AN emaciated 11-year-old boy wearily puts down a sack half full of wild fruits (hacha in Shona) and groans audibly as he painfully bends down to take a rest on his long journey back home aft
er a fruit-gathering exercise.
Forcing a dry grin from parched lips, the boy prides himself for having scored a feat that will save his family from hunger for the day.
“We have been collecting and eating these wild-fruits because of food shortages,” Tinaye Mabhande said. “We don’t have much to eat and as a result we supplement our diet with these fruits.”
Mabhande and other villagers have been gathering wild berries in parts of Gutu district in rural Masvingo where, according to folklore, people believe a season in which the fruit is in abundance is a harbinger of a bad agricultural season.
The situation in Masvingo is no different from other parts of the country that have been hit by food shortages over the past four years. At least two million people are said by aid agencies to be at risk of starvation. Government is struggling to import maize from South Africa to bridge the grain deficit.
“We wake up before dawn so that we can get to the muhacha trees ahead of others. We have been collecting these fruits for the past three weeks now,” another boy said.
Witnessing several villagers trudging home carrying bags from a nearby forest is a miserable spectacle. “My mother is already preparing the meal,” the boy says, lifting his bag and moving towards some shade where six other family members are already resting.
His mother had emptied the contents of one of her bags into a wooden pounding bowl before mixing it with water to make some fruit paste for the family’s meal for the day. “Life is difficult here,” Mabhande’s forlorn-looking mother says.
“We last had a meal of sadza three days ago. There is just no grain. Government has not given us food assistance for the past two months because there is no fuel. Even if you go to the Grain Marketing Board you can’t get the maize to buy.”
She said if it were not for the timely intervention of food aid agencies and the donors who introduced feeding schemes at schools there would have been mass starvation amongst children.
“Things have been worsened by the delay of the rains,” she said. “If the situation remains like this for another two weeks, we are in serious trouble. It won’t be surprising to see people dying of hunger.”
The woman said she was not optimistic about the rainy season that was forecast to have started two weeks ago by the Meteorological Services Department. She bemoaned the unavailability of inputs for the current season.
“We are planting a very small portion of the land because we cannot afford seed or fertiliser,” she said.
“Land preparations pose problems for us because hiring tillage units costs $250 000 per hectare, which we cannot afford. Officials tell us there is a serious shortage of fuel.”
Masvingo province’s precarious food situation illustrates how hunger has begun wreaking havoc among the rural populace.
Reports from other areas, particularly Matabeleland provinces, show that the situation is no better and fast becoming dire.
This is in stark contrast to President Robert Mugabe’s public posturing at international fora that the country is able to feed itself.
Mugabe recently told reporters in New York that Zimbabwe’s hungry villagers and urban poor could choose to eat potatoes or rice in the absence of the staple maize.
But back home, Zimbabweans have over the past five years been reeling under the lingering effects of the chaotic land reform programme as the new farm owners fail to produce enough food to feed the nation.
Zimbabwe’s problems have been compounded by a stinging fuel crisis that has crippled virtually the whole economy.
Two months ago Mugabe told the international media: “The problem is Zimbabweans rely too much on maize. But it doesn’t mean we haven’t other things to eat. We have heaps of potatoes but people are not potato eaters. They have rice but they’re not attracted to it.”
Critics have questioned how many of Zimbabwe’s poor can afford potatoes in a country which has more than 85% of its population living below the poverty datum line while over 75% of its workforce is jobless and inflation is over 360%.