ZIMBABWE: "Just airlift the food"

Sunday, November 2, 2008

It gets worse each day for Zimbabweans struggling with shortages and escalating food prices, now denominated in US dollars.

"There is nothing you can buy in local currency, everyone now wants foreign currency and this is causing so much suffering, as people are failing to buy food because they do not have any foreign currency," said Thabani Msipa in the southern city of Bulawayo.

At the beginning of October the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) licensed hundreds of shops to sell goods in foreign currency, and unlicensed retailers followed suit.

Msipa gets a monthly remittance of R300 (US$30) from his two sons working in South Africa, but it is not enough. "The price of goods in the shops is too much, even in foreign currency. A 10kg bag of maize-meal is going for R100 (US$10) here in Zimbabwe; a similar bag costs about R40 (US$4) in South Africa."

Lindiwe Moyo, a primary school teacher, is even worse off: she has to feed a family of six on her meagre salary. "The only people who are accepting Zimbabwean dollars are vegetable vendors. We have been surviving for weeks on green vegetables from our garden, which we mix with soup from the tomatoes we buy from the local market."

She said simple basics like bread, maize-meal and cooking oil were all beyond her reach, and sometimes the family slept on empty stomachs. An average salary is Z$400,000, currently less than US$4 on the parallel market, but a loaf of bread costs Z$100,000 (US$1).

We have nothing left to eat

In theory, rural areas are better off. Although they face the same shortages as a result of a disastrous harvest and a staggering inflation rate of over 230 million percent, they do have access to wild foods - a traditional emergency larder in times of hardship.

Zimbabwe's food crisis was deepened by a three-month ban on NGOs imposed by the government in June, after accusing them of supporting the opposition. The ban was lifted at the end August, but the NGOs - central to relief work - are yet to resume full-scale operations.

"We have nothing left to eat and it is useless even checking with other villagers, as they also have nothing to eat, and we are just waiting for [the development agency] World Vision to resume food distribution," said Samuel Ndlovu, in the Nkayi district of southern Zimbabwe's Matabeleland North Province.

"Every day we eat the wild fruit that are available in the bush, but the fruits are not good to eat every day; and school children are no longer going to school but spend the whole day looking for the wild fruits."

When food does become available in the depots of the state-run Grain Marketing Board, a 50kg bag cost Z$1.4 million (US$14), far too expensive for most villagers, said local councillor Cain Ndlovu.

"As a result, you find that people from urban areas are the ones who buy the maize for resale in urban areas, where they sell the maize in foreign currency because it is also not available in urban areas," he explained.

"We should just have airlifting of food to affected areas, as is happening in the Darfur region [of Sudan] and other areas in the world, because very soon we will be recording fatalities," the councillor said.

The UN World Food Programme has warned that by the beginning of 2009, 5.1 million Zimbabweans - almost half the population - will be in need of food aid. The organisation has appealed for US$140 million to help meet those needs.