The child’s name is Godknows, and his mother smiles softly when she explains the choice: Only God knows whether he will live or die.
“I’m leaving everything in God’s hands because the child is always ill,” she whispers.
Godknows is 2 but looks like a frail 6-month-old, wrists and ankles like twigs, dark hollows under his solemn eyes, sores on his face. He flops in his mother’s arms like an exhausted old man, a victim of Zimbabwe’s silent hunger crisis.
The twin miseries of crop failure and economic collapse have left Zimbabwe’s villages without food. Millions survive on nothing but wild fruit, and many have died.
There are no official statistics. But ask people here in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South province whether they know anyone who died of hunger recently, and the answer is nearly always yes. Sometimes it’s four or six people in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes they just say “plenty.”
“Children are dying out in the bush,” one foreign doctor says, on condition of anonymity. “We are all guarded. We have to keep quiet or else we’ll be kicked out” by the government.
The crisis has been exacerbated by President Robert Mugabe’s decision in June to suspend humanitarian aid during the run-up to his one-man presidential runoff. The long-ruling Mugabe, stunned when he won fewer votes than opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round in March, accused aid agencies of supporting the opposition and didn’t lift the ban until August. Critics say the regime, which has a history of denying food to opposition areas, was using hunger as a political tool to force people to vote for Mugabe.
In past years, groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Zimbabwean rights group Solidarity Peace Trust have reported that the Grain Marketing Board, the state monopoly responsible for distribution of maize, the nation’s staple, has routinely denied food to opposition supporters. But this year, there is virtually no grain from the board -- and in many areas, no humanitarian aid either.
“The food always ends up in the hands of ZANU-PF,” says villager Solomon Nsinga, 66, referring to Mugabe’s ruling party. “The guys in charge of distribution are ZANU-PF. This is where the problem is. ZANU-PF gets it first.”
(The locations of the Matabeleland South villages have not been disclosed, to protect the identities of villagers, who fear repercussions for speaking out.)
Nsinga says he’s lost count of how many people have died in his village.
“There are plenty of people who have died this year. Plenty people,” he says. “They are dying a lot more than usual. This is not normal.
“I feel angry, sad.” He sighs and pauses. “I don’t know what to feel.”
With the hunger crisis in the rural areas and a cholera epidemic raging in urban areas, former President Carter, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graca Machel, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, tried to visit Zimbabwe a week and a half ago to report on the humanitarian situation. But they were denied visas by Mugabe’s regime.
Nearly 5 million people desperately need food aid, but the hunger is expected to worsen. The World Food Program said recently that there were no funds for food distribution in the months of most severe hunger, January and February, because of a lack of donations. With a funding shortfall of $140 million, the U.N. agency already has cut rations in the food aid being distributed now.
One agency, CARE, reached only half its 500,000 intended aid recipients last month, citing bureaucratic hurdles and the paralysis of Zimbabwe’s currency and banking system.
McDonald Lewanika of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition says U.N. reports don’t reflect the scale of the crisis.
“People have been reduced to hunters and gatherers who have to look for wild food to survive,” he says.
He recently traveled to Wedza, a town only 60 miles from the capital, Harare. “You see people fighting with each other and even with wild animals like wart hogs just to take some food back to their children,” he says.
In the village where Godknows lives, six people died of hunger in October.
“Three were children aged about 8 or 10. The others were aged about 60. They were just buried in the village. They were living on wild berries. There was no food, other than wild fruits,” says Godknows’ mother, Phumuzile Moyo, 21. Her village has had one food handout, from World Vision, but only the most vulnerable people were helped, about a third of the population of 50.
Moyo got a food handout, but her son, who is HIV-positive, was already so frail that he continued to go downhill. She took him to a clinic, where he is getting treatment.
People search for scraps in garbage dumps, working shoulder-to-shoulder with baboons. Young men throng frantically at the entrances of dumps, dashing up to trash-laden pickup trucks, tearing bags down from their loads and ripping them open.
Everyone has a desperate story, even people seen as “privileged,” like soldiers.
An army lance corporal, hitchhiking on the road to Binga, in western Zimbabwe, says his monthly pay, which is the equivalent of less than 50 cents at the black-market rate, buys virtually nothing. His parents have no food, and he can’t help them.
“I went to see my parents, and they said their son doesn’t love them anymore. When I got there, they were just sitting there with nothing. They said, ‘What have you brought us?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ It was very painful. I feel sad!” he says, but the words come out sounding angry.
In a Matabeleland South clinic, a woman with a scarf on her head watches over her malnourished granddaughter. The child’s limbs are swollen; she wears a lacy blue and white party dress meant for happier times.
The woman, Dorothy Mkwananzi, 66, stares blankly into the distance as she murmurs in numb despair.
“We don’t know how things are going to end,” she says. “We just feel helpless. We can’t even help ourselves. I think this hunger will just go on and on. No matter how we feel, there’s nothing we can do. We’re only human beings.”
When the food aid does not come, people get desperate. Everyone watches the wild fruit trees, so as to be there first when the fruit is ripe enough to eat.
People in Simo Mpofu’s village waited and waited, but no food trucks came.
“A lot of people have died in our village due to hunger,” she says. “A lot of people are sick because of hunger. It’s worse than I’ve ever seen.”
Mpofu relates the story of one woman in her village, with three children to feed, who faced a terrible choice early in November.
Unable to find any food for days on end, the woman went into the bush and carefully selected the fruit she knew to be poisonous. Then she took the fruit home, cooked it and fed it to her children and herself.
The four were buried together. Everyone in the village went to the funeral. Then they went out to watch the wild fruit trees, waiting for the fruit to ripen.