By Byron Mutingwende
BIKITA – Forty-four-year-old Arnold Moyana, a villager from Mamutse scratches his greying hair as he dejectedly watches his swamped maize field. His hopes for food self sufficiency and independence from food handouts are waning each day.
The Mamutse village is about 150km east of Masvingo along the Masvingo-Mutare highway. It is in agricultural Climatic Region Five which receives below normal rainfall considered adequate for crop farming.
The majority of people in arid Bikita — one of seven districts in Masvingo province — depend on buying extra food or on handouts to supplement the little they may have harvested in good seasons.
“We used to depend on selling livestock like cattle, goats and sheep at the local livestock market at Chivaka to supplement our food stocks particularly maize….but the 1992 drought wiped our livestock, leaving us at the mercy of starvation every year,” Moyana told a news correspondent.
Zimbabwe suffered severe drought in 1982, 1992 and 2002. According to Moyana, the situation was manageable because the country had some grain food reserves, and sometimes even surplus to export to other countries within the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC).
However, Moyana argued, a majority of the population in rural areas did not bother to question the “flawed” local governance system put in place by the government soon after independence in regards to the running of the affairs of villages particularly in regard to food distribution.
The practice was cemented in the first two decades after independence, Zimbabwe , when the ruling ZANU-PF movement’s drive for a one party state drive it to put almost all institutions under its control.
Moyana said the roles assigned to village heads extended to the distribution of maize under government relief programmes. Village heads compiled names of potential beneficiaries under their jurisdiction and forwarded them to headmen and chiefs.
The concentration of power in local traditional leaders had some positives for the society and played a critical role in the development of rural areas, he added.
The development model included Village Initiated Development Cooperative (VIDCO), and co-operatives which ran market gardens, tree planting projects and repair of gullies and roads.
They also encompassed Community Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) which promoted conservation of forests and wild animals, beekeeping and harvesting of edible (Mopani) worms.
MDC-T councilor for Ward 17 in Mamutse area, Decent Chikunya, said things took an ugly turn when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) came onto the political horizon and threatened to wrestle power from the ruling ZANU PF party in 2000.
ZANU PF government responded by embarking on land redistribution that sought to correct colonial imbalances where the minority whites owned the most productive and arable land at the expense of the majority blacks.
“This move was political and it resulted in violations of human rights….and some people lost lives and limbs. It affected food production and the number of people in need of food assistance increased,” Chikunya said.
Chikunya said in order to stop the MDC from building rural strongholds, ZANU-PF rewarded traditional leaders with extra authority and put chiefs and village headmen on a government payroll.
“It is difficult to pinpoint politicization of food distribution on the day the food will be distributed because the people will simply be using a list of people who would have paid for it or those considered eligible to benefit, “ he said.
“The rot is in the system where the prerogative of deciding beneficiaries lies in the hands of traditional leaders who are mostly bought by perks like installation of electricity and hefty salaries and allowances on the part of chiefs,” Chikunya said.
Chikunya said politics limited the powers of councilors to exercise an oversight role in the distribution of maize. He alleged that the list he took to the GMB came from village heads.
Philmon Chigamba, ZANU PF councilor for Ward 18 bemoaned the bad state of roads for exacerbating people’s plight in failing to access food aid. The district has some of the worst roads in the country.
“The dusty road from Mushuku Township to Nechirorwe was badly destroyed by Cyclone Eline in 2000. Since then no one repaired the bridges or filled potholes and gullies on that road. Trucks that transport food off-load it at Chikuku Township which is on the highway,” Chigamba said.
Chigamba said the price of maize meal was more expensive in Chirorwe compared to other places in Bikita East Constituency. He said the people footed extra costs for transport in scotch carts. A bucket of maize meal costs $15 in Chirorwa while the same goes for $10 at Chikuku.
Banga Village head, Charles Mamutse was in possession of registers of beneficiaries of the Presidential Inputs Scheme and those who buy maize from state owned Grain Marketing Board. Indeed as Moyana had alleged, those people whom he said were members of MDC were not in the register of beneficiaries.
Asked the implication, Mamutse said, although he sympathized with members of the MDC who were not benefitting, he was not at liberty to discuss the matter with the press because of its political implications.
Aloghside Bikita, the other six districts in Masvingo province are Chivi, Zaka, Mwenezi, Masvingo, Gutu and Chiredzi. Although the districts share almost the same climatic conditions, Bikita’s food shortage situation has always been under-reported according to the Member of Parliament for Bikita East Constituency, Kennedy Matimba.
“The constituency has small dams like Dove and Gaha and no irrigation schemes have been developed. It is unlike other constituencies which are nearer to major dams like the Siya Dam and therefore people solely depend on rains for agriculture. This exacerbates their dependence for grain supplements, Matimba said.
According to the Parliament of Zimbabwe, the constituency has a population of 53,676 people made up of 24,215 men and 29,461 women (2002 Census Report). The constituency’s population is housed in about 11,484 households with an average household size of 4 people.
Bikita south has a population of about 51,428 housed in 10,512 households. The population has 55 percent females. According to the 2008 ZEC Delimitation Report, the constituency has 30,524 registered voters who account for about 59% of the constituency’s population.
On the other hand, Bikita West constituency has a population of over 50,000 people.
Bikita District Administrator Edgars Senza said more than half of the 150,000 plus population of Bikita was in need of food assistance every year. Politicians, traditional leaders and local government workers were agreed the government alone lacked the capacity to feed people.
With the Grain Marketing Board saddled by debt to maize producers, it was difficult on its part alone to feed people in need of food assistance. To that end food assistance provided by the World Food Programme, Red Cross and Plan International came in handy annually, reports said.
President of the Council of Chiefs, Chief Fortune Charumbira, dismissed the findings of this paper’s investigations as malicious and unfounded, insisting traditional leaders knew it was government policy to ensure that people in need of food aid got it without any discrimination on religious, social or political grounds.
The World Food Programme estimates that 2.2 million people require food aid before the next harvest in May. The government has been importing food from neighbouring countries like South Africa and Zambia.