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Perspective: Without rain, we will all die; Chivuna province is the sweetest place in the whole of Zambia. But the sweetness is beginning to turn sour as the sugar beet crops on which the area's economy depends fail due to lack of rain. Caroline Foulkes reports.

Byline: Caroline Foulkes

By now, if the rains have not fallen, Choonya Fabian Chinimba and his family will have been without food for 19 days.

If they have been lucky, a neighbour may have been generous and given them a share of their own meagre food stocks. But a little doesn't go far, not among a family of 27. Even if they kill one of the few skinny goats they have left and mix it with the maize meal, to make the food go further, it will not last long.

In a good year, Choonya's farm could flourish. He could grow maize and cowpeas and sugar. If his crop were successful, he would not only have enough to feed his family, but there might also be a little over, which they could sell to make a profit. He had 300 cows. He now has just 25. As he waves his skinny, wrinkled arms to proudly indicate the extent of his lands, the old, silver-coloured watch on his left wrist rattles loosely. It is already fastened as tight as it will go.

Choonya has worked the land around Chintibule village, in the Nkonkola area of Zambia since 1951. He has seen bad times before, but never like this.

'Now 1995, that was bad,' he says, reclining in a faded, flowerpatterned armchair beneath the shade of a tree as scrawny chickens run themselves ragged in the heat, scratching the dry ground in vain for a peck of grain.

'But this is worse, because the time for planting has gone. It is late now. If the rains don't come, we will die.'

His face registers little emotion as he says it. At 80-years-old he speaks of what he knows to be a certainty rather than a possibility. At this time of year, it should be raining, heavily, consistently, at least three times a week all across Zambia. But the rainy season this year exists in name alone.

Even if rain were to fall it could not make up for what has been lacking until now. Even if it were to rain from now until Christmas Day it wouldn't make a difference. It would simply dampen the surface of the cracked, parched ground and roll away.

Zambia's southern province suffers more from drought than any other. Drought has been a problem here for the last four or five years as the rains have slowly begun to thin out from a torrent to a trickle. It hit farmers like Choonya first, farmers who depend on the rain, drying up their crops and turning their land into a crazy paving of split earth. The commercial farms, the big sugar beet producers, managed for a while, using irrigation systems to draw water from the Kafue River, one of the few solid bodies of water left in the area as its tributaries began to dwindle. But even they are beginning to suffer now.

A local dam which some of them depend on for water has dried up. At a time when sugar beet and maize is supposed to be flourishing the rains have stopped and show no sign of returning.

In a bid to save their crops, some local coffee farmers have cut back their plants almost to the root in the hope that if it rains they will flourish again from the shoots.

Every day the people here look above them, hoping for clouds, for some sign that rain might come. But the few clouds that have drifted through have yielded nothing, simply floating by like wisps of cotton wool.

'It last rained in this region about three weeks ago,' says Jobrith Mutembo, Area Development Pro-gramme manager of World Vision Zambia's Chivuna project, which encompasses Chintibule.

'February is the worst month, even in areas where there is no drought, because it is the period just before harvest and food starts to run out then. The time just before harvest is critical. Parents say to their children they will know when it's February because there won't be as much food.

'The problem now is that moreand more people are having to be registered for relief, more and more people are running out of food, and that is the biggest challenge we face: how many people can we feed? As long as the droughts go on the community is dependent on being fed.'

He says that at the moment most people are managing on just one meal a day, but that if they weren't in the area, giving out food, there would be a crisis.

Lately, there have been reports of people moving from towns into the villages because they, too are hungry and as yet there are no relief programmes in the towns, something which has put even more of a burden on the limited amount of food available. The problem is further compounded by grown up children, sick and dying of Aids-related illnesses moving back home to die at their parents' homes. Their family, already weak from lack of nutrition, often do not have the resources or even the energy to cope with a sick relative.

'It is not good,' says Jobrith. 'The whole of this part of Africa has already been declared a Complex Humanitarian Emergency by aid partnerships. More people coming in could also lead to crime as people try to get food.

'I'm just trusting and believing in God that it will rain.'

But situations like Choonya's, where there is such a large family, can bring further problems. Polygamy, although not widely practised in Zambia, still exists. Choonya has three wives, 17 children and six grandchildren living on his farm. Jobrith says that with an increasing number of orphans, polygamous marriages can create issues of segregation, where one wife might cook for her children while those of another, deceased wife are at school.

But for now, at least, Agness, Rely and Eneless Chinimba seem to be getting on. As they sit patiently around, listening to their husband talk, they smile and nod quietly.

When we get up to leave, they rise with wide smiles on their faces. Slowly, with the little energy they have, they get up and begin to dance and sing, loudly, to thank us for coming to see them.

As we pull away from the farm, someone asks Scarriott Banda, the communications manager for World Vision Zambia, if the wives will cope.

He shrugs his shoulders. 'They have to,' he says. 'They have no choice.'

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Farmer Choonya Fabian Chinimba and his wives can only pray for rain
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:6ZAMB
Date:Dec 18, 2002
Words:1088
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