It costs just $2.50 per month to save the life of each hungry person in southern Africa, yet the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) still faces a $157 million shortfall as it seeks to feed 9.7 million people until next April, many of them struggling to find food for even one meal a day.
“Governments have the financial power to save lives in southern Africa,” WFP Regional Director Mike Sackett said yesterday during a visit to Europe to drive home his appeal to all countries, both traditional and non-traditional donors from the European Community as well as oil-producing states, to rise to the challenge.
“The children of southern Africa need help now – before their tiny emaciated bodies appear on television screens,” he declared of the six worst-hit countries – Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“People are struggling to survive and the harshest months are still ahead. It’s tragic that there is so much wealth in the world but so little of it is ever shared with those whose very existence depends upon it.”
While the United States has given more than $104 million this year and the European Union $64 million to the current appeal, no funds have yet been pledged by the oil-rich states even as oil prices reached record highs for most of the year, he noted.
Southern Africa is experiencing its fourth consecutive year of food shortages, exacerbated by crushing poverty and the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS. Many people’s problems are further compounded by recent hikes in the price of maize and other staple commodities.
Prices usually rise during the lean season, from December to the March/April harvest, when maize is scarcest on the market and people have consumed their own reserves, but this year the lean season started in August, and now food in not only in short supply, but also largely unaffordable.
Many people in rural communities are now living a hand-to-mouth existence, eating wild foods which amount to little more than fibrous seed pods and nuts from certain trees. Across the region there have been reports of people dying as a result of eating poisonous wild foods – some are toxic unless cooked for many hours.
Almost every day newspapers carry horror stories about families dying because they have not properly prepared their meagre meals of wild foods, WFP spokesperson Jo Woods reports from the front of the battle against hunger in Zambia.
In Tiki Mwiinga village in the south of the country, Josephine Kachabe, 83, does not remember a year worse than this. Previously she would receive help from neighbours, but this year everyone is desperate and the only aid she gets is from children who try to find her wild foods lying on ground.
Everyone in the village wears rags. The sun-bleached fields lie fallow. The dogs are starving and many people believe they will be next. Many children have stopped going to school. It's a four-hour walk away and many are too weak to make the journey. They say feel exhausted and fall asleep on the roadside.
“I feel most sad that we are not receiving any help,” Josephine says, summing up the feelings of many as the desperation becomes overwhelming. “I think if help comes it will be too late; I will be dead.”