More than half the population of Zimbabwe is in danger of starving. Experts blame a combination of drought and bad economic and agricultural policies for the food crisis in a country that used to export food to its neighbors. VOA's Challiss McDonough visited a World Food Program distribution center near the town of Chivi, in south-central Zimbabwe.
Four donkeys careen down a dusty road outside the town of Chivi, pulling an empty cart behind them. The owner of the donkey cart is making money today, carrying sacks of maize and beans for families who are receiving their monthly food rations from the U.N. World Food Program.
People who do not have money to hire a donkey cart, have to carry their food home in a wheelbarrow, if they are lucky, or balanced on top of their heads.
Mirirai Virukai, 52, is using her rations to feed a family of 11, including five of her orphaned grandchildren.
Mrs. Virukai says in a normal year, she can usually harvest two or three tons of maize on her land. But this year, she says, she is not expecting to get any crop at all.
A visitor to the area notices immediately that the cornfields are incredibly stunted and dry. This time of year, the stalks would normally be about two meters tall. This year, most of them are less than half that size. Some have already dried up and died.
The corn should be ready for harvest in March and April, but in this part of the country at least, there will not be much to harvest.
Zimbabwe used to be considered the breadbasket of the region. Two years ago, it was a net exporter of grain. The U.N. World Food Program had an office in Harare, but only so it could buy grain to distribute in neighboring countries.
This year, the tables are turned. The World Food Program says it is struggling to import enough grain for all the hungry people in Zimbabwe. WFP officials say they are feeding roughly two-thirds of the population in the rural parts of the country, including here in Masvingo province.
But the Zimbabwe food shortage is not only about bad harvests. Not far from the WFP food distribution center, Catherine Sagiya, 55, works as a nurse at the local clinic.
"You know the situation these days," she says. "There is nobody who can say, oh, I am all right! Because things are becoming hard."
Mrs. Sagiya is a 30-year veteran of the public health service, and her take home salary is 65,000 Zimbabwe dollars a month, or roughly $65 U.S. at the black market rate. Still, in normal times, she might be able to live fairly well on that. But not in Zimbabwe today. These days, it is not just the unemployed who are going hungry.
Because she has a job, Mrs. Sagiya does not qualify for food aid. But, she points out, even though she has money, there is simply no food in the stores to buy.
"We don't have anywhere to buy," she says. "You know food is not everywhere nowadays! We just keep the money."
With a wry smile, nurse Sagiya says she cannot eat money. The last time she was able to buy cornmeal was two months ago. She has found herself asking the clinic patients if they have any food to spare for her.
Her story is not unusual. But how did the situation get this bad? Zimbabwe's food crisis is a complex one.
This is the second year of drought in Zimbabwe, and the third year of the country's controversial land-reform program that saw white-owned commercial farms seized, split up and distributed to landless blacks. Many had little or no farming experience, and no collateral to borrow money to get their crops planted. Some were political cronies of President Robert Mugabe.
Experts say erratic rainfall has combined with the upheaval in the commercial agricultural sector to virtually bring food production to a halt.
AIDS has also contributed to the problem. Roughly one-quarter of Zimbabwean adults have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The disease is killing off members of the middle generation who would normally be the most productive, whether on the farms or in the cities, leaving a legacy of AIDS orphans and overburdened grandmothers.
In addition, the Zimbabwean government has imposed price controls that University of Zimbabwe economist Tony Hawkins says are not realistic.
"Food prices continue to go up very rapidly," he says. "Even with all the price control on just about every food, I think food prices were up over three percent last month alone. It doesn't sound like a lot, but price controls were supposed to come in and stop this kind of thing from happening. In fact, prices should have gone down if you took the price control seriously, and they didn't."
The government imposed price controls in an effort to keep food affordable for average Zimbabweans, while inflation was skyrocketing at a rate of more than 200 percent. But because many basic food supplies, for example, sugar and salt, are imported, the rate of exchange for foreign currency comes into play.
Until last week, the Zimbabwean dollar was pegged at 55 to $1 U.S. That was the official rate, at least. On the black market, one U.S. dollar could get between 1,000 and 1,500 Zimbabwe dollars, more than 25 times the official rate.
Shopkeepers and other businesspeople who want to sell imported goods need to buy them in hard currency, like U.S. dollars or euros. They get that hard currency at the black-market rate. But the price controls mean they often cannot sell the products at a high enough price to even cover their cost.
The result is that many basic goods have simply disappeared from the shelves. Grocery stores in Harare, Bulawayo and Masvingo have no bread, no salt, no sugar, no cooking oil and, most of all, no cornmeal, the staple food of most Zimbabweans.
When scare foods do arrive in stores, people line up for hours, if not days, to buy them. A VOA reporter in Harare saw about 2,000 people waiting at one store to buy sugar. Bread lines are commonplace. To prevent hoarding, there is a limit on the number of loaves one person can buy.
But the more common solution is to get around the price controls by selling value-added goods. Plain bread, for example, is price-controlled, but shopkeepers can charge higher prices for raisin bread, even if it only has a few raisins in it. A bakery VOA visited in Bulawayo has no regular bread, but plenty of pies, pastries and specialty rolls, all far too expensive for most Zimbabweans to afford.
Last week, the government finally bent to pressure from economists and agreed to devalue the Zimbabwe dollar. The official exchange rate is now 800-to-one. But Mr. Hawkins believes that will not make much difference in the end. He says unless the government's core economic policies change, food prices will keep going up, and food lines will keep forming.
There is a joke making the rounds in Zimbabwe that points to how serious the situation has become. The joke goes, Zimbabweans have the highest IQ's in the world - I queue for maize, I queue for petrol, I queue for bread, I queue for everything.