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Food shortages force traditions to change

HARARE – A small column of women trudges along the path to a funeral in Mufiri, in Zimbabwe’s eastern Masvingo district, occasionally tilting their heads to glance grudgingly at the clear sky above.

Discussion among the women braving the searing heat revolves around the sp

ectre of yet another dry season, if the cloudless skies are anything to go by. “If it does not rain soon, we will all starve to death,” said 50-year-old Dorica Zenera, at the head of the column. The other women chorus in agreement.

Meteorologists forecast that the wet season would start at the beginning of October, but three weeks into November only intermittent drizzle has fallen in drought-prone Masvingo, rather than the downpours the farmers need.

“We would not be walking empty-handed if things were normal,” one of the women in the single file commented. “Surely the gods have cursed us.”

Severe food shortages in rural Zimbabwe are eroding a revered, age-old custom relating to death in rural communities: bereaved families can no longer afford to provide food for mourners who attend funeral vigils.

In normal circumstances women like Zenera and her companions would make their contribution, carrying small reed baskets or plastic bowls filled with mealie-meal or small bundles of vegetables.

But that has changed.

“At times you feel inclined not to attend a funeral out of discomfort for being unable to help out the bereaved, but absence gives you a lingering sense of guilt,” said Zenera.

She explained that funeral wakes had always been a community responsibility. “Now you feel like you are letting your neighbours down; you feel helpless.”

A Zimbabwe Rural Food Security and Vulnerability Assessment (ZimVAC) report, completed in June but only publicly released last week, estimated that 36 percent of the rural population would be unable to meet household food requirements until the next harvest.

It forecast that 2.3 million people would be food-short between now and the end of December this year, with the figure expected to rise to 2.9 million between January and March next year.

Food security analysts point out that the ZimVac figures were based on a maize price of $1,300 (US2 cents) a kilo, but the going market rate is now closer to $10,000. As a result, the real numbers of food insecure is likely to be over four million.

The food crisis is a combination of successive poor rains, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and a deepening economic crisis that followed the government’s fast-track land reform programme in 2000.

The June ZimVac report said food-short households were already adopting negative coping mechanisms, such as reducing the number of daily meals and cutting expenditure on education, health and agricultural inputs.

“In the past, friends, relatives and some neighbours encamped at the bereaved family home, offering condolences and helping with day-to-day chores to allow a family that had lost a member time to come to terms with the bereavement,” said village head Mika Maketo.

It was traditional to slaughter an animal to feed mourners. “People seem to have accepted the reality of the times – they don’t expect much from the bereaved family.”

Maketo said he had often reminded villagers to maintain the tradition of attending funerals in their neighbourhood but had cautioned mourners not to expect to be fed. “Those times are long gone if one considers the number of deaths that occur these days, and the cost of food these days.”

Government promises of providing subsidised food to rural areas through the state-run Grain Marketing Board have been largely unmet. Most villagers who expected assistance were still waiting to be fed, and deliveries were few and far between. When food assistance was delivered, villagers were unsure when they would get the next consignment.

“It is erratic – the last time we received grain from the government was five months ago,” said Maketo. “We used to receive food from donor agencies but I am not sure what happened. The villagers cannot sacrifice the little they have for mourners.”

Rural communities were also bearing the extra burden of hosting the funerals of relatives who died in urban areas but could afford to be buried there because the cost of burial plots has soared astronomically.

Next year is likely to be even worse, aid workers warn. A lack of fuel and spare parts has reduced the number of tractors available for land preparation, while the cost of fertiliser is well beyond the reach of many in the rural areas. — IRIN

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