season and failing economies in the region.

The UN estimates that half of Zimbabwe's population is still at risk due to critical food shortages. Some communities in Zambia and Namibia are also facing starvation, and further assistance for them may be needed if the crisis unfolds. But food insecurity in the region is not only due to poor rains. Productivity in the agricultural sector has been severely affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

A recent report by the UN Relief and Recovery Unit pointed to a 43 per cent HIV/AIDS prevalence rate on farms in Zimbabwe, compared to a national figure of 24.6 per cent. Among those, the hardest hit group were those in the 15 to 23-age range, "the core of the agricultural labour force."

The Red Cross has addressed the link between HIV/AIDS and food insecurity from the very beginning of the food crisis in Southern Africa. Its emergency operation launched in July 2002, was primarily aimed at providing food to people within the Red Cross HIV/AIDS home-based care programme.

Long-term needs

Although the food operation came to a halt in December, these interventions have now been integrated into regional programmes and taken over by the Federation's Annual Appeal for 2004 to address longer-term needs. The problem will not be solved by simply providing food assistance for a short while.

The Southern Africa Red Cross Societies and the Regional delegation in Harare are seeking almost 37 million Swiss francs in support of their programmes and operations in the Annual Appeal, almost half the total being sought for the whole of Africa.

The three siblings in Zvimba district, and the Mudede family are certain they would not survive without the assistance they receive from the Red Cross. They are typical of thousands of Southern African families who have been made vulnerable by AIDS.

The rain, if it comes in time, may temporarily solve their problems, but they are in need of a long-term support. They are the vulnerable people that the Southern Africa Red Cross Societies will be striving to assist for years to come.