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Issue Date:  December 7, 2007

-- Getty Images/AFP/Alexander Joe

On April 2, a Zimbabwean child eats at the Masarira primary school, where about 30 children receive a daily ration of beans and starch-based cereals during their mid-morning break.
Malnutrition claiming lives in rural Zimbabwe

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Aid agencies working in rural Matebeleland in the arid southern parts of Zimbabwe report a growing number of malnutrition-related deaths as the nation battles acute food shortages.

The Catholic Development Commission, which runs feeding schemes in the region together with other faith-based and secular agencies, says it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide for families as demand for aid keeps growing.

“What is happening here is unbearable,” an official working in Matopo, a dusty rural outpost southwest of Bulawayo, told NCR.

“We are seeing a lot of funerals with village elders complaining this is the only thing they do: bury young folks throughout the week,” the Catholic aid official said.

Aid workers say that because rural communities are out of the way and out of the spotlight, their cases go unnoticed at a time the Zimbabwean authorities insist there are no food shortages or malnutrition-related deaths.

Government officials dismiss such reports, saying the claims are made by political rivals bent on discrediting President Robert Mugabe who is running for re-election next year. Mugabe is a former independence fighter who has ruled as president since 1980.

But Elizabeth Hadebe, an official with the Bulawayo archdiocese’s health commission, insists that “people are dying in the rural areas of malnutrition and these cases mean there is widespread hunger.”

The government denials make it more difficult to address the plight of rural communities, Hadebe said.

(The March 31, 2006, issue of NCR had a report that examined how Zimbabwe lost its title as “breadbasket for southern Africa” and became a hungry importer of food.)

The Catholic church is one of many faith-based organizations that have stepped in to provide critical resources in rural areas as services in public health care institutions continue deteriorating in a country once celebrated as a model of excellence in Africa’s health provision.

The agencies aim to work in partnership with government health care providers, but officials say this partnership is becoming increasingly difficult as government support of local health care infrastructure diminishes amid the prolonged economic crisis.

For example, Hadebe said her agency has sourced antiretroviral drugs from overseas donors to care for people living with HIV, and the government is expected to provide other medicines and supporting staff.

But experienced health care workers are among the thousands of Zimbabweans leaving the country every week to seek employment overseas, where they can earn more money. Thus, the government can’t staff its own clinics and hospitals.

In the absence of skilled personnel, Catholic health care institutions have invited missionary doctors and nurses to work in remote rural missions, but the challenge remains lack of access to food and medicines for patients and the general population.

The aid worker in Matopo said quite plainly: “Lack of access to food has meant many die due to hunger when they are already living with the [AIDS] virus.”

“This is one of our biggest challenges as we struggle to provide services to these communities during these trying times,” Hadebe said. It is also leading to donor fatigue, as aid and development agencies see no end in sight for Zimbabwe’s troubles.

In the spring, Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops’ conference issued a pastoral letter, “God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed,” that said the country has been in economic meltdown for more than two years. An unemployment rate of 80 percent and an inflation rate of more than 1,700 percent have “made the life of ordinary Zimbabweans unbearable,” the bishops said.

The writer’s name is being withheld because of the dangers of reporting in Zimbabwe.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007

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