THOUSANDS of Bulawayo residents are at serious risk of hunger after years of an economic meltdown coupled with poor rainfall and mismanagement of water resources that have left dam supplies empty, resulting in large-scale factory closures and job losses.
Senior citizens are the worst affected with some residing at the outskirts of the city now surviving on wild fruits.
So dire is the situation that residents of St Peter’s next to Pumula high-density suburb yesterday held a mini-church service to pray for urgent food aid to avert hunger-related deaths.
St Peter’s, Robert Sinyoka, Trenance, Killarney and Methodist are some of the worst affected urban settlements where residents revealed they only have a plate of isitshwala/sadza once a week after begging for maize meal.
During other days, residents said they spend nights on wild fruits such as ubhuzu, uxakuxaku and a cup of tea for those fortunate enough to have sugar.
“My five grandchildren and I had a cup of porridge each last night,” Evelyn Mathe of St Peter’s told Southern Eye yesterday.
“We bought mealie-meal (with money) from selling firewood which we fetch from nearby bushes.
“We go for days without eating isitshwala as we will be scared of going to the bushes lest we get arrested by council rangers,” Mathe added.
Lizzi Mlalazi, born in 1928, echoed Mathe’s sentiments saying they survive by the grace of God.
“I pray my son. I just pray. It’s only by the grace of God that I am still alive.
“I haven’t eaten anything since last night,” Mlalazi of Methodist peri-urban area indicated.
A recent report by the United Nations World Food Programme estimates that 2, 2 million Zimbabweans would face food shortages owing to last year’s poor harvest.
To avert hunger-related deaths, the government began importing maize from Zambia to feed people in drought-hit areas.
A few weeks ago, Zimbabwe took delivery of over 3 000 metric tonnes of maize from Zambia for distribution in the southern parts of the country.
The maize was part of the 1,5 million tonnes expected from Zambia under an agreement signed early this year by President Robert Mugabe and his Zambian counterpart Michael Sata.
However, for residents of St Peters the maize distribution to hunger-stricken areas is only taking place in the media.
Lawrence Tshuma, secretary of the St Peter’s residents’ association, said the government has neglected them.
“We are also Zimbabweans and we need food aid like others who have received that food assistance,” he said.
Tshuma blamed hunger on the increasing urban population that has resulted in new stands being carved out from their once big farming area.
“We could survive on farming, but now we can’t. We have been left with small pieces of land after a lot of new people came to this area and were allocated housing stands on our farms,” he added.
Bulawayo South MP Thabitha Khumalo blamed hunger stalking Killarney in her constituency to the collapse of Bulawayo industries saying a lot of people have been left with no means to buy food.
“The situation is dire in Killarney. Hunger is created by lack of employment,” Khumalo said.
“It is the responsibility of the government to provide food to residents of Killarney and other areas of the city.
“Food is a constitutional right and the government can guarantee people have food by creating jobs in Bulawayo.
“The only way to create jobs is through enticing investors locally, regionally and internationally,” she said.
Close to 100 Bulawayo companies closed shop in recent years leaving thousands of people jobless and failing to make ends meet.
A government industry revival fund, the Distressed Industries and Marginalised Areas Fund (Dimaf), failed to rescue the situation as companies in the city continue downsizing or shutting down altogether.
Pumula MP Albert Mhlanga, whose constituency is surrounded by three peri-urban areas, blamed the government for the dire food situation facing his constituency saying despite limited means, he was launching a food assistance programme targeting the aged.
“It’s all the government’s fault,” Mhlanga said.
“The government knows about the food situation; it talks about the food situation but is not doing anything to save people from dying of hunger. This is the reason why I saw it fit to assist the aged with a bag of mealie-meal every month in my constituency, especially in peri-urban areas.
“In St Peter’s alone, I am assisting close to 50 people with food aid,” Mhlanga said after donating bags of mealie-meal, cooking oil and sugar to the elderly in the area.
Rodrick Fayayo, the co-ordinator of the Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association (BPRA), said it was irresponsible for the government to neglect residents in the cities by only distributing food aid in rural areas.
Fayayo said a survey by BPRA revealed that one in five families in the city faces dire food shortages, largely due to the collapse of the city’s industries and the HIV and Aids scourge which has left many households child-headed.
“There is a relationship between the levels of hunger and unemployment, the HIV and Aids scourge which has left many households child-headed and the huge number of elderly people with no one to take care of them,” Fayayo said.
“A government that is concerned about the survival and livelihoods of its people will not segregate people based on whether they live in town or urban areas.
“Hunger is hunger. A paradigm shift where the government deliberately comes up with measures to deal with urban poverty is needed,” Fayayo added.
According to the 2012 Agriculture ministry final crop assessment report, 45% of the 1 689 786 hectares of maize was a write-off in the 2012-2013 summer cropping season.