MASVINGO – For a man who drives top-of-the range cars and owns a donated multi-million dollar wildlife conservancy and farming business, hunger is probably the last thing on Masvingo provincial governor Titus Maluleke’s mind.
But many of the million plus residents in this perennially drought-ravaged province, where Maluleke is the top dog, feed on crumbs.
Living the worst of being “served” by politicians with an eye for personal riches, residents here are surviving on tree roots, barter trade and commercial sex work to beat deep-seated hunger.
Blind to the hunger ravaging his province, Maluleke in February unilaterally banned 29 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), whose critical interventions had saved the province from outright starvation for years.
Nine months on, the results of that ban are biting as NGOs remain stifled and residents become more desperate.
“We have not harvested anything for the last two years and we have been surviving by buying food from Ngundu and other places,” Pianos Museva of Chivi told the Daily News.
“Programmes like food for work and grain loan scheme have not been effective. Maybe those in Zanu PF have benefitted. There is serious grain deficit here and villagers sometimes go and do piece jobs at Tokwe-Mukosi but the jobs are few. We wish NGOs could be given a free role,” he said.
Malukeke could not be reached for comment.
His secretary said he was out of the office when the Daily News called on Friday and yesterday.
When reached on his mobile phone, Maluleke claimed he could not get the question before his phone became unavailable.
Enmeshed in a messy war over the ownership of lucrative wildlife reserves in the province’s Lowveld area, Maluleke appears to care less for starving villagers.
Never mind that some of these people are rooted within the environs of the farm and conservancy he has taken over.
It does not end there.
MPs from the province accuse the same man of deliberately starving residents who hold different political views from his.
A cross-party meeting in the province turned into a near brawl at the end of October when MDC MPs accused Maluleke of promoting lawlessness through takeovers of the Save Valley wildlife conservancies.
They also accuse him politicising food aid.
“As you know that several communities in Zaka, Bikita, Gutu and Chiredzi were benefiting from the operations of those farms under their former owners but now we are having serious problems of wildlife plundering by you, the new owners,” charged Festus Dumbu at the meeting held at lodge at the Ancient City and attended by Maluleke and other provincial Zanu PF and government leaders.
Maluleke refused to respond to the accusation.
Dumbu’s constituency, Zaka West, is one of the hardest hit by food shortages.
The MPs’ anger is understandable. Hunger is not a problem confined to Masvingo.
According to UN agency, World Food Programme (WFP), 1,6 million Zimbabweans or almost one in every five rural households face food shortages and will need assistance to make it until March next year when next harvests are due.
Zimbabwe has only managed to avoid mass starvation since 2001 through the intervention of international aid agencies supported by WFP.
Many vulnerable people outside Masvingo Province are already getting some assistance from NGOs to mitigate the crisis.
Masvingo is one of the areas most affected by chronic food shortages yet Maluleke will not allow the NGOs to freely operate.
Machinda Marongwe, the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (Nango) programmes coordinator, said the situation was worrying.
His organisation, which groups dozens of NGOs countrywide, has been trying to find common ground between NGOs and Maluleke’s office.
“The situation is not good in Masvingo and people there need support,” he said.
Organisations in Masvingo such as the Community Trust Reconciliation and Development (Cotrad) say because of Maluleke’s ban, initiatives to end food shortages in Masvingo have remained “dogmatic”.
“Humanitarian organisations have found it difficult to operate in the province and the period March to December 2012 has seen a decline in complimentary initiatives aimed at easing pressure to the ailing government,” said Cotrad programmes manger Zivanai Muzorodzi.
“More than 2 000 households are languishing in abject poverty with no real source of food supplies,” said Muzorodzi.
Muzorodzi says it is easy to understand why Masvingo residents suffer this fate.
Lying in natural regions four and five, the province perennially receives low rainfall and irrigation is non-existent to most poverty-stricken residents.
On the rare moment when rains are better, subsistence farming is turning out to be difficult because of a lack of farming inputs such as seed, fertilisers and chemicals.
When inputs are available on the market, villagers are too poor to afford. The province’s treasures are found in wildlife conservancies that stretch 2 600 square kms, and minerals such as gold and lithium.
But there is a problem. Riches are reserved only for elite politicians.
Foreigners, particularly Europeans, dominate trade for decades and are being displaced as wildlife becomes another empowerment frontier. And the rush is on.
Apart from Maluleke’s family, beneficiaries include Shuvai Mahofa, a fierce Zanu PF stalwart and former Gutu South legislator.
Mahofa says she now just sits there while minting the dollars.
She is not ashamed of flaunting the newly found fortune as well as her ability to choose from one venture to another-all on the tab of government “empowerment” programmes.
“In fact, I am realising that farming is a waste of time, there is a lot of money to be made in hunting. I am in there and I now know that. I am very happy with my hunting business and I have made thousands of dollars,” she told the Daily News in an earlier interview.
“Business is very good and there is free money to be made out there. You just sit and wait for whites to come and pay for hunting and make money,” Mahofa said. Before her new “acquisition” in the wildlife business, where she is a proud owner of a ranch teeming with animals and foreign hunters, Mahofa had received several farms under the often violent land reform programme.
Impoverished villagers surrounding the rich wildlife conservancies and farms grabbed by party bosses say they have been reduced to spectators as the fat cats “eat alone”.
In some villages, residents are suffering double loss.
Hunger is biting in the midst of resources.
Worse, the new conservancy owners are so reckless with security that the lives of both residents and livestock are in danger.
In Gutu, Masvingo, Bikita, Zaka, Chivi, Chiredzi and Mwenezi, residents speak of a dire situation.
Councillor Maxwell Mazambani of Ward 5 in Gutu West constituency said the food situation in his area is grave.
“It leaves a sour taste in the mouth,” he said, describing how residents failing to benefit from the wealth in the province have become charity cases.
“Some villagers are benefitting under the government-sponsored Grain Loan Scheme but this is not enough because the allocation of a 50kg bag of maize per household is supposed to last four months.
“It leaves people desperate to the extent that some have to compete with animals for wild fruits,” said Mazambani.
He said people in his area cannot engage in activities such as market gardening because the place is dry.
Titus Nyika of Mutsvare village in Zaka North is one of the few lucky ones.
His sons who are working in South Africa regularly chip in with food “otherwise I would have been dead”, he said.
“Those with no-one to provide for them are in deep trouble because programmes such as food for work or grain loan scheme are proving useless,” said Nyika.
Even Zanu Pf-aligned chiefs “presiding” over the wildlife-rich Save Conservancy region say they are being kept at arm’s length from the eating table.
They are now loudly complaining “on behalf” of their residents.
In September, four of them travelled to Harare to meet Tourism minister Walter Mzembi to express anger at how villagers were suffering while top Zanu PF politicians were making all the cash through the conservancies.
They have now been promised a piece of the cake and also told the issue is being handled by President Robert Mugabe, who is said to be against the invasions.
But that is hardly comforting for residents such as Museva, who have no idea where the next meal will come from.