As winter deepens, hardship following Swaziland's worst-ever harvest is fastening its grip on growing numbers of people. "This is the coldest winter in some years, and there is little food," said Sibongile Ndwandwe, a widow in the central Manzini region.
"I have food, but it pains me to see the sacrifices my children make. So that I can eat, my granddaughter does not have shoes for school. I asked her why she is barefoot, and she said her shoes were torn and they have no money for a new pair. But that very week my daughter brought me a big bag of maize," said Ndwandwe, who lives alone in a small mud-and-stick house.
Her three children work in town: one is a school headmaster, one is a cashier at a cleaners, and one transports seafood from Maputo, Mozambique, to sell at the Manzini market. They are lucky to have jobs that allow them to care for their mother, but still, this year is tough.
"When crops have failed in the past, the extended family shares amongst themselves to see that no one starves. This year it is more difficult: food prices are very high, and even people with jobs are struggling to feed themselves and their immediate families," Ncane Kunene, a Red Cross official in charge of food security in the central Manzini region, told IRIN.
A prolonged dry spell left around 400,000 vulnerable people - about 40 percent of the population - in need of approximately 40,000 metric tonnes (mt) of food assistance until the next harvest in April 2008, according to a May crop assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture.
The WFP predicted that even middle-class Swazis would be hard pressed by inflation in food prices, while the poor would be unable to purchase basic foodstuffs. "The Swazis' traditional coping mechanisms have been put to the test this year," said WFP Country Representative Abdoulaye Balde.
Rising fuel prices have also increased the cost of transporting of food into the landlocked county, pushing food prices up on an almost weekly basis. The National Maize Corporation set the price of maize at US$168 per mt at the beginning of the year; it now costs $340 per mt.
"Everyone must buy their food, now that it is winter and the maize bins are empty," said Osgood Dube, who annually plants a three-hectare field of maize and beans. The harvests have kept his family fed for years, but this year the drought wiped out the maize crop.
Community gardens, set up as a national food programme, have not been spared. "You can't have thriving gardens without water," said Kunene, of the Red Cross. Having overseen the establishment of eight community garden projects, she has witnessed the failure of those that could not be irrigated.
"The gardens are manned by community volunteers, and the prime beneficiaries are the AIDS orphans of the area. The volunteers divide up the remainder of the crop, or sell it and deduct the cost of implements like seeds and fertiliser. There was not much profit this year," she said.
The community gardens are an attempt to wean Swazis away from single-crop dependency on maize, the staple national food, and an example of people's willingness to vary their diet and take care of vulnerable community members. The failure of the gardens as a result of the drought has been a particularly hard blow.
Musa, 17, who lives in Manzini, expected to finish high school this year but had to drop out when his father was unable to pay the fees.
"It has always been difficult for my father, but he usually manages by selling the surplus harvest from the field we keep outside of town," Musa said. "There was nothing this year."