Monday, October 5, 2009

The problem of famine and starvation in Zimbabwe is tied to more than climate and drought. It is a deeper problem, like a cancer with many tentacles. The wholesale and illegal government seizure of producing private and commercial farms, the wasting of tons of mangoes and other food crops in the face of 5.1 million people dependent on food aid for survival, and the torture and beating of farm owners who lodge complaints is a phenomenon that is hard to grasp.

Famine in Zimbabwe and Zambia is also tied inexorably to the AIDS epidemic. Most people affected by HIV and AIDS depend on agriculture. AIDS has killed around 7 million agricultural workers in the last 20 years. Production deficits, high staple food prices, the runaway inflation rates leading to the collapse of the Zim dollar all have worked together to further impoverish a nation. Villagers who run out of the food they've grown themselves will sell their only remaining chickens, goats and cows to buy grain, and when that supply runs out, they begin to starve.

Starvation can lead people to do the most atrocious things. The stripping of assets and abuse of widows, the exploitation and neglect -- even trafficking -- of young children are made even more commonplace in a world where hunger is the strongest motivator.

This AIDS-related famine, dubbed a "new variant famine" in the book Silent Hunger: Policy Options for Effective Responses to the Impact of HIV and AIDS on Agriculture and Food Security in the SADC Region (South African Development Community)is necessitating new approaches to education and the prioritizing of social protection.

"The paradox is that while the traditional drought-related famines kill dependents first (children and elderly) the HIV-related 'silent hunger' affects the most 'productive' family members first."

This is what you see when you go to Zimbabwe: old people in the high-density districts who are forgotten by society, old people in the villages who have taken on several orphans, and the children -- scores of children, many of whom are hungry, destitute, shoeless, wearing the clothes left by foreign missionaries, some of whom have become, out of necessity, heads of households of other orphans, left to fend for themselves by the untimely deaths of their parents.

Those who could work the fields are struggling to care for the sick and dying at home. The women, who do most of the farming and manual labor of every description, are facing a life expectancy of 34 -- and the men (life expectancy in Zimbabwe of only 37) are leaving in masses to find employment in neighboring countries of Botswana, Zambia and South Africa. Gender inequality, poverty, and traditional roles and customs that tend to subjugate women all contribute to the spread of the disease, and so continues the cycle of desperation.

Something must change in Zimbabwe. It must start with the young. The lowest mortality rate is among those aged 5 (who have survived the perils of early childhood) to 22, at which point their mortality rates rise as they naturally become sexually active, start families, look for work, and enter the inexorable cycle related to hunger, AIDS and the breakdown of any moral filter that accompanies fear and despair. It is the young, the emerging adults, who are the only hope for change in Zimbabwe, the only light for a dying generation.

From "Southern African Humanitarian Situation" by World Health Organization

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