There has been no maize meal in Zimbabwe's second city Bulawayo, in Matabeleland in the south of the country, for the last week either in supermarkets or on the usually robust black market. Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA that the population depends on cooked maize meal as its main staple.
Bulawayo, an opposition stronghold in a dry part of southern Zimbabwe, suffered from lack of rain last summer resulting in the failure of its maize crop.
This means there is no maize available from farmers around Bulawayo and the city then has to depend on supplies from the capital Harare.
There is only one legal grain trader in Zimbabwe, the government's Grain Marketing Board.
Since Zimbabwe's agricultural sector failed following seizures of productive white-owned farms in 2000, Zimbabwe has had to import maize and depend on emergency food aid from the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies.
In other parts of Zimbabwe, especially in the north, some subsistence farmers did have decent rain and crops, and some of that is being sold unofficially, on the black market.
David Coltart is an opposition member of parliament for the Movement for Democratic Change representing a poor urban constituency in Bulawayo.
"From my personal experience trying to source mealie meal, my wife and I have been trying to source mealie meal for the last two days and have gone to a wide variety of supermarkets around town," he said. "We have also approached wholesalers for this staple and it is simply unavailable. I have been in to my own constituency every day in the last week, and I have seen no evidence of any international or domestic NGOs distributing food for the needy. I have also been to the homes of disadvantaged people in the last week, and it is clear to me we are at the point where people on the margins are starving."
In a rural area in the south, another MDC MP, Abdenico Bhebe, said people in his district were dying in record numbers.
"What I see every day - we are seeing a lot of deaths, especially the young and old, and I believe that it has been exacerbated by the shortage of food. Yes the middle age, there is the issue of HIV, which [has] actually been worsened by the lack of food. So we are seeing a pathetic situation. So in every homestead, there are one or two funerals every day. There is no maize, no mealie meal in Nkayi at the moment. There are wild fruits and some watermelons, but they have dried up."
Traditionally, relief agencies stop supplying food to people under threat of starvation from the onset of the maize harvest, usually May until September. There was no harvest in the south.
"We know the situation in the south is particularly bad, but believe me it is bad in lots of places. And I am not sure we have the right numbers of people who will need food aid before the next harvest in 2008," said an executive of a relief agency in Harare who did not want to be named.
The World Food Program, WFP, estimated that about 4.1 million Zimbabweans, or more than a third of the population will need emergency food aid before next harvest.
Zimbabwe is currently importing maize from Malawi, but none is available to millers in Bulawayo.
Coltart says the sudden shortage of maize in Bulawayo should not have been a surprise to the government.
"I think the government has known for some time that there would be shortages, but I am not sure this catastrophe applies countrywide," Coltart noted, "as subsistence farmers in the north and east, where they had good rain will have some maize - but the situation is very dire in the south. I don't know what government is doing about it, but they have certainly been derelict."
The U.N. has warned that it does not have enough money to provide emergency food aid for Zimbabweans until the next harvest in May 2008.