JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Some rural Zimbabweans facing one of the hungriest years they can remember have been forced to live on a meal a day and in some cases only on wild fruits, the U.N. food aid agency said Thursday.
The World Food Program appealed for donations to help fight hunger in Zimbabwe, straining as an economic collapse, years of food scarcity, AIDS and poor weather have combined to put it in a category all its own in a region where most nations are poor.
"Zimbabwe is the only one that is facing a national crisis," agency spokesman Richard Lee said.
The economic collapse, with inflation of at least 231-million percent a year, has put seeds, fertilizer and farming equipment out of the reach of many Zimbabweans. AIDS has devastated the farming workforce. Weather has been a factor, with too much rain in some areas, too little in others.
Aid agencies had been blocked for months from doing their work by President Robert Mugabe's government. The ban was lifted in August, but it took weeks for agencies to start work again. In one of the first distributions since the ban was lifted, aid workers over the weekend handed out dried corn, vegetable oil and other aid.
In a video Lee shot of the aid distribution, villagers were shown painstakingly picking kernels off the ground after a handful of grain spilled.
Lee said in an interview after returning to neighboring South Africa that people told him they were experiencing one of the hungriest years they could remember.
"In previous years, we used to harvest a few bags of grain," Sabath Musiiwa, a 54-year-old caring for her tuberculosis-afflicted husband and four children, said in Lee's video. "But this year there is nothing."
Lee said the World Food Program found Zimbabweans getting by on one meal a day, of cornmeal porridge and a few vegetables for the lucky, but only wild fruits for others.
The United Nations estimates that 45 percent of Zimbabwe's population, or 5.1-million people, will need food help by early 2009. The food agency said its stocks would run out in January — "at the very peak of the crisis" — if it did not get more donor help.
The agency said it has received almost $175-million this year for Zimbabwe, but needs more to fund emergency operations through April. The agency's main donors for Zimbabwe include the United States and Britain, two of Mugabe's sharpest critics.
Mugabe blames his country's economic woes on Western sanctions, but his critics point to farm seizures he ordered in 2000. Most of the best farms went to Mugabe loyalists instead of impoverished blacks he said he wanted to help. The farms lie idle, devastating the economy's agricultural base.
Zimbabwe's infrastructure also was deteriorating, leading to diseases like cholera.
The Herald, a state-controlled newspaper, reported Thursday that a cholera outbreak in northern Zimbabwe has prompted police to destroy fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and bread sold by illegal vendors and suspected of spreading the outbreak.
As Zimbabweans suffer shortages of food, medicine, hard currency and cash, power-sharing negotiations between Mugabe and his main political rivals have been stalled. Until the political impasse over who gets which key Cabinet posts is broken, Zimbabwean leaders cannot turn their full attention to their growing humanitarian crisis.