- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

KOOMA, Zambia In the village of Kooma, people compete with baboons and birds for nuts and wild fruit to survive.
"We share with animals," said Elliot Magoloi, 68. "It's a shame."
His face was gaunt. Frayed blue coveralls hung from his body.
Drought has left as many as 14.4 million people facing the threat of starvation, U.N. estimates show. Here, in Zambia's southern province, a flat landscape of sandy soil and crackling, dry, pale yellow grasses, the crisis has hit especially hard.
Mr. Magoloi's daughter-in-law, Maureen Kola, 22, sat on a straw mat nearby with her five children. She fingered the rough shell of a wild mungongo nut, put it on a triangular rock and smashed it with a round, smooth stone. The thin porridge it would produce was the only food in the village.
The children cry, she said, "because of the hunger."
She pointed to a skinny dog and laughed quietly. "That means there is nothing," she said.
In impoverished Zambia, where nearly 30 percent of the people are going hungry, some argue that government policy has made things worse.
Zambia's government decided in August to reject donated corn from the United States because some of it was genetically modified. The government said it worried about side effects, even though U.N. agencies certified the food as safe.
But the United States is by far the largest donor in response to the southern African hunger crisis. Aid organizations said they are scrambling to find alternatives.
"The problem is finding it fast enough," said Richard Ragan, the World Food Program's representative in Zambia.
In Kooma, a village of thatched-roofed mud huts, Cryson Mutema is bitter about the debate occurring in the capital, Lusaka, 340 miles to the north.
Mr. Mutema, 38, said he had heard radio reports of President Levy Mwanawasa's fears that genetically modified food could be poisonous.
"He doesn't want? But we want. He's eating, all day. He is satisfied. Here we are hungry. Here we go starving," Mr. Mutema said.
His 3-year-old son sat at his feet. The listless child's enormous eyes stared but focused on nothing.
The villagers said this year has been especially hard because a cattle disease wiped out much of the area's livestock. In the past, they could have sold off a cow to buy food.
Cattle, a sign of status, are used to perform the hard labor of clearing fields. It is a task that this year must be done by hand on empty stomachs.
The wooden doors of several huts down the road are bolted with long sticks. The owners have gone 25 miles west in hopes of eating better in Livingstone, a resort town.
Even the local schoolteacher has left. The villagers can't pay her, so the children now spend their days at home. Hunger leaves them too tired to play.
In Maunga, about 12 miles away, relief supplies had arrived. Women in head scarves and print skirts of fuchsia and gold, and men in threadbare shirts, sat quietly in front of the village school waiting for their names to be called to collect sacks of corn distributed by the international relief group CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere).
For many, it was the first corn they had had all year. They smiled when they talked about once again making nchima. The cornmeal mush is their traditional food.
Older couples walked off carrying the heaving sacks between them. Some carted away the grain by wheelbarrow. Young women balanced sacks on their heads and glided into the bush.
But in Kooma, home to about 300 people, a small group sitting in a packed sandy yard talked about a life of hunger.
"I spend my days sitting because I can't do anything. I just want to sleep," Mr. Magoloi said.
Some food relief later arrived, but life remained difficult.
The drought so devastated the village's corn, its staple crop, that villagers did not bother building grain storage sheds. There was nothing to store.
As planting season begins this year, Mr. Magoloi and his neighbors say they don't know how they will muster the strength to sow the fields or find the money to buy seed.
"If I'm hungry, I feel like I have no hope. I feel blue to my heart," said Mr. Magoloi, hanging his head.


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