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Perspective: Food for thought; In the first of a series of reports from Zambia Caroline Foulkes reveals how the famine there seems to have been forgotten but is far from gone.

Byline: Caroline Foulkes

I t's no longer a question of why or when. It's a question of how many. How many people will go hungry in Zambia today? How many will survive if no harvest is gathered there this year? And how many more of its children will be orphans before Christmas is out?

Famine and AIDS, the 'ugly sisters' that haunt this Cinderella state, have sunk their teeth in deep and refuse to let go. The result is a once beautiful country, battered, bruised but unbowed, standing on the edge of a humanitarian crisis.

Zambia is one of the world's poorest countries, saddled with huge debts and surviving on international assistance: over 50 per cent of the national budget comes from foreign aid. Tourism, already a fragile business, has fallen off as the Victoria Falls have slowed to a trickle. Following the decline in copper prices, the country's main industry has faltered. Agriculture now provides the main source of income for 85 per cent of the population. Yet many farmers barely produce enough to feed their own families.

'During the 60s-80s, the prevailing attitude in the villages was that people in the towns had it tough because they had to spend money to feed themselves, whereas in the villages they could grow their own food,' says Sikapale Chinzewe, deputy national director of World Vision Zambia.

'Now, with the drought, that situation has changed.'

Like much of Southern Africa, Zambia has suffered from the effects of drought on and off throughout the 80s and 90s. Twenty years ago, we all knew about famine in Ethiopia, in Somalia, in Malawi. We watched in horror. We saw pictures of children dying. We gave money. Then, after a while, we forgot about it. But famine doesn't stop just because we don't pay attention. It festers.

Because of internal disagreements and corruption allegations which have plagued the Zambian government on and off since the multi-party elections in 1991, agricultural policy has been pushed to the periphery of politics. Because of the decline in industry, leading to an 80 per cent unemployment rate, the Zambian middle class has almost disappeared. Because Zambia has always been, compared to its neighbours, relatively peaceful, it has seen an influx of refugees, from Angola, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, seeking peace and relief from famine. The 2001 drought, the failure of this year's crops, and the lack of rain at what is supposed to be the height of the wet season have led to a situation where there is simply not enough food to go round. But this time it isn't just people in the villages who are suffering.

'If you lose your job, you don't necessarily go home, back to your village,' says Sikapale.

'You get a smaller flat, a room, and you stay on in town, trying to make a living. There has been an outcry from MPs that food relief is needed in urban areas, too. Malnutrition among adults there has grown rapidly.'

For the first time, aid agencies like World Vision face the very real prospect of having to launch feeding programmes in cities, something previously unheard of. And because there is little space to grow food in these places, projects aimed at helping people to feed themselves, like seed handouts and agroforestry, which is designed to improve the quality of the soil, are rendered useless. Food is the only answer, but World Vision's hands are tied by government legislation.

In October this year, Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana said that they had decided to turn down thousands of tonnes of US donated GM grain due to fears that it could enter the food chain.

'In view of the current scientific uncertainty surrounding the issue. . . the government. . . has decided not to accept GM foods on the precautionary principle,' he said.

'The country should refrain from actions that might adversely affect human and animal health as well as harm the environment.'

'The government have rejected GM foods so there's no point in us even going on about it,' says World Vision Zambia's national director Martin Silutongwe.

'Our policy is to go by what the recipient government say. We can propose things to them, but we can't pressure them. There's mixed feeling on the ground. Many think the government's rejection of GM food is wrong. But there are others who say should we die of hunger or eat this GM food which may kill us anyway?'

Sikapale Chinzewe adds that some people feel there may be an ulterior motive to GM donations, one which puts Zambia in a difficult position.

'It seems as if America is giving us something it doesn't want itself, while Europe says that if we accept this GM food we won't be able to trade with them. And while the US is saying 'take it' and Europe is saying 'don't', there are people dying.'

It isn't necessarily starvation that will kill these people, though. It is the kind of opportunistic diseases that accompany famine, hanging on its coat tails and then pouncing on the weakest when they have the chance.

And because of AIDS, there are many more helpless, sickly people in Zambia. Around 90 per cent of the population is considered to be sexually active. Around 20 per cent of the population have AIDS.

Many of those who contract AIDS return home to their villages to be nursed by their parents. Too weak to work in the fields, the strain the victim and their children can place on a household already suffering from malnutrition may further jeopardise their food source, as relatives also become too feeble to toil the long hours required to farm this dusty land. Once the victim dies, elderly grandparents are left to care for young grandchildren, and these two most vulnerable groups have to work the land alone; the grandparents unable to rest after years of work, the children unable to go to school and forge a better life for their families.

'This is why we need to employ both short term and long term strategies,' says Martin.

'Supplementary feeding programmes can help people to help themselves by giving them the strength they need to go and work in the fields, planting the seeds we have given them.'

At the same time, World Vision Zambia is focusing on trying to combat the rise of AIDS, which is slowly killing off an entire generation of workers, parents, people - the average life expectancy in Zambia is just 30 years. One of the main problem is that many women, lacking education and skills, are forced to prostitute themselves in order to feed their families. And they can earn more if they have unprotected sex.

'People are aware of the number of cases of HIV and AIDS. But that has not translated into behaviour change,' says Martin.

'I was in Livingstone a few months ago, talking to a group of sex workers, and there was a lady there who had a child of 19. I asked her why she was involved in all this, didn't her children feel ashamed, didn't she feel ashamed. She said 'what else can I do? I've got no husband and three children to look after. They have to go to school.' It made me feel very sad.'

Things are starting to change, though, slowly, through education and awareness programmes like the Cross Border Initiative, which involves outreach workers talking directly to prostitutes and their clients.

'Two years ago there was a big stigma and a lot of embarrassment about talking about these issues,' says Martin.

'But people are slowly facing up to the fact that this is a serious situation.' Amid all of this, though, amid the hunger and the illness and the lack of water, amid AIDS and poverty and poor harvests, there is a strange kind of hope.

There's no sense of these people feeling sorry for themselves. No bewailing their fate. They know what they can expect, and they have accepted it, unquestioning. What will be, will be, but they still have hope, and hope ranks higher than sorrow.

'It's the African way,' says Sikapale. 'We always have hope. Until our bones are rotting on the earth, we will have hope.'

Fact file

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set the disability-adjusted life expectancy for Zambia at 30.8 years - one of the lowest in the world.

Around 20 percent of the total population of Zambia have AIDS. The level is much higher in border towns like Chirundu where sex workers are numerous. One in four adults in cities is living with AIDsBetween 650,000 - 700,000 children have been orphaned in Zambia as a result of AIDS related deathsOnly 70 per cent of urban dwellers and 28 per cent of those living in rural areas have access to clean drinking water.

More than 51,000 children in Zambia are sponsored by World Vision sponsors.


There is still hope in spite of the hunger and hardship Zambian children face
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:6ZAMB
Date:Dec 16, 2002
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