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

Villagers Gain Little From Food Initiative

Residents of remote village say measures taken by authorities to feed poor Zimbabweans are having negligible impact.
By Yamikani Mwando
Residents of a Zimbabwean village close to the Botswana border say that a government programme to provide basic commodities for low prices has not improved their access to food.

The authorities say they have put measures in place in response to a growing food crisis in the country by providing low-cost hampers. However, few in the village of Tshitshi have seen evidence of this, and some even accuse war veterans aligned with the ruling ZANU-PF party of blocking food distribution to opposition supporters.

Galloping inflation in Zimbabwe has caused prices of food staples to soar throughout the country, and rural communities are bearing the brunt of worsening food shortages.

The situation has been exacerbated since June, when the government banned aid agencies from distributing food in the country, and access to food remains particularly difficult for the majority in remote parts of the country.

In response to this, the central bank initiated a programme – the Basic Commodities Supply Side Intervention, BACOSSI – to supply families with food hampers at low prices, as part of what ZANU-PF says are efforts to cushion poor people from the ravages of profiteering retailers.

Under the programme, the food hampers – containing, among other things, maize meal, cooking oil, bath soap and flour – are sold for 11 Zimbabwe dollars, ZWD (formerly 110 billion ZWD before the removal of ten zeroes from the currency earlier this month), an amount not normally enough to buy a banana.

Yet in Tshitshi, which lies more than 150 kilometres southwest of Bulawayo, villagers say they have yet to benefit from the initiative.

Some say they have seen no sign of the hampers, while others accuse the war veterans and traditional chiefs who support the authorities of preventing opposition party supporters from taking advantage of the programme.

“We are yet to see the food packs,” local man Thomson Moyo told IWPR.

Tshitshi are very anxious about food provision, particularly after a long, dry spell left behind arid plains. The village shares a frontier with neighbouring country Botswana and those who can, like Moyo, obtain supplies from across the border.

Pointing across the Ramakgobana River that divides the countries, he said at least twice a month he crosses the shallow waters, before walking for two kilometres into Botswana to buy food for his family.

“This is how we live. I sell goats, cows and chickens in foreign currency to people from the city and that enables me to buy what I need in Botswana,” he said.

He is one of many here who have given up hope of a better life.

Cut off from the rest of the country, the villagers of Tshitshi have little information as to what is happening farther north. The Zimbabwe broadcasters’ signals do not reach this remote land, where many people don’t own radios or television sets. The only radio programmes the villages are able to pick up are from Botswana.

Many Zimbabweans have now fled to the neighbouring country, where they take up menial jobs and tolerate what they say are the xenophobic attitudes of locals.

“No one wants to stay here. The girls have disappeared to Botswana, and young men have left for South Africa,” said Moyo.

Another villager, Mike Dumezweni, was spurred into political activism by the tough life in this outback region. But this has come at a price. He said he has been hounded out of the community by war veterans more times than he can remember, yet he keeps coming back.

Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Dumezweni told IWPR that he crosses into neighbouring Botswana whenever he feels under threat.

The last time he fled was during the run-up to Zimbabwe's presidential, parliamentary and local elections held on March 29.

“It’s a tough life living under these conditions. The war veterans decide everything. The only time I saw BACOSSI food packs, the war veterans made sure that known MDC supporters did not access them,” said Dumezweni.

“The police fear these men and do not protect us.”

Dumezweni is one of many young men here who have resorted to wheeling and dealing for a living. He buys foreign currency at very cheap rates from those villagers who receive remittances from their children who have crossed to Botswana and South Africa.

He then cycles more than 70 km into the south-western town of Plumtree, where he sells the foreign exchange at much higher rates.

From these earnings, he is one of a few young men in this poor rural area who can afford to buy products like alcohol, considered a luxury even by those Zimbabweans in regular employment.

Amid the palpable hunger and poverty that haunts the village, a few young men who have managed to make money in South Africa and Botswana have even built large houses.

Moyo said that these families are unwilling to help their needy neighbours.

“They have all they need,” he told IWPR. “But the poverty we are living in has taken away the spirit of sharing – these people are unwilling to part with their foreign basic commodities.

“But we are thankful that those [friends and family] who have left for neighbouring countries are feeding us.”

Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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