STANDING before 100 male peasants clustered in a remote rural schoolhouse, Apollonia Chirimuta addresses a subject that most men here would rather not think about. ``Why is it men don't consider family planning their business when they take an interest in everything else?'' she asks with an irreverence unusual for a woman in this still patriarchal society.
Anticipating ruffled feathers among the socially conservative crowd, Tonderai Musakwa - with Ms. Chirimuta, is on a mission to promote family planning here - soon begs forgiveness for his colleague's impertinence.
``Culturally, women are not supposed to stand in front of men and speak to them,'' he says. ``But maybe, they are doing so now, because there is so big a problem. And that problem is family planning.''
Speaking ``man to man'' with the peasants, Mr. Musakwa acknowledges the desire for domestic supremacy. But, he says, machismo will not pay the bills of a teeming family. ``Every man wants to be like a bull. But you can't be a bull if you can't manage your own family.''
A murmur of agreement runs through the crowd. Yet, in trying to break down the resistance of men to family planning, Musakwa and Chirimuta have their work cut out for them.
A gray-haired man voices a common concern, that his wife will become promiscuous if she faces little danger of pregnancy. He also worries that sterilization, discussed earlier in the day, might affect his masculinity.
``If I'm sterilized, my wife will look down on me. She will go to look for other boyfriends,'' he says.
Despite such concerns, the call for smaller families strikes a resonant chord among these men who, like others in the rural areas, are hardest hit by growth in the population.
Already, in this dusty village of small plots and circular brick huts, there is not enough arable land to go around. In an area where people survive on the food they grow, the availability of land is a matter of life and death.
Consequently, when Musakwa's team is finished with its presentation, the men line up for the condoms it has brought. Emerging from the school house with a packet of condoms tucked into his shirt pocket, Lovemore Ndondoro says the presentation sounded sensible to him.
``If you have more children, you won't be able to clothe them or send them to school,'' he says.
This family-planning workshop is part of an innovative campaign that targets the country's men, who have long been a hindrance to birth-control efforts. Women here run the risk of being labeled a prostitute or even being beaten by their husbands if they suggest using contraceptives.
The campaign comes out of a growing international awareness that men must be won over if population control is to succeed.
Recently, the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) issued a worldwide call for pressure to be put on men to become involved in family planning.
``Unless men can be encouraged to change their attitudes - and behavior - population is likely to continue growing too fast for the earth's resources to sustain,'' the organization warned in a report.
Men's cooperation is particularly critical in traditional societies, where women are subservient to their husbands.
While family planning is often considered a woman's issue, experts are finding that it is men who usually determine whether contraceptives are used.
``We found that men were the ones making the decisions,'' says Chirimuta.
Consequently, two years ago, the quasi-governmental Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council set about changing men's attitudes in one of the only programs of its kind.
Men who had for years attacked the council for stirring up their women behind their backs were startled to find their presence requested at male-only workshops. They were further surprised to see other men, like Musakwa, encouraging them to use birth control.
While no statistics are yet available on the program's success, family-planning officials say men are quickly changing their ways.
``We are finding that once we educate the men on the need for family planning, they are clamoring for condoms,'' says Chirimuta.
In this era of concern about AIDS, the program has the added effect of helping to prevent the disease.
The male-awareness campaign is the latest effort of a vigorous family-planning program here. Zimbabwe, which claims the highest rate of contraceptive use in sub-Saharan Africa, at 38 percent of sexually active women, last year won a United Nations award for family planning.
At independence 10 years ago, only 14 percent of sexually active women practiced birth control, according to official figures.
In spite of this achievement, the country still faces a severe population crisis that threatens to cripple its economy. According to 1988 figures, Zimbabwe's growth rate stands at 3 percent, high even for Africa.
The growth rate in the United States is estimated at 0.7 percent, according to the UNPF report.
If Zimbabwe's growth rate continues, the country's population of 9.7 million would double in less than 35 years, creating a demand for food that even this prosperous African nation - the ``bread basket'' of the region - could not meet. The surge in population would also flood the market with job seekers, compounding the nation's already substantial unemployment problem.
Women in Zimbabwe also tend to have a high number of children. The 5.3 average per woman is slightly above the 5.1 average for all of Africa and almost triple the 1.9 average in the US, according to the UNPF.
Experts attribute the seemingly contradictory statistics to improved general health care since independence. Sharp drops in the death and infant mortality rates have increased the number of healthy births and spurred population growth.
In an effort to stem these trends, the family-planning council tries to impress upon men the grim realities of an unchecked population growth.
``What do your children want?'' Chirimuta asks the Mt. Darwin crowd. ``Land?''
The men nod their heads in agreement.
``Well, there won't be enough land for them because your families are too big.''
As one of the converted, Masakwa says he turned his back on the traditional male expectation of a big family because of his own childhood experience.
The son of a man with four wives and 23 children, Masakwa feels he had neither the attention nor the advantages that a smaller family would have provided. As a herdsboy in the rural areas, he was also distressed by the growing depletion of land as he walked farther and farther to find grass for his cattle to graze.
In what may be a sign of the times, Masakwa's father recently said that if he started over, he would opt for a smaller family.
Still, large families persist. Not far from the family-planning workshop, Murambiwa Mutumba sits in front of his complex of brick huts that houses his four wives and 22 children. With an impressive mound of dried corn stalks signaling his prosperity, Mutumba says he manages to feed his family adequately.
Asked what he thinks of family planning, he says it is a good idea. But, so far, he has not practiced it.