Features

Only a plate of grain

Africa | In Zambia, women are making a meal a day go all the way

Issue: "Ghost busting," Aug. 24, 2002

LUSITU, Zambia—The women form a quiet arc outside the depot door, babies strapped to their backs, children in tow. Most are barefoot in the chalky Lusitu dust. Janet Seimugade is not on the ration list, but she walks the two miles to the depot anyway.

Inside the pockmarked shed, 66 tons of grain bags from the United States are stacked in the shadows, ready for distribution. One by one those in the crowd collect their blue ration cards, allocating 20 kilograms, or 44 pounds, of corn meal to each household for the next month. While the women wait, they share a bag of masau, a wild fruit the size of an acorn that the villagers eat to survive.

Mrs. Seimugade only wants a plate of grains, just to break the diet of this sweet, astringent fruit. It's been her only food since December. She is the eldest of three wives in an eight-member household. Even her vegetable garden didn't last, devoured by wild animals.

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"There's nothing," she says in the local Tonga language. "The plants didn't go any further," she explains as she stoops down and spreads her palms about five inches above the ground. Her chickens and 10 goats have long been sold for food.

Pellger Hamoonga, the Lusitu food monitor for Harvest Help, a British-based nongovernmental organization, argues with five men under a tree. Her organization complies with a list of the most vulnerable people drawn up by community leaders. These men and their families are not on it. Ms. Hamoonga hasn't even received her full consignment of corn yet, so she tells them to come back next month. "You think by then we'll be around, but we shall die by then," they cry in chorus.

Drought during a critical part of the corn-growing season this year and floods last year have destroyed more than 60 percent of the crops in Zambia's Southern Province and affected areas of other provinces. Harvest Help is distributing the food to Lusitu, a village of about 6,000 people. The organization is one of 11 in Zambia that is working with a UN emergency operation begun last month to reach 2.3 million starving people-a fifth of the country's population.

Almost the entire southern African region has been hit by the worst food shortage in a decade. Over 12 million people in six countries need relief aid. "From the natural disaster standpoint, Zambia is probably the worst hit," said Richard Ragan, country director of the UN's World Food Program. "People are living hand to mouth. Most of them are subsistence farmers. You'll find that people are very much at risk."

The World Food Program estimates Zambia will need almost 200,000 tons of food to last until March 2003, when the next harvest is expected. Right now, the agency only has enough food to last through this month. In July the UN launched a $507 million emergency aid appeal for the region, calling for $71 million for Zambia. So far the United States has pledged $98 million, while Great Britain has come up with $8 million. Private relief efforts lag even further behind.

Harvest Help serves the Siavonga District of about 15,000 people. "For the whole district, we get 2,800 bags, which doesn't get us anywhere," said Ms. Hamoonga. She said 44 pounds of corn meal in a household of 10 would last less than a week if families ate three meals a day. Most Lusitu villagers have now cut back to one meal a day.

The Zambian government has proposed incentives, such as a lifting of duty on maize imports and reduced electricity tariffs for farmers who irrigate during off-peak hours. These are meant to encourage corn growing during the dry winter season. "Policies on the surface are moving in [the right] direction," said Mr. Ragan. "They are talking about winter maize. They'll have to continue to be committed and provide resources. It will take several years, if then, to turn things around."

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa declared a food crisis earlier this year. But Zambia has also been through a political crisis. Mr. Mwanawasa was elected last December after narrowly beating 10 other candidates. Three of the candidates have now appealed for his removal from the presidency on grounds of election rigging.

Ironically, Mr. Mwanawasa has made cleaning up government corruption his first priority. He earned widespread popular support for alleging that his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba, and colleagues embezzled about $80 million while in office. Mr. Chiluba, who ruled Zambia for 10 years and once declared Zambia a Christian nation, tried to amend the country's constitution last year to allow him to run for a third term of office. He backed down after public protests but handpicked Mr. Mwanawasa to succeed him.

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