Murambinda, Zimbabwe – Among 19 000 of Buhera’s 42 000 children under the age of 5 screened for malnutrition earlier this year, 7 percent were found to be malnourished compared with the national average of 5.7 percent.
Health workers say the situation is set to worsen as food becomes scarcer.
“We have reports of children fainting at school, reduced class attendances, child marriages and child labour,’’ Roy Chiruvu, the district nutritionist, told a UN Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) mission assessing the drought impact. “The situation will worsen in the third quarter.’’
Zimbabwe, along with the rest of southern Africa, is in the grip of an El Niño-induced drought which has cut crop yields and killed livestock.
The UN says it’s the region’s worst drought in 35 years. The government has declared the drought an emergency and appealed for $1.6 billion in food aid.
Unicef has boosted the amount it needs to assist women and children by 75 percent to $21 million. So far, it has raised just over $500 000 and says aid is urgently needed to avert a disaster.
“Within six months, the number of people requiring food has doubled because this year there was no last harvest (after the poor harvest last year),” said Victor Chinyama, Unicef’s chief of communications in Zimbabwe.
“It means things are likely to get worse. If you can’t intervene now by the time we get into the next season, you are looking at a fully blown crisis.”
Buhera, home to 250 000 people, has been the hardest hit by the drought, with food insecurity of 61 percent, the highest among the country’s 33 districts, according to the latest Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee report.
At Murambinda Mission Hospital, Matron Silindiwe Shamhu says diarrhoea cases are rising because of water shortages.
Many of the mothers who come to the district’s biggest hospital also say they are down to one meal a day, she said.
Government interventions so far have been limited to helping the most vulnerable families. Health workers say thousands more people have been left out.
Unicef says it has supported about 40 000 people with access to water and hygiene and distributed therapeutic foods to 14 338 children to combat malnutrition.
Unicef emergency specialist Blessing Zindi says the agency was fighting the drought on three fronts in the 10 worst affected districts: provision of water and sanitation; nutrition; and education.
“We are primarily looking at addressing the humanitarian needs of women and children, but we are planning to upscale the intervention,” he said.
The government recently raised the number of people who require food aid to 4 million, more than double the initial estimate of 1.5 million made last year. It says it will need $1.6bn to import food.
Experts say the situation is compounded by the drought’s impact on South Africa, the traditional bread basket of the region, and a weakening currency which is boosting food and logistics costs.
Picture: Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
For four months Ripisai Manonge and her four orphan grandchildren and great-grandchild have survived on half a dollar a day. Now she can’t go on, she says.
The 80-year-old sold the last of her cattle in November for $350. That amount has kept Lewis Mukonya, 11, in class and provided food for HIV-positive Enoch Kwaramba, siblings Elvis and Moreblessing Mudzengerere, and Forget Muchumwe, 18.
“This year’s harvest equals a bucket,” she said surveying drying maize grains salvaged from her scorched fields. “I have nothing left.”
Zimbabwe, along with the rest of southern Africa, is in the grip of an El Niño-induced drought which has cut crop yields and killed livestock threatening half a million children with hunger, according to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee.
The government has declared the drought an emergency and appealed for $1.6 billion in food aid.
Buhera, home to 250 000 people, has been the hardest hit in the country. Government officials and donors have warned that hunger will worsen in the third quarter when depleted food reserves run out.
Many families were being forced to sell livestock and other assets to survive, said Vhenekai Jaravaza, a health worker in Mutaramuswa village. Prices for maize meal have been accelerating, peaking at about $9 per 10kg bag from $6 last year.
“Everybody is selling,” said Jaravaza, who has five cattle left from 12 last year and two turkeys from 15. But “because of the hardship, there are no buyers”.
At Murambinda Mission Hospital, Matron Silindiwe Shamhu said: “Poverty levels appear to be rising. We are hearing a lot of stories of hardship. Among some of the under 5s we are also seeing cases of sexual abuse for food.”
In visits to homes in the district, we encountered tales of hardship with the burden of finding food for children often falling on the elderly like Manonge whose husband died in 2002. While some of her surviving children help when they can, the widespread failure of crops this year has been particularly difficult, she said.
“I will get virtually nothing out of this harvest,” she said. “I am a widow. I can’t even walk because my legs are painful. It’s just going to be a struggle to find food for my grandchildren this year.”
Her neighbour, Ndakaitei Mukarati, 63, said she was also battling to find food for four of her seven children, her 78-year-old husband, paraplegic mother and orphan granddaughter who was born HIV-positive. One of her sons is also HIV-positive while the other has epilepsy.
“The child is sick but I don’t have enough food to feed her so that she can take her medicine,’’ she said.
Mukarati expects no harvest this year after the sun burnt her maize, sorghum, rapoko and bambara nuts fields and says she has been reduced to begging and government handouts.
At Buhera Mission Hospital, Jiri Muteve, 77, had brought his emaciated paraplegic 43-month-old granddaughter abandoned by his son and his wife.
Across the room, Evelyn Chinyanga, 58, had a similar tale: responsibility for an HIV-positive and kwashiokor-stricken granddaughter also abandoned by her daughter who she thinks is mentally ill.
The worst drought in Buhera in almost a decade has spawned a surge in prostitution at the Murambinda Growth Point with some parents encouraging their young daughters to sell their bodies for food, officials say.
Buhera district administrator Roland Madondo and the Buhera Mission Hospital matron Silindiwe Shamhu said they had seen an increase in young girls walking the streets and frequenting bars at the business centre this year.
“Prostitution is rife because there are no jobs and no food,’’ Madondo said at the Buhera District Offices, 30km north-west of Murambinda.
The district received less than a third of its seasonal average rains this year, leading agricultural officials to declare most of the crop a write-off. Madondo is appealing for more aid, especially ahead of the dry winter season. While recent rains have revived hopes that pastures will recover, Michael Sedeya, the district agricultural co-ordinator, says the rains are too late to save crops.
Buhera’s main two private businesses are the Dorowa and Shawa mines. The 71-year-old Dorowa mine is Zimbabwe’s sole phosphate producer which has seen its production capacity dwindle to 10 percent due to capital shortages and old equipment.
Nearby Shawa Mine is one of the world’s largest vermiculite deposits, which is used in the construction and agricultural industries.
Madondo said many families he knew were down to one meal a day and some kids had dropped out of school because the families couldn’t afford the fees and also because children couldn’t walk the long distances involved on empty stomachs.
Shamhu said she had picked up the same trend: “There has definitely been an increase in the night girls – very young. They are being forced into prostitution to buy food.”
At Murambinda Growth Point, we visited two night clubs in the Machokoto area. The area is mostly frequented by young people and truck drivers. On the surface, Machoko is a traditional bar at a growth point, offering mostly local beers and a variety of gins. But at the back of the bar we counted more than eight rooms where for $5 a girl can take a client either for the night or for less. The fee is negotiated separately with the client.
Beauty* said she charged $5 for 30 minutes and $20 a night. Other periods were negotiable depending on what the client wanted.
“I have been forced into this by circumstances,” said the 25-year-old mother of two. “I have no other means of saving my girls.”
She came to the growth point after the harvest failed for a second time in two years. With the father of the children unemployed, Beauty said selling her body was the only way she could earn an income even though most nights yielded little more than $20.
Carol*, who said she left her 3-year-old child with her sister in Mutare to come here, said she made as much as $50 on some nights.
“One makes more money here in Murambinda than anywhere else in the province,” she said.
She rented a room with a friend where they also operated from. She said she would sleep with any man as long as he agreed to wear a condom.