MUTARE, 18 March (IRIN) - On Mutare's
tobacco auction floor rather than bails of golden-leafed burley, sacks
of maize and corn soya blend are neatly stacked in row upon row.
Burley tobacco never really took off in the Mutare area in eastern Zimbabwe, and the town's auction floor closed at the end of last year's growing season after a decade of operation.
Its new tenants, however, are extremely busy.
Mutare is one of four transhipment depots for the World Food Programme (WFP). Food aid trucked through South Africa or carried by rail from the Mozambican port of Beira arrives at Mutare to be off-loaded. The relief supplies are then repacked onto vehicles heading to food distribution points in the seven districts served by the warehouse, as part of the WFP's emergency operation to feed more than half of Zimbabwe's 11.6 million people in urgent need of assistance.
Diana Sibanda was just one of the 2,844 recipients at Chiranda primary school last week who had waited patiently for the delivery of WFP's monthly ration. She had struggled hard not to be in this predicament. Since November last year she had planted three times, only to see the rains stop early each time, and her maize crop whither in the sandy soil.
"I can pick one or two cobs to roast, but the crop has failed," she told IRIN.
As a widow, Sibanda has been classified as "vulnerable" by WFP and therefore entitled to 10 kg of maize meal, 1 kg of pulses, 1 kg of corn soya blend - used as a nutritious porridge - and a little vegetable oil each month. This, she said, had been the difference between life and death.
"When I saw my crops fail I felt pain and worried how I could live. I feel gratitude [for the aid], without it we would have died," she explained.
Tendai Mujiwechi said that before the WFP programme began in October, she was surviving on un-ripened fruit - mangoes and paw-paw - which she would boil. "They taste good when you are hungry," she told IRIN.
In Mutare, as in much of rural Zimbabwe, subsistence farmers scrape a living growing a little maize and sorghum. The area is dry, and more suited to ranching, but both Sibanda and Mujiwechi said in a good year they could grow enough to produce a small surplus for sale.
But three consecutive years of poor rains exhausted the few resources they had to fall back on. With even the wealthier farmers facing a poor crop, opportunities to work in their fields as wage labourers, a traditional coping strategy, dried up.
"As old as we are, we really grew scared because of the hunger," Mujiwechi said.
Alongside the vulnerable fed by WFP - deemed as the elderly, widows, women-headed households, orphans and people living with HIV/AIDS - increasing numbers of the just plain poor have appealed to be included on the distribution register.
Supplies of cheap price controlled maize in Mutare, provided through the government's Grain Marketing Board, were described as "erratic" by aid workers.
Throughout the region is the evidence of the failure of the rains during the crucial months of November and December, when the maize crop should have matured. In the small plots that surround each homestead, rows of scorched and shrunken stems stand abandoned.
Compounding the bad weather were problems at the village level over access to seeds and fertiliser during the planting season last year. Maize seeds, when available, were late in arriving in Mutare. Both Sibanda and Mujiwechi said they had been forced to plant without fertiliser.
Complaints by producers over the fixed price of seed and problems with the government's input support programme had delayed deliveries.
In a warning of worsening food insecurity in 2003, the Harare-based Famine Early Warning System said in a report last month that due to "inadequate inputs and poor rainfall distribution", crops were in "a much worse situation than last year, when more than half of the country experienced a complete crop failure or well below-average yields".
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