Zimbabwe– The good, the bad, and the food relief


A tourist in Zimbabwe could fly into the International Airport at  Victoria Falls, take a taxi to a very swanky hotel, go rafting, bungee jump, drive on good roads to Hwange where they could stay in a very upmarket safari lodge and see amazing wildlife, and then leave, making the claim that they have “done” Zimbabwe but they haven’t seen the half of it. Zimbabwe has (the semi functional skeleton of) amazing infrastructure set up during the Rhodesian times, and, in Harare and Bulawayo a burgeoning educated middle class but to imagine that is a fair representation of the whole country is to side step reality. We have had a glimpse of a very different Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe is a bit dry just now. It is not dry in the same way the horn of Africa was dry.  But crucially it is too dry for maize to grow. As a result, people are hungry.  I am not talking about the distended bellies of acute malnourishment that we’ve come to know from world vision ads in the early 90s – just people who are really hungry and trucks full of maize coming from Zambia being distributed by the government, and many and varied NGOs. And don’t get me wrong – there has been some rain. Flowers are flowering and many plants are green, but “the rains did not come” at a crucial time – that time was when the maize should have been growing.

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The result is acres and acres of maize which grew a bit, but crucially didn’t form kernels on the cobs.

People in Zimbabwe eat sudza – almost everyone, almost every day. Sudza is maize meal, or mealie meal, similar (but different) to polenta. Essentially it is white maize that has been smashed, had the kernal skins and some other bits removed, and then cooked until it is a cakey glueish lump of carbohydrate goodness.

For people to have enough to eat, Zimbabwe needs to produce 1.8 million – 2.2 million tons of maize each year (depending on who you believe). That is about 180 kgs per person per year or about half a kilo each per day.  This year the forecast production is about 1 million tons.  Normally large amounts of maize would be grown by the people who eat it. Maize is not only grown in rural areas, but also on roadsides in small towns, in peoples back yards, and even on the sides of some streets in Harare. It is grown everywhere (except in places that are always too dry, then millet, and sorghum are grown). 

Many people, rich and poor have a plot or field of maize to ease the food budget. At this stage it is probably appropriate to point out that the average annual income in Zimbabwe is just $313 US per year.  If you measure wealth by GDP (Which is a silly way, but does the job), then Zimbabwe is 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th poorest country in the world, depending on who measures it.  ( Human development index puts it slightly higher at  173rd out of 187 countries.) Maize production is obviously very closely related to rainfall and therefore rainfall affects GDP. However, since the late 1990s something else has been happening.


Land Reforms

When a farmer takes land from someone else, that is theft, therefore it is good and just to give it back, but when a farmer buys land from the government, then the government takes it back and occasionally beats up or kills the farmer, that is bad, and unjust. When this happens in a country where the economy is fuelled in a large part by those farmers, and the government gives that stolen land to people who do not have the training to manage large farms, maintain farm equipment, maintain storage facilities, recognise pests and diseases, or work international markets the way the previous farmers did there are dire consequences for all the other people in that country. The farms stop making money. This money stops going into the economy, and things start to fall apart.




Since land reform, things have not been so great and various things have come together to pull Zimbabwe down to being one of the poorest countries in the world.


So, when Mugabe came to power in 1980 the country looked ok, but since then, things have gone down hill pretty sharply. I don’t blame him for the lack of rainfall, but the empty grain silos, empty reservoirs, hyper-inflation in 2008, and failing infrastructure can be linked fairly directly to bad governance.  Kicking the white farmers off the land has not gone so well for Zimbabwe.  In addition to being illegal,  it has meant that Zimbabwe, once described as the bread basket of Africa, has started importing Maize (it cannot afford) from Zambia (often grown by the very farmers who were kicked off the land in Zimbabwe), and importing wheat from Russia.


I can only write this stuff as we have left Zimbabwe. Reporting there is illegal without a licence, and walking around with a voice recorder, laptop, business cards saying “Plant Stories Project” with a link to this blog kept us slightly nervous (we did in fact end up at the police station after taking an innocent photo of a market scene but more on that later).  Activists in Zimbabwe against some of the things I’ve mentioned occasionally disappear.

There is a lot more I could say but basically due to the actions of 1 man and his close associates, life for the average Zimbabwean is exceedingly difficult. They are lovely friendly people, and the country is an amazing place to visit. Please keep in touch with what is happening in this country, especially as elections, and a new constitution are in the pipeline.  http://www.thezimbabwean.co.uk/ 

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For me, the irony in the above photo sums up the situation in Zimbabwe quite well.

Women walking up to 2 hours onto the farm where we were working, to spend the day illegally cutting firewood for cooking, then walking back under power pylons with up to 30kgs of wood on their heads,  to their homes, where there is no (or very occasional) electricity. This example is not from a rural area but from Bulawayo, the second city of Zimbabwe.  It is not even an example of extreme poverty – just a really stupid easily avoidable situation.


Data from the World Food Program

Estimated population: 12.3 million
Life expectancy at birth: 51.4 years
Under 5 mortality rate: 94/1,000 live births
Under 5 stunting rate: 34%
Adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate: 13.7%
Number of orphans: 1.6 million
People living on less than US$1.25 per day: 56.1%
People living below the national poverty line: 72%
GDP per capita: US$313.9
Global Acute Malnutrition rate: 2.4%
Chronically food insecure: 34% of households
Primary school enrollment rate: 91% (national)
2011 Human Development Index rating: 173 out of 187






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