- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

IKEZI, Zimbabwe - Until a week ago, Hannah Dube and her five grandchildren living in the dusty village of Kezi in southwestern Zimbabwe had been surviving on small portions of dried white melon.

Then Zimbabwe’s social services stepped in, giving Mrs. Dube, 75, an emergency supply of corn to feed her family, caught in the grip of an AIDS pandemic and a crippling drought.

Her face worn by grief and stress, the aging grandmother’s plight in this remote and rural corner of Zimbabwe duplicates the burden of many other pensioners in this country, where acquired immune deficiency syndrome has turned a million children into orphans.

The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that more than 20 percent of Zimbabwe’s children will be orphans by 2010, the vast majority by AIDS, which kills 3,000 people per week on average. Nine of her grandchildren are orphans and she takes care of five of them, ages 5 to 13 years old.

Three successive years of drought have plagued this naturally dry region about 350 miles southwest of Harare, the capital, which is characterized by unproductive soils. Political and economic crises have exacerbated food shortages.

“We only eat one meal a day,” said Mrs. Dube, who lives in a hut next to a dusty road, where her cooking fire has long since gone out. “We are used to it now, and there is nothing unusual about it.”

Though food is still available in the shops, people like Mrs. Dube and her family, who have no income whatsoever, cannot buy any. On the narrow, dusty road outside her house, hundreds of people dangling empty sacks walk home, looking tired, hungry and dejected.

They are returning from the local business center, where they went to register for food aid to be distributed three days later.

“We were told [by an international aid group] to come and register our names for food coming next week. But now they say only those on the old list will be given food,” Mrs. Dube explained.

Zimbabwe’s government rejected food aid this year, saying the country produces enough to feed its people. But it recently allowed the U.N. World Food Program to undertake a single free-food distribution to get rid of its stocks left over from April, when the government stopped food aid.

Volunteer workers confirm the hunger in the area.

“It is depressing to go out there visiting the sick, handing out a few bars of soap, diapers, some antiseptic solutions — but seeing that what is urgently needed is food,” said volunteer Georgina Tshabalala.

Mrs. Dube struggles not only to provide food for her orphaned grandchildren, but also shelter. She cleans up grass that fell while she was thatching the roof of her new mud and pole hut. With nobody to help her build or maintain her home, she takes the risk of climbing onto the roof to patch it up before the rains bring it down.

Inside, the fire has gone out.

Mrs. Dube said she can’t keep the fire going because she doesn’t have the energy to go into the bush to cut firewood, and besides, the one meal of the day has already been cooked.

The elderly woman told AFP she had no choice but to look after her some of her grandchildren: Those not under her wing are probably involved in illegal gold mining, rife in the area.

“I don’t really know how they are surviving, but no one helps me with anything,” she said. “The chickens and the goats you see outside, I sell to send these children to school.”

Despite the difficult living conditions, one of her grandchildren, Dan, 7, passed his year-end school examinations with A grades, she boasted.

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