The mayor of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, has provoked angry reactions from the national government by publishing statistics indicating the number of people who have died of malnutrition in his city. The mayor vows he will continue to publish the figures.
City officials say twelve people died of malnutrition in Bulawayo in July and, as has become his custom, Mayor Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube went public with the figures. This was not well received by the national government. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo has threatened to take unspecified "drastic actions" against the Bulawayo city council.
The state controlled weekly newspaper, Sunday News, accuses Mr. Ndabeni-Ncube of spreading false information that contradicts the government's claim that the 2004 grain harvest is enough to feed the nation while.
The World Food Program and other donor groups dispute the government's claim.
The mayor, who belongs to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, also disagrees with the government's assessment, and he denies charges that his council is pursuing a hidden agenda.
"They should congratulate us very much that we really do our job properly," he said. "We are doing this, by the way, on behalf of the country of Zimbabwe, the government of Zimbabwe. The city of Bulawayo is a government arm and we are doing exactly what is expected of us. If somebody is not happy about our publication it's just unfortunate."
Food is readily available in urban areas throughout Zimbabwe. But Mr. Ndabeni-Ncube says many people can not afford to buy it because of increasing poverty.
"It's basically an economic issue, in the land of plenty there are pockets of people who really are hit hard in terms of failing to get food. Hence the malnutrition," said Mr. Ndabeni-Ncube.
Bulawayo's director of health Dr. Zanele Hwalima says malnutrition is on the increase, but it's nothing new in Bulawayo or Zimbabwe. She says besides limited access to food, the AIDS pandemic is worsening the situation.
Most of those who die of malnutrition are in the under-five age group.
"It will probably also be related to the weaning practices; the child has just been breastfed and they are moving to the adult food so there may not be sufficient food. The foods may not be kept very clean so the children are getting diarrhea illnesses, so the majority of them are dying," explained Dr. Hwalima.
A U.N. agency spokesperson, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, says while malnutrition may be on the increase in Zimbabwe, the figures are not yet a cause for alarm. The spokesperson said malnutrition is widespread in Africa and is worse in some countries, pointing out that while in some cases a shortage of food is a factor, chronic poverty is the major cause.
The official says the government is, with the support of UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, recruiting people to monitor nutrition trends throughout the country. This, she says, will ensure that instead of the usual disaster interventions, a program can be put in place to deal with the problem on a permanent basis.
The U.N. official also says that both types of malnutrition, acute and chronic can be treated, but most people cannot identify the early signs and therefore seek help too late.
A World Food Program spokesperson, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the agency is providing supplementary feeding to at least 600,000 children nationwide. Seventy-thousand of them are in Harare and Bulawayo.