The villagers of Nkalanje, in Zimbabwe's arid Matabeleland South Province, use bells tied around the necks of their livestock to track animals that roam ever greater distances in search of sparse tufts of grass as a dry spell tightens its grip in the already food insecure country.
Nicholas Ntepe, 40, told IRIN he often spent days away from home to find his livestock and bring them closer to home. "It is a tough life, because I have to divide my time between looking for my livestock and looking for food to feed my family."
An assessment by at the beginning of April indicated that crops had failed in all seven districts of Matabeleland South, and an estimated 9,000 tons of maize would be required each month to mitigate the effects of the expected food shortages.
The governor of the province, Angeline Masuku, told IRIN: "We have not yet had distress calls, possibly because some people are still surviving on produce such as pumpkins, but we expect to stock up maize so that we are found ready when the food shortages become more pronounced."
Masuku said although the province had received occasional drizzle, which had improved pastures, most of the crops were a write-off and sparse pastures posed a serious threat to villagers' livestock.
The province plans to introduce a scheme in which villagers undertake community improvement tasks, such as assisting clinics, schools and other public institutions, in return for food.
A similar situation is unfolding in Midlands Province, where the harvest is projected to fail in most parts, with the districts of Mberengwa, Zvishavane, Shurugwi, Gweru and Mvuma hardest hit.
About 2.4 million people received food assistance in the first quarter of 2010 and a recent UNICEF report noted that "approximately 78 percent of the population of Zimbabwe is absolutely poor, and 55 percent live below the food poverty line".
People living below the food poverty line cannot meet any of their basic needs and suffer chronic hunger. The report said an estimated 6.6 million people, including 3.5 million children, were suffering this extreme form of deprivation.
'We need food aid as of yesterday'
A report by the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) said although most households in rural areas had come through the peak hunger season, adverse agricultural conditions were affecting Masvingo, Matabeleland South and Manicaland provinces, among other areas.
"It's another bad year for the province, as only three out of eight districts are likely to record meaningful harvests this year," Jason Machaya, governor of Midlands, told IRIN. "The tonnage is far less than what we require to feed all the families that have run out of food, and there is urgent need to source more maize."
Chief Ngungumbane, in Mberengwa district, Midlands, told IRIN: "People here have not harvested anything for the past two years. At the moment only one NGO [which he did not name] is assisting people under the food-for-work programme, but this is not enough because most families ran out of food last year."
The people who were most vulnerable would slip through the net if they could not work. "Those living with HIV and AIDS, the aged and the disabled cannot benefit, yet they are the worst affected," Ngungumbane said.
Nyasha Zindove, the administrator of Zaka district in Masvingo Province, said there was urgent need for food relief. "We need food aid as of yesterday - at least 100,000 villagers are vulnerable."
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