Villagers go hungry as bush country suffers worst drought in 50 years

The village headman stood pointing at a half full tin of corn meal that was provided by the Zimbabwe government. It would last the six members of his family three days, he explained, but there would be no more for another week, maybe two.

''It's just not enough,'' he said.

Around him lay a vast expanse of dry and dusty land. With no rain since November, the start of the traditional rainy season, the bush had yellowed and withered, and the riverbeds had dried.

All of Matabeleland, in fact, which covers roughly one-third of Zimbabwe, is suffering from the worst drought in 50 years. It has strained the new nation's resources and increased tension in a region already alienated by tribal and political differences from Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's government.

In Zimbabwe as a whole, low rainfall has cut corn production from last year's 3 million metric tons to 1.5 million this year. Still, with 1 million tons stockpiled from last year's bumper crop, the country should have enough to feed itself and export half a million tons as well.

The problem, instead, is distribution.

''The villages are scattered and there are often no roads or communications, '' said Jeremiah Khabo, a rural organizer. He estimates that fully 50 percent of the more than 1 million people who need food relief will not receive it.

But even where food is distributed, there is a serious problem. Cattle - the mainstay of the region's economy - may die if grazing land is ruined by drought.

The government has offered to buy the herds before that happens, but the effort has been strongly resisted. In Matabeleland, cattle have traditionally represented wealth. Cattle are necessary for plowing, and they are the bride price in marriage transactions.

''If I sell my five cattle, I will spend the money,'' said the village headman. ''Then how will I buy them back? No, nothing will make me sell my cattle. Not while I'm still alive.''

Yet, the people of Inyati are relatively fortunate. Two bore holes provide enough water for their drinking. In nearby Mzinyathini, the people must walk three kilometers each way for water, and dig their wells by hand.

The government estimates that it needs 75 million Zimbabwean dollars (about $ 100 million US) for its drought relief program. Yet with a balance-of-payments deficit last year of $400 million, its funds are extremely tight.

''The government is not doing all it could,'' said M. L. Sidile, the national chairman of Christian Care, an international relief organization.

''But it has so many programs to fund. And let's face it, this is a new government that's feeling its way. In the meantime, people are suffering.''

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