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Swaziland Hunger*


[existential meltdown, inherited wealth, coflation, civil war, polygamy--RSB]

Sowing Harvests Of Hunger In Africa

Drought and Disease Fuel Famine in South

By Michael Grunwald

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sunday, November 17, 2002; Page A01

SIGWE, Swaziland -- There is a time to reap and a time to sow, and now is the time to sow. The first rains have fallen on the parched lowlands, softening the soil for the plow. But Saraphina Simelane has no seeds to plant. Joseph Dlamini has seeds, but no money to hire oxen. Julia Gwebu has no seeds, no money, no oxen and no time; she spends her days in her thatched stone hut tending a daughter with AIDS.

Halfway through the planting season for maize, the traditional staple for this landlocked kingdom in southern Africa, hardly anyone is plowing, much less sowing. Droughts ravaged Swaziland's last two harvests, and relief agencies are handing out seeds to 12,000 subsistence farmers. But another 38,000 households have nothing to put in the ground, and while foreign aid organizations are feeding them for now, they can't reap what they don't sow.

"It looks like we're in for another disaster," said Ben Nsibandze, chairman of Swaziland's National Disaster Task Force. "It's becoming almost endemic. We're just hand-to-mouth, hand-to-mouth."

The World Food Program estimates that about one-fourth of the kingdom's 1.1 million citizens are now at risk of starvation. And aid groups report the worsening situation in tiny Swaziland -- rated a middle-income country by the United Nations -- looks mild compared to looming catastrophes in larger, poorer nations such as Angola, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe in southern Africa, or Ethiopia and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.

More than 30 million Africans are threatened by famine, and the situation is getting worse. In Zambia and Malawi, 70 percent of households have no seeds. In Zimbabwe, the figure is 94 percent. Prices are skyrocketing, oxen are too thin to haul plows, and an El Niño could bring a third year of drought.

The crisis has roots in bad weather, bad policies and bad economies, but it's the AIDS epidemic -- which has slashed average life expectancy to 45 years or less in every southern African country but one -- that has prompted humanitarian agencies to call this a "new variant famine." Simelane, 65, cares for five orphaned grandchildren. Dlamini, 21, is responsible for four orphaned siblings. Breadwinners are dying or growing too sick to work or are selling off farm supplies to pay for health care at a time when bread is in short supply. In the lingo of foreign aid, millions of potential drought victims already have "diminished coping abilities."

"The numbers are staggering," said Judith Lewis, the U.N. coordinator for southern Africa, a region where AIDS has flourished amid poverty, substandard health care and a culture that traditionally frowns more on discussion of sex than the practice of it. "When we look at the vulnerability -- the world's highest malnutrition rates, the world's highest HIV rates -- we're bracing for the worst."

Swaziland's people are not yet starving to death, thanks to emergency aid that began arriving in July. The nation is not reeling from decades of war, like Angola, or expelling many of its productive farmers, like Zimbabwe, or refusing to accept thousands of tons of genetically modified food, like Zambia. It will receive a scant fraction of the $500 million the United Nations hopes to spend in southern Africa through March.

But Swaziland provides a window into Africa's unfolding food crisis. It is smaller than New Jersey, and hunger is limited to the rural south and east of the country. It is a functioning country, with well-paved roads, well-regarded schools and developed urban areas. It is Africa's only absolute monarchy, but it is a relatively transparent society. World Bank data show that since declaring independence in 1968, Swaziland has been less reliant on foreign aid than any other country in Africa.

Nsibandze says that Swaziland is now in danger of becoming a perpetual welfare state, "constantly appealing to our international friends." The country is producing less than one-third of its own food, and more than one-third of its adults are HIV-positive. The first rains this year were again a month late, and the second rains did little good because there were few seeds in the ground. Mostafa Imam, a Swazi who runs the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization program here, swells with emotion as he points out the untilled fields and dusty pastures that dominate the landscape of the southern lowlands.

"I weep for my country," he said. "When you can plow, you can hope. Right now there is no hope."

Too Poor for Donated Seeds

Grace Mkhabela is in charge of distributing U.N. maize and seeds at the Sigwe police station, where hundreds of villagers come for help.

She is a manager for a local nonprofit group, Swaziland Farmer Development, and she decides who is hungry enough to eat and who is strong enough to plant.

Simon Mamba, 61, lost his entire crop last year. He has 20 mouths to feed, and he had to take three grandchildren out of school because he could not afford the fees. Since Mamba has a low-paying mining job, he is ineligible for food aid.

"We have to focus on the most vulnerable," Mkhabela explained. And seeds are being distributed only to food recipients because hungry people tend to eat seeds instead of plant them.

"I'm too rich for food but too poor for seeds!" Mamba said. "It's better for me to die."

Simelane is unemployed, and she is certainly poor, crammed in a dingy home with five orphans who sleep on her floor. The two youngest, Pati and Pendulili, have bellies distended from malnutrition. Their sweatpants have more holes than cloth; their shoes are caked with mud and ripped to shreds. Although Simelane is eligible for food aid, she does not get seeds. "We cannot serve the old and weak," Mkhabela said. "We must give seeds to strong people who will plant them with success."

Then there is Irene Dlamini, no relation to Joseph. She is only 40 years old but just as poor. She has 11 children who live on two spoonfuls of porridge a day. None of them go to school anymore. Yet she does not get seeds either. Mkhabela could not say why Dlamini was unlucky. There just aren't enough seeds to go around.

"It's a very painful feeling," Dlamini said. "My children think I neglect them."

Even those who receive seeds are by no means assured of a crop. Joseph Dlamini, the young man trying to feed four orphans, has been unable to hire oxen or a tractor to plow his fields. And it may be too late for him to plant maize, which should be a foot high by now. Still, he is trying to build a fence around his bone-dry fields out of acacia branches, just in case. "It's all I can do," he said.

Drought is particularly lethal to maize crops, but maize is central to Swazi culture, so aid agencies have struggled to persuade Swazis to diversify into more drought-resistant crops. But the darkest shadow over Swaziland's nutrition problems is the AIDS epidemic.

It is rarely spoken by name; Gwebu, for example, said her daughter has "a blood problem." But it is hard not to notice that the vast majority of the villagers at the food lines in Sigwe are either children or seniors.

Health officials say life expectancy in Swaziland has fallen by 25 years since the AIDS epidemic began.

In the countryside, teenage Swazi girls are selling sex -- and spreading HIV -- for $5 an encounter, exactly what it costs to hire oxen for a day of plowing.

"People just can't cope," Lewis said. "This isn't sustainable."

The international community, led by the United States, has rushed in enough food to stave off famine in Swaziland this year, and by all accounts the food is being directed to people in need. But donors have been reluctant to invest in longer-term solutions -- or even medium-term fixes such as seed kits, which cost $31 -- in part because Swaziland has failed to make those investments itself. Politics is also at the heart of this crisis.

"It's probably more important than weather," a Western diplomat said. "Make that definitely more important."

Jet-Setting Through a Crisis

"It seems like we're losing our direction," Sibonelo Mngomezulu said. "We need to rechallenge our priorities. We have to think about our people and what they need. The king needs to be enlightened."

Those are bold words in Swaziland, where political parties are banned and criticism of the popular king, Mswati III, can be tantamount to sedition. They are especially bold from Mngomezulu, who happens to be the third of the king's 10 wives. She is also one of his key advisers; many others, the queen said, are "selfish and corrupt," and she blames them for the global notoriety he attracted earlier this month after aides tried to intimidate judges into rejecting a lawsuit accusing him of abducting his 10th wife.

It is no secret what the queen means by priorities. A $900,000 proposal for emergency aid has languished for months; a $500,000 proposal to upgrade the royal fleet of luxury cars was swiftly approved. The government has no irrigation projects for maize -- only for sugar plantations controlled by the king. Rural farmers have no way to finance their own irrigation projects because the king holds title to their land. And even though the government has stopped giving away seeds to farmers, an on-again, off-again agreement to buy the king a jet for $60 million -- twice the country's health budget -- appears to be on again.

"Obviously, it would make better sense to spend money elsewhere," the queen said in an interview in her palace.

The king has not even declared a state of emergency, which would have released more foreign money to buy seeds in time for planting season.

He may consider it too much of an admission of failure, or he may not even realize the seriousness of the situation. At a recent ceremony, the U.S. ambassador, James McGee, showed the king photographs of hungry Swazis that the ambassador had taken. The king's response, according to a witness: "Oh, that's nice."

In January, Mswati will oversee Swaziland's most sacred ceremony, the annual Ncwala, and he will give his people permission to eat the year's first maize. "I just hope there is maize to eat," said Imam, the U.N. agriculture official. "We should not be a nation that depends on the world."

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