Swaziland is in the grip of a food shortage. The United Nations estimates that up to one third of the population is at risk of starvation. Part of the problem is two years of erratic rainfall that has crippled the agricultural sector. The AIDS crisis has also hurt people's ability to cope. And bad decisions by the government have also played a role.
In this tiny village in central Swaziland, aid workers hand out corn, beans and cooking oil. These are standard-issue emergency rations that the U.N. World Food Program gives to refugees and famine victims all over Africa. But food distributions like this are new to Swaziland, a small mountainous country in southern Africa of less than a million people. Usually, Swazis can take care of themselves.
But not this year.
In the year 2000, severe floods hit Swaziland. Although they were not as bad as the headline-grabbing floods in neighboring Mozambique, it still hurt agricultural production. Since then, there has not been enough rain. On top of that, add a 25 percent HIV infection rate into the equation, and National Disaster Task Force leader Ben Nsibandze says you have a recipe for disaster. "These events, which are all disastrous, have been accumulating to the extent that the people are now left without any coping mechanisms. They can't cope," said Ben Nsibandze.
By mid-November, a visitor to the country can usually see fields of maize up to a meter tall. This year, many of the fields have not even been planted yet. Most Swazi farms lack irrigation, and farmers cannot plant until the rainy season begins. Mr. Nsibandze says the rains have come late for the second year in a row. "In fact, according to agriculture, the best planting time is October," he said. "So we have lost almost 20 percent of what yield we could get. And as the year progresses, we are losing increasing percentages. If you plant in December, you know you are in for a very poor crop."
Joseph Dlamini, 21, knows that if he has a harvest this year, it will not be enough to feed his family. He has been caring for his five younger brothers and sisters since their father died last December. Their mother died three years ago. He gestures toward his empty fields as he says the family's survival depends on three things.
He says, friends and neighbors have helped us. And, he says, I believe in my own ability to survive. Finally, he says, I think things will get better soon because I recently started working for an aid agency a few days a week.
Unlike some of his neighbors, Mr. Dlamini is lucky enough to have seeds to plant. But he cannot afford to hire a tractor to plow his fields. He will earn just $40 a month from the aid agency, and he says it will probably cost $50 to plow his half-hectare field.
Even if he does manage to plow, there will be no money left over to pay his brothers' and sisters' school fees. This year, he says, they just cannot go to school.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is handing out seeds to men such as Mr. Dlamini, as part of what is officially considered an emergency operation. But the agency's local director, Mostafa Imam, says it is getting harder to separate the emergency from Swaziland's chronic poverty. "Definitely there will be people next year whose fields are empty," said Mostafa Imam. "I would be lying if I said it is not going to be chronic. But we are giving some hope. And I hope the international community and yourselves can hear our cry."
Mr. Imam and other aid workers say they simply do not have enough food and seeds to help all the hungry people in Swaziland. The United Nations says it needs more than $500 million to fund its emergency operations in six southern African nations, including Swaziland.
Western diplomats in Swaziland say the formal declaration of a national food emergency would release more international assistance for the country - for example, an automatic $50,000 from the U.S. government. Neighboring countries also affected by the drought - including Zimbabwe and Zambia - have already declared food emergencies. For months, the Swazi government has said it intends to do the same. But for some reason, in never has. Mr. Imam says regardless of what politicians might think, it is clear the crisis is severe enough to warrant it. "I can tell you from reality, on the ground there is a disaster," he said. "Declaring that it is a disaster or not a disaster, I can tell you. From what I have seen, there is a disaster."
The National Disaster Task Force leader, Mr. Nsibandze, says Swaziland has declared two national emergencies in the last 10 years, including one after the floods of 2000. He compares the country's dilemma to the parable of the boy who cried wolf - he did it so often just to get attention, that by the time there really was a wolf, nobody believed him anymore. "Then that time people say no, you are always crying wolf," he said. "So we are reserving the declaration for a very, very, very serious year. Which we don't know, we can't anticipate. But if we keep on declaring, you know what will happen? We will have to declare almost every year. And you will say oh, Swaziland, they are always declaring a disaster. And it doesn't do our credibility any good if we continue to declare a disaster year after year."
Swaziland's credibility with international donors has suffered a series of setbacks in recent months, most of them connected in some way to Swaziland's absolute monarch, King Mswati. Western diplomats frequently point to the recent decision to purchase a $45 million airplane for the king, while hundreds of thousands of his subjects are in danger of starving.
Even the royal family has its critics, including one of the king's 10 wives - Queen LaMbikiza. In an interview, she refused to explicitly condemn the purchase of the jet, although she has done so in the past. She did, however, say it would be better to spend the money a different way. "We have to re-challenge our priorities," she said. "We have to think of our people, what it is they need and how it is we can assist them with the resources we have."
Western diplomats say Swazi beliefs regarding the king may also be one reason politicians are reluctant to declare a national food emergency. Swazi custom says the king is the one who brings the rains every year. His responsibilities to his people include ensuring an ample harvest. Diplomats suggest that lawmakers are afraid declaring an emergency might imply that the king has failed in his duty.
Mr. Nsibandze dismisses that idea. "Our people believe in God almighty, they are Christians," he said. "So they know now that they have got to pray for the rain. Similarly the belief that our kings produce rain has not been forgotten… The belief in Christianity is so strong that our people believe that God has given powers to the king to do certain things. But then if something doesn't happen, they wouldn't hold the king responsible, or say because we do not have rain, then we hold you responsible. In the same way as they wouldn't hold God responsible for any act. Because this is the belief that we have."
Many people in the tiny village of Sigwe say they believe that God will save them from starvation. But things are increasingly desperate. One elderly, disabled man, who did not want to give his name, says his faith is not as strong as it used to be.
At first, he said "I put my complete trust in God." But when an aid worker asked him if God has done anything to help him, he said, "No, God has never done anything for me." He laughed, and said, "I just hope God takes care of me when I die."