How one country created its own food crisis

First in a four-part series looking at six African nations on the brink

The Liberty Grace set sail from Louisiana on a hot, sticky evening in late August. Capt. John Codispoti and his crew steered downriver to the mouth of the Mississippi, across the Gulf of Mexico, and in the early morning hours of Sept. 3, hit the open ocean and turned toward Africa.

On board, sealed in six cavernous holds, were 50,000 tons of yellow corn kernels – a small part of the US government's donation to an international emergency effort to help 14.5 million men, women, and children facing hunger in six Southern African countries.

In the months ahead, this consignment of corn will travel from Midwestern farms to the ports of East Africa, where it will be unloaded and bagged. It will be piled high onto trains and trucks, and hauled to warehouses scattered across the region. And it will be balanced on heads and dragged in carts to the huts of the hungry.

But along its journey, this corn will encounter many of the continent's problems, both old and new: corruption, Western trade barriers and subsidies, concerns about genetic modification, and AIDS. It is these problems, more than just the current drought, that are at the heart of the growing hunger here.

The solutions to the African hunger crisis are as complicated as the problems themselves. The challenge for the six countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland – is not just to get through the immediate food shortage, but to find ways to keep the problem from happening again next year.

"This is not the same old story. There are deep-rooted problems in the region," says Tim Osborne, Malawi country director of CARE, an Atlanta-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that helps fight global poverty. "Various factors have combined to make the populations so vulnerable that they cannot cope with any new crisis. This is an emergency all right – a long-term emergency."

The handbag factory

Moreblessing Tigre stands guard at a small grain warehouse on the outskirts of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, jiggling her ring of keys. She is the senior logistics officer and takes her job very seriously.

Five months ago, World Vision, another NGO, rented an old handbag factory and transformed it into a warehouse for emergency food aid. Today, the rooms are filled with hundreds of bags of corn from the US, ready to be put on trucks and sent out to distribution centers scattered around these barren plains. Ms. Tigre is in charge.

Some 6.7 million Zimbabweans – approximately half the whole population – face hunger this year, and are depending on food aid to get them through the coming months, according to the World Food Program (WFP).

When the warehouse is emptied out, Tigre explains, pushing back her thick glasses and pulling her hair into a bun, new truckloads of corn are supposed to come in. Part of the consignment on board the Liberty Grace will soon make its way here.

"I am so busy moving the corn in and out that I really have no idea where it comes from," Tigre admits. "To be honest, I don't much mind. As long as enough gets here on time. That's good. That's a start."

A start, but not an end. Because in Zimbabwe, as in other countries, even when the corn arrives at the warehouses and is sent out to distribution centers, there is no guarantee that the neediest will receive it. Here, the problem is government mismanagement and corruption.

"There is no doubt that the developing famine in Zimbabwe is rooted in bad governance and corrupt practices," says John Prendergast, Africa director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.

As elsewhere in the region, there has been a drought in Zimbabwe. But in years past, Zimbabwe was able to sustain itself though similar drought periods – and even continue exporting to the neighbors.

This year is a different story. President Robert Mugabe's controversial land-reform policy – taking land from minority white farmers and giving it to the landless black majority – has crippled the commercial farm sector.

'That's the way life goes'

For Mildred Rashal, this has been a good year. Her restaurant "Taks Tenth Avenue," in downtown Bulawayo, is packed every day with the city's bigwigs.

"People are moving into new opportunities. There is a lot of money floating around," she says, touching up her lipstick. Outside, a long line of fellow Zimbabweans queue for bread. They have been there since dawn. Mrs. Rashal pays them no attention.

Because Rashal's father was a politician, Rashal grew up in the suburbs and had more money than most other black girls in town. She was the first nonwhite to attend the neighborhood private school.

"I was not accepted," she states matter-of-factly. "Sometimes one of the girls would bring back lollipops from vacation in South Africa. There were 30 of us in the class and she would bring back 29. Nothing for me."

Rashal leans forward. "That was then – and this is now," she says slowly. "That's the way life goes. It's not about revenge. It's just a cycle. We have reclaimed what is ours."

What black Zimbabweans have reclaimed is land. Mr. Mugabe's fast-track land-reform policies were intended to redress the imbalance in land ownership and wealth in Zimbabwe by transferring farms from the minority white commercial farmers – who sat on vast tracts of fertile land and produced over 80 percent of the country's food – to the majority landless blacks.

But in practice, over the past two years, many of these farms were handed over to wealthy Zimbabweans connected to the government, like Rashal's family, who have little interest in farming. In other cases, the landless were trucked in to squat on these farms, but were not provided with the tools, seeds, or know-how needed to tend them properly. The former breadbasket of the region can no longer support even itself.

Now, the continuation of bad governmental practices is making it hard for international aid organizations to remedy the food problem.

Mugabe's government banned private food imports late last year. The government-run grain marketing board, which is managed by top military and intelligence officials, was given control over imports, allowing many of them to make a profit from the resale of food at exorbitant prices.

Worse yet, there are charges that food distribution is being politicized, with aid organizations being steered toward or away from certain areas. The government denies these allegations, but several aid organizations, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed this was taking place.

Last month, the WFP officially suspended the distribution of relief supplies in a district of southwestern Zimbabwe, charging that Mugabe's party was interfering with distributions – seizing food aid and intimidating workers.

"Relief food distributions are not the place for any kind of political activity," said a WFP statement. "WFP will only distribute its food on the basis of need without regard to partisan affiliation."

"This is not a black-white issue, although it is portrayed this way," says Zimbabwean economist Erich Bloch, a vocal critic of government. "This is about destroying the economy and hurting the poorest of the poor – all blacks – for the sake of the rich and powerful. The next six months will be the worst this country has ever seen, and the region will suffer for our suffering as well."

Foosball with unripe berries

On the old road leading from Dete to Binga, in the northwest part of Zimbabwe, there is a little village with no name. People here are feeling the effects of food politics.

Only two children in this village attend school. The rest, barefoot and half naked, hang around all day by the rusting foosball machine, using unripe berries as the game balls when they get up enough energy for a match.

This area should be getting food shipments from Bulawayo, but no trucks have come this way. In Binga town, the nearest center, an attempt at distributing food a few months back was stopped when war veterans from a different area came in and claimed the food for themselves, according to eyewitnesses.

"We all went and voted for the MDC [the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change] in the elections, but we did not succeed," says one villager, Matias Muleya. "So now other regions get aid, but the government doesn't let the food come here."

Back at "Taks," Rashal is rushing to pick up her son from cricket practice. One of the World Vision trucks, stacked high with bags of corn, passes by. Rashal does not seem to notice.

"I'm running a business. I don't really care about hunger issues," she says. "I have my connections. I phone this one, that one – get what I need. It's not that I don't care. It's just, well, what could I do to help? I have nothing to do with the weather."

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