IN Silobela, a rural area 300km west of Harare, four remotely connected things interact to tell the story of massive starvation in Zimbabwe’s communal lands – a widow, a dog, three graves and
a mahogany tree.
It’s not a common coincidence that a widow who lives in an area called Cross Roads finds herself at a cross roads with life.
And it’s not common too that a red mahogany tree can sustain a family of three. Yet in Silobela the ravaging food shortages have made this a reality.
Thandiwe Ncube, a 35-year old widow, lives with her two children in the Cross Roads area of Silobela. She looks 20 years older. In her yard are three graves – two belong to her kids and another for her late husband. A mangy dog suckles its five puppies under a mahogany tree in the yard.
The widow, the dog, two graves and the tree are connected by one common thing: hunger.
Two of the graves in the yard are still fresh. They belong to Thandiwe’s two children, Jabson (9) and Sandiso (6), who died on August 25 after they ate poisonous wild roots. They had reportedly gone for three days without food.
Thandiwe and her two remaining daughters sometimes survive on mahogany seed because they don’t have maize. Her two kids spent the better part of the last school term doing piece jobs for food.
When they have time to attend lessons they walk more than 17km to the nearest primary school.
Their mother is not sure whether she will afford the $1 million for their secondary school next term. The secondary school is “about 20km away”, according to them, but distances in rural areas are normally highly understated.
She is almost in tears as she describes her gruelling life and how her two children died.
“I was in the nearby homestead doing piece work to buy food when they (her neighbours) called me,” she says, rubbing dust from her cracked feet.
She last owned a decent pair of shoes three years ago when her husband was still alive.
“When I got home I found the kids lying on the floor almost dying.”
By 7pm they had died. She still can’t believe it. “Sometimes when I hear other people’s children coming from school I just stand in the yard, hoping that I might see my Sandiso and Jabson coming home too.”
So serious is the food crisis in the area that pets like dogs are now a burden on most families. Her dog, aptly named Kuhle nxa uzenzela (it’s good when you do it yourself), is so emaciated that a minor twister could blow it away.
Its five puppies might not live long because their mother barely gets anything to eat to suckle them.
“What can we give the dog if we the masters do not have anything to eat?” Thandiwe asks. Thandiwe’s case is not isolated. It is emblematic of the widespread hunger in Zimbabwe.
“When things are really bad we just sleep or eat the mahogany seeds or any wild fruits,” she says.
Sometimes Thandiwe’s family survives on matamba (another edible wild fruit) but these too are running out because donkeys and goats eat them too.
“I did not know that these things (matamba and mahogany seeds) were edible until three years ago when hunger struck.”
The pressure on resources goes beyond the fight for a land or firewood. In Silobela, humans have to tussle it out for matamba fruits with goats and donkeys.
“We have to compete with goats and donkeys. That is why they finished early this year.”
Her misery exposes President Robert Mugabe’s duplicity on the suffering of the people outside the circle of his friends. Mugabe recently told reporters at a UN general assembly meeting in New York that Zimbabweans had enough to eat. “The problem is Zimbabweans rely too much on maize,” said Mugabe with a straight face. He said there was enough potatoes and bread but the people are used to maize.
To a rural family, however, bread and potatoes are rare luxuries. “We just don’t have money to buy such food,” Thandiwe said.
There are millions in Zimbabwe who, like Thandiwe, don’t know where the next meal will come from. Thandiwe cannot afford three meals a day. In her bedroom there is less that a kilogramme of mealie-meal left. She insisted that it was enough to last her family three more days.
“We will eat a little bit of sadza today, then tomorrow we have porridge in the afternoon,” she tries to explain as if to show off that she has mastered a new art called poverty.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), close to 2,9 million Zimbabweans need urgent food aid.
After putting on a brave face, the government seems to have realised that its resources are too stretched to sustain its belligerence against donors.
A sobering report compiled by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government says about 2,9 million people in the rural areas are in need of food aid.
Villagers allege that the government has refused food aid to MDC supporters.
A story is told of how before the March parliamentary polls government transported tonnes of maize to Silobela promising to distribute it after winning the election. The Zanu PF candidate lost dismally to MDC’s Abedinigo Malinga and the maize was taken back to the Grain Marketing Board depot where they say one needs a party card to buy a 20kg pack.
Political coercion is also rife in the area. “They make it clear that we MDC supporters will never get food unless we vote for them,” Thandiwe said.
Like other people in Silobela, Thandiwe believes that they are being punished for supporting the MDC. She has no kind words for Mugabe whom she describes as a leader who has allowed his people to starve because “he likes power so much”.
“Anoda simba asi handiziwe kuti chii chinofadza kutonga vanhu vane nzara,” (He loves power but I don’t know whether it makes him happy to lead a starving people) she says. MP Malinga describes the situation in Silobela as desperate. “I live in constant fear that anytime, I might hear that one of my supporters has starved to death,” said Malinga.
Although Zanu PF supporters are outnumbered, they are capable of wreaking havoc because they have the political muscle. Thandiwe describes how she was threatened after she gave an interview to a Sky News crew about the death of her two children.
“The secretary for Zanu PF here asked me what the people with a car wanted at my home. He said he had been informed that they were MDC people.”
While the mothers and fathers scrounge for food, their sons and daughters engage in gold panning.
Panning here is as fashionable as vending is on the streets of Harare.
Unemployment is as widespread as it is in Harare if not worse. Starved of entertainment, the youths spend their weekends at a local shopping centre listening to music and watching cars passing by along Nkayi Road. They don’t see many of those in the village save for the chief’s government-issued Mazda B1800.