BY noon at the Roman Catholic mission of Munhino, up to 500 people gather for a bowl of gruel. Jos'e Maria Lutande, a thin man lining up for a meal, tells a typical story. Mr. Lutande walked to the mission from his village 16 miles away. ``We are all suffering from njala [hunger],'' he whispers. ``Some, who are strong enough, walk to try and find food. Others are climbing trees to get fruit. Sometimes they fall from the trees and break their arms, but there is no hospital where I come from.''
According to latest figures issued by the United Nations, 96,000 Angolans are in critical condition, and another 685,000 are ``at risk.'' The drought in this country's southern provinces is in its fourth year.
Nongovernmental agencies believe these figures are conservative. ``What we are seeing now is the tip of the iceberg,'' says Paul Sitnam, field officer for Care Canada in Lubango.
``You find people who are victims of the drought and dislocados [people displaced by war] converging in the same areas,'' adds Mr. Sitnam. ``It is becoming harder and harder to distinguish between them.''
Below-average rainfall through the rainy season, which ended in April, caused crops to shrivel in the ground, the Canadian representative says.
The war fought between the Marxist government and rebels of the United States-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) complicates the displaced problem and increases hunger.
In response to government attacks near its southeast Jamba headquarters, UNITA has stepped up attacks in the southwest. Almost every village around the Caluquembe district has suffered an attack, says Canadian doctor Stephen Foster, who worked on a nearby mission.
``Rebels have burned out almost any food supplies the peasants had managed to eke out,'' Dr. Foster notes.
A peasant farmer gathered here at the Munhino mission, Luis Nambere, describes how he had originally come to live in this neighborhood after UNITA bombed his village in Caconda, 170 miles away.
Leaning precariously on a crutch (he was shot in the leg during the attack), Mr. Nambere tells of his fruitless efforts to try to grow crops on land allocated to him when he came here three years ago.
``I am not able to work properly,'' he says. ``Aside from that, there has been no rain.''
International food aid has not been forthcoming either. At a conference in Luanda last September, donors pledged only $10 million out of the $270 million in emergency assistance requested by the Angolan government.
Part of the blame rests with the government. Instead of focusing on the drought, donors say, the appeal turned out to be a shopping list of needs, including logistics for repatriating Angolan refugees from Zaire at a time when Angola is still clearly in a state of unrest.
Apart from the general suspicion donors have in regard to any statistics the government presents, there is the perception, as one source puts it, ``that the country is relatively well off. With $2 billion in oil money each year, it is hard to believe that Angola can't find enough to feed its people.''
But in spite of the country's more open attitude to the Western press recently, and efforts to spruce up its image in the US, Angola does not enjoy the same sympathy as Mozambique, its sister lusophone country suffering from similar problems. (Portugal had colonial control of Angola and Mozambique from late in the 19th century and ruled Angola until 1975.)
One donor official describes the problem: ``Angola is still seen as one of Africa's most hard-line governments.''
Some obstacles to providing aid to the country's internal refugees are being overcome. A scaled-down request, put to donors via the UN secretary-general in May, asked only for 100,000 tons of food and help with logistics. The UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi has called for the creation of a corridor to move food aid to noncombatants.
Most recently, Walter McLean, the Canadian special representative for Southern Africa, accompanied 12 trucks carrying 360 tons of food from Zimbabwe to Lubango by road through the Caprivi strip - a route only recently made practical by the departure of South African forces from southern Angola.
The idea, Mr. McLean said, is to show other donors that grain can be purchased in Zimbabwe (which has food surpluses) and taken to the most severely hit areas of Angola relatively cheaply and efficiently.