VICTORIA FALLS – Thousands of villagers in rural Hwange and Victoria Falls are facing serious hunger after low rainfall left them with little or no yields in the last season.
Vast farmlands are parched, unable to grow any crops and livestock is skinny.
Matabeleland North generally receives very low rainfall, but villagers have failed to diversify from the traditional maize to drought resistant crops.
Most of the maize they grew in the last season was destroyed by wild animals leaving them in a dire situation, mainly relying on buying maize meal from neighbouring Zambia where a 15kg bag sells for $25. Most cannot afford because of the high levels of poverty in the area.
Matabeleland North has the highest poverty rate in Zimbabwe, with 70% of its residents classified as poor or extremely poor.
The rising unemployment levels and consequent male migration away from rural areas has left most households headed by women in rural areas and they are nearly always the hardest hit by poverty.
Hunger always stalks female-headed households first in these communities.
Villagers are starving prompting traditional leaders to appeal to the government to intervene before the situation becomes a catastrophe.
The soil in Victoria Falls and Hwange is sandy and not suitable for the maize crop.
The situation is, however, made worse by the fact that Victoria Falls is located just adjacent to the Hwange National Park where elephants roam freely destroying crops. Year after year, villagers from these areas have to rely on food handouts or sell their skinny livestock to buy food.
Some even go to the extent of barter trading, exchanging their livestock for maize to feed their families.
Faced with such a situation and leading a starving community, the traditional leaders have sent an SOS to the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to help ease the hunger which has taken its toll on their subjects.
Chief Mvutu, whose jurisdiction is Victoria Falls, confirmed on Wednesday that his subjects were facing starvation.
“Hunger is written on our faces. Our people have nothing to eat. They need food assistance and we appeal to the government to help.
“They can even bring maize and sell it to the villagers. The situation is now getting out of hand,” Mvutu said.
“We did not manage to harvest anything in the last season due to poor rains and our crops were destroyed by wild animals, especially elephants. These huge animals are a menace. Even if authorities kill them in numbers, that doesn’t change anything because they are just too many.”
Mvutu conceded that villagers should focus on growing small grains which mature faster with little rains.
“That’s the way to go if we are to avert starvation.
“There is an NGO operating in my area which is promoting the growing of small grains by giving seed to villagers. We hope our people will embrace that because maize doesn’t do well here because of the soils and erratic rains,” he said.
Mvutu also blamed the low rainfall patterns to the degeneration of cultural values.
“We used to have rainmaking ceremonies asking God to provide adequate rains, but our people have since discarded the practices. This has contributed in a big way to the current situation where rains are scarce,” Mvutu said.
“We also have women applying a lot of cosmetics on their bodies and that angers the ancestors.”
Chief Shana of Hwange in Jambezi area also concurred with his counterpart that people were starving.
“People don’t have anything.
“Right now they are living on handouts. I have encouraged them to share the little they have so that people don’t die of hunger,” Shana said.
“We always suffer double blows because after receiving little rains, wild animals also destroy our crops well before harvest time. We usually harvest our crops in May, but before that time arrives, all the crops would have been destroyed by wild animals.”
Shana, however, said people from his area would start receiving maize from the government this week.
“I have been advised that trucks are coming with maize to feed the villagers. At least that will help ease the problem,” he said.
The United Nations food agency, World Food Programme said about 2,2 million people need food aid in Zimbabwe as the food crisis looms.
The country has currently imported about 150 000 tonnes of maize from Zambia which has a huge surplus of carry-over stocks from last year, to feed the starving rural population.