By John Schmid, Bulawayo Monthly Meeting
One morning during our winter, my wife Kelitha left town at 9 am aboard a lorry full of 12.5 kg bags of maizemeal, destination Mawusumane in the Matopos Hills south of here. Kelitha had with her an exercise book with the names of all the heads of households in that village. We distribute maizemeal in 16 villages where the drought has been severe. Most of them are 150-200 km away, but Mawusumane is the nearest, less than 90 km from here.
At 7 pm, well after dark, she still wasn’t back. We had had heavy rains and the village is on a twisting dirt road out of reach of mobile phones, so all I could do was to sit and wait and wonder.
The answer emerged the next day. They had reached the village alright, but on the way back one of the rivers was running so high that they couldn’t cross. The next morning more rain threatened, but ten strong men from the village accompanied the truck to the river. There, the driver stopped the engine and they tied a plastic sheet under the air filter which, on this model, is low to the ground, and then the men pushed the vehicle through the swollen river. The water came up inside the driver’s cab. But all went well, and once on firm ground the engine started immediately.
By 12 noon Kelitha was back home in high spirits, ready for a late breakfast. When I asked her how it had gone she said: ‘Oh, just fine. The people were all waiting for our food – they are so hungry.’
We don’t often have such dramatic events. We just take food to a village, distribute it, and come back – humdrum, you might say, apart from maybe keys getting mislaid, the lorry driver oversleeping, or punctures on the way. But the thing that keeps us going is that ‘the people are waiting for our food — they are so hungry’, and it is our great privilege to be able to help.
So how did we get involved in this work?
Back in 2002, at Central & Southern Africa Yearly Meeting, Friends yet again drafted a letter to Thabo Mbeki, asking him to put pressure on Mugabe to consider the plight of his own people. But some of us felt we Quakers should do more than just writing to the politicians. At that time there was no maizemeal in the shops, so Kelitha suggested a food relief action. This was fleshed out by a subcommittee in one hour: Botswana Friends would look after a bank account, and Kelitha and I who were from the area most affected by drought would import maizemeal from Botswana, hire a lorry and distribute it. Which villages, how much and to whom was left to us, the people on the ground, to decide. And so was born the Zimbabwe Food Relief Action (ZFRA).
ZFRA has been going on ever since and the subcommittee has never met again! We take pride in that: it’s action
on the ground, not ‘meetings, bloody meetings’. At every Yearly Meeting we update Friends on our action and give a financial report. I’m retired and living on a UK pension and Kelitha is nominally described as a housewife, but this is now our voluntary job.
Only, this year it’s become a job and a half! Previously, we were giving a boost to the people who were sporadically looked after by big NGOs like the Red Cross, the Catholic relief agency, World Vision and so on. But this year they all pulled out for reasons not known to us, just when the crops in our target area had disastrously failed, so we find ourselves, the two of us with our offering of maizemeal, the only ones on the ground.
The situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. Some people have died of hunger while the bureaucrats in Harare are ‘discussing modalities’ with NGOs. Luckily, late last year we received a large donation from the Mennonite Foundation in the USA, the proceeds of a legacy (a one-off event), and on the strength of that we were able to make four distributions of 80 tons of maizemeal to 16 villages (about 3200 households) this year. But now the funds are exhausted and we don’t know whether we can help ‘our’ villages adequately until May, when the next harvest (hopefully a good one) is due.
Apart from the Mennonites, all our funds throughout these years have come from Quakers, mostly from individuals in the UK, US and Canada, but also from QSA and its Irish counterpart.
When we tell this to the villagers they are moved to think that unknown far-away friends have sent money to assist them. And then, often, a lady will say to Kelitha: ‘I’m going straight home to cook “isitshwala” (traditional thick maizemeal porridge) and tonight we and the children will all sleep on a full stomach’ – something most of us take for granted, and wouldn’t even mention in polite company.