Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hungry Bulawayans Scavenge for Food

As aid agencies complain of continuing restrictions, desperate families live on maize dropped from passing state delivery trucks.
By Joseph Nhlanhla
Dawn breaks in Bulawayo. A trail of squatting silhouettes can be seen lining a stretch of the road that runs through a poor township. Men and women scramble to pick up barely visible grains of maize and toss them into pots, buckets – all sorts of containers.

The people scavenging along the road are not bothered by the flashing lights of oncoming traffic. They carry on, knowing that their lives depend on what little food they can salvage.

They have come out to gather the grains dropped by huge haulage trucks on their way to delivering maize to state depots. The huge vehicles regularly pass through Bulawayo’s impoverished neighbourhoods on their way to the local Grain Marketing Board, GMB, silos.

The silos are the largest in the country, and outside the perimeter fence of the depot, children can be found in the daylight hours picking up grain from the tarmac.

It is this scavenging that has come to feed whole families at a time when humanitarian agencies say more than a third of the population needs food assistance.

That number is believed to be growing by the day. Despite the claim by Zimbabwean authorities that they have lifted the ban on aid agencies, which was imposed in June this year, frontline workers say activists of the ruling ZANU-PF are refusing them permission to carry out their work.

In the poor working-class townships in western Bulawayo, which lies in Matabeleland, some 440 kilometres south-west of Harare, the haulage trucks now offer a lifeline. The grains they shed provide many here a chance to feed their families on maize meal, the country’s staple diet.

This week, Fortunate Chuma, a housewife and mother of three, heard the truck pass by her home in the early hours of the morning and was one of many residents who rushed to fill buckets with the precious grain.

“I don’t care what people think or say,” she said, holding a traditional broom which she uses to sweep up the grain. “Everybody is starving and we cannot afford to buy maize.”

Other men and women who had come out to collect the maize grain nodded; they have made sure they master the trucks’ timetables.

Urban residents in Zimbabwe continue to suffer the economic hardships and food shortages which have blighted the country in recent months, and which were previously thought to be confined to rural communities.

For many here, the high prices of basic commodities – which are mainly sold on the black market for foreign currency – has meant whole families face a silent famine.

A 20-litre bucket of maize is sold for the equivalent of around 20 US dollars, an amount Chuma and many others say is beyond their reach.

“Where are we supposed to get that kind of money?” asked Chuma, who sells vegetables outside a local beer garden.

Even though her husband is in formal employment, his salary is barely enough to feed the family.

For Kurai Sibanda, who said he was pensioned off last year after having worked all his life as a driver, times have been particularly hard.

He had to return to work this year because he could not survive on his pension.

Though he has to go for days without maize meal, and his diet had been reduced to boiled green vegetables and little else, Sibanda said at least he has a job.

“My pantry is empty. I have no cooking oil, no maize meal. Nothing,” Sibanda told IWPR.

“I don’t think this is how people should live,” said a local authority councillor representing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

“People have lost their dignity and they don’t know what to do any more, even though they voted for a party they thought would bring them much needed relief from years of economic mismanagement.”

In March parliamentary elections, the MDC won 99 of the seats, while ZANU-PF won 97, according to official results.

A few years ago, Tsvangirai provoked the ire of the authorities when he said President Robert Mugabe’s regime had reduced the people to scavengers.

However, the sight of desperate locals picking maize grain from along the roadsides would appear to vindicate him.

The food shortages stalking the country have been particularly felt by old people who, alongside orphans and people living with HIV/AIDS, form one of the most vulnerable groups.

Social and health workers in the city say they are witnessing an increase in the number of people who complain of ailments they attribute to the hardships they are having to endure.

“A lot of people are depressed and they tell you it is because of the tough times they are going through. But what therapy can you give amid such circumstances?” asked Filbert Buzwani, a social worker with a faith-based organisation in Bulawayo.

“We are getting so many cases where people come expecting that we might help with securing food for them, and the desperation in their faces is heart-rending.”

As talks between the country’s political parties drag on, analysts and critics have called on negotiators to put the poor people first.

According to the latest reports, Zimbabwe's ruling and opposition leaders have said they are making progress in a new round of power-sharing talks. The negotiations, which began in July, have previously stalled because of a failure to agree on who should get the most power.

In a recent newspaper contribution, Zimbabwe’s former education minister, the respected Fay Chung, wrote that any agreement should ensure that there are enough “seeds, especially for maize, which is the staple food”, calling this “an absolute priority”.

However, for many people like Chuma, it is the roaring haulage truck that drops maize grain by the roadside – and not the talks – that remains their only hope for a meal.

Joseph Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of an IWPR reporter in Bulawayo.

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