Zimbabwe: pre-school feeding helps children survive famine

 "The children need this food because there is no food in their homes," explains Assa Mabhuna, 47, as she stirs a big pot of porridge. "All these children are pre-schoolers and at this age the right food is important." Assa Mabhuna is a teacher in Shazhaume School in Mwenezi district deep in the low veldt area of Zimbabwe. It's hot and dusty here, the wind blowing swirls of dust around the children sitting patiently under a tree for their food. It is the school holidays but 83 children have come today for their one cup of 'nutrimeal' porridge made of maize, soybeans, sugar, salt, vitamins and minerals. Mwenezi, like the rest of Zimbabwe, has been hard hit by a sharp drought, which began at the beginning of this year and has ruined the maize crop. Maize is used to make 'sadza', the sticky, starchy, porridge which is the staple meal here. Christian Aid's partner, Christian Care, runs a programme to feed primary school children. The children at Sazhaume School are lucky since, if a pre-school nursery shares the premises with a primary school, they are automatically included in the feeding programme. Altogether in this area Christian Care is working in 67 schools and feeding 37,551 children. "The children here are so hungry," says Mabhuna, "sometimes they faint in class since for some of them this is the only meal they get. They don't participate in class and they sleep instead of playing." Under another tree the primary children are being called, class by class, to queue up for their food. The children come early in the morning so that they can be counted and exact quantities of food prepared. If there is anything left in the pot, it is given to those who the teachers know have no food at home. Today, in the middle of the school holidays, 511 pupils have come. Loveness Chivare, 11, is knitting herself a hat as she waits her turn. "When I get home we might have another meal because we got maize from the WFP (World Food Programme). It came last week but it will be gone by the end of this week. I have 11 brothers and 10 sisters," she says. "I normally feel hungry and it disturbs my learning. I hear what the teacher is saying, but I feel sleepy." Regis Shumba, the headmaster, explains that, although the area is lucky to receive food from the WFP, it just isn't enough. "The rations are based on a family of five - two parents and three children. Families here are much bigger and a bag of maize is finished in about a week and they might only get one bag a month." Mr Shumba is deeply worried about the effects of the food shortages on the children in his care. "It will be a disaster if the rains don't come. We are only praying to God very hard. These lives are in danger." He knows also that he cannot depend on the government for emergency supplies of maize. Zimbabwe used to be self-sufficient in maize with part of the country's needs met by the commercial farmers. Now with the drought and the forced closures of the big food-producing farms, production has plummeted by more than 70 per cent. Zimbabwe is also hard hit by the AIDS epidemic - one in three Zimbabweans is infected and there are more than 600,000 Aids orphans. This has severely reduced people's capacity to cope. Famine is not inevitable in Zimbabwe but the combination of destructive government policies, drought and AIDS could lead to a catastrophic situation. "These children are the lucky ones," says Mr Shumba. "They are the beneficiaries of aid, Christian Care brings it here and we can see it, it doesn't get lost in protocol. If we get it through the government we will get ten per cent of what they send. The government always says food is in the pipeline, you know, that famous pipeline which has no end." source: Christian Aid

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