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Church responds to Zimbabwe hunger crisis

7/14/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

By Linda Green

United Methodist leaders are calling on the church to provide immediate food relief to avert starvation in Zimbabwe.

Half of Zimbabwe's 12 million people are believed to need food aid, according to the U.N. World Food Program.

The food shortage in the Southern African country has been attributed to the controversial land reform program of the ruling ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front) party. However, the Rev. Gladman N. Makwenya, a United Methodist Missioner of Hope, says the situation is worsened by runaway inflation, pegged by the government at 268 percent, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, unemployment, a breakdown in the rule of law and other factors. Women, children and youth, and the elderly are the hardest hit.

The women and young people are falling prey to sexual abuse and domestic violence, and some children are leaving school due to increasing fees, he said. The elderly and terminally ill cannot obtain medical services, and the public health delivery system is in trouble.

The socioeconomic and political challenges present opportunities for the church to intensify its ministries with women, youth and children, Makwenya said. "This challenges the church to intensify creative ministries and programs to respond and take services to beneficiaries in their conditions of needs."

In June, the opposition movement implemented a five-day mass work stoppage that closed businesses, Makwenya said. The movement opposes the government of President Robert Mugabe.

The social and political conditions are desperate, he said in an e-mail message. The "high density" areas inhabited by the poor and elderly are experiencing a high rate of beatings and other violent assaults, robberies and break-ins. "We are living in a tension-filled atmosphere," Makwenya said. "No one knows how long or how soon the pressure could become even more destructive."

Though whites had owned a disproportionate share of Zimbabwe's farmland, most of the citizens criticize the process by which Mugabe's government has allowed war veterans and others to seize productive white-owned commercial farms in the last three years. Most of the farms have been lying idle and underutilized, Makwenya said. The new farmers lack skills and equipment, resulting in reduced yields, according to reports.

Zimbabwe has no food, petrol or cash in the banks, Bishop F. Herbert Skeete told United Methodist News Service in an e-mail. Skeete is serving as interim leader of the Zimbabwe church while Bishop Christopher Jokomo recovers from the effects of a stroke.

The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe has responded on the conference level with several distributions of maize to churches and communities as well as to boarding schools, orphanages and hospitals. The food was bought with grants from the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

UMCOR/Emergency Services International made a grant of $50,000 to continue the church's response to the crisis. UMCOR is helping the famine response with donations to the church through Skeete and an ecumenical group called Christian Care, which developed a food distribution process through member churches.

UMCOR's Africa Famine Advance was established last summer, following predictions of famine in Southern Africa, according to the Rev. Kristin Sachen, staff executive. The agency has provided funds to Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Namibia, she said.

The relief agency will focus on supporting the local, grass-roots distribution of food, assisting HIV/AIDS-affected families and orphans, maintaining educational programs and improving agricultural development to stabilize communities for the long term.

The Rev. Josphat Banda, Masvingo District superintendent, said villagers in Chivi, Triangle, Zaka and Gaza, among others, harvested insufficient food to meet their requirements.

"The situation is critical, and urgent supplies are needed to avert starvation," Banda said. She commended Skeete for facilitating the purchase of maize for distribution in the districts. Beneficiaries in some areas have received their rations, but fuel shortages are prohibiting food distribution.

Villagers near Game Parks are surviving on poached game, while others are collecting wild fruits and edible worms, Banda says.

Meanwhile, Chief Chikwanda of the Zvishumba area approached the Masvingo District office, appealing for the church to start Orphan Care Ministries for 325 area children.

The Rev. Anne-Grace Chingonzo, responsible for both urban and rural circuits of the Harare East District, described the food situation as very critical for her area.

Urbanites do not receive government rations, and they cannot even afford black-market food, she said. The Hwedza and Svosve rural areas are also affected. Any government assistance would help new farmers grow food in the 2003-2004 season, she noted.

"Through it all, the poor are creatively finding ways to survive and, even more surprisingly, willingly sharing their meager and very limited resources," Makwenya said.

The annual conference, with the assistance of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, has also hired an HIV/AIDS coordinator to supervise and pull together the various local United Methodist programs. The coordinator also works with ecumenical programs for care and for prevention education.

"The HIV/AIDS pandemic has left in its wake an increasing number of orphaned children," Makwenya said. "These are brought to our churches daily for ease and supervision. Local churches are responding with community care programs that schedule adults to look after orphans in their parents' homes in lieu of institutional orphanages, which are now being stretched beyond capacity."

Despite the situation, people - especially the young - crowd worship services each Sunday. "The spirit in our church fellowship continues to be a hopeful trust in God and a confident faith in God's promises," Makwenya said. "'La,' I am with you always.' Truly, in the midst of want and suffering, there are many blessings of care, compassion and overwhelming generosity."

Zimbabwe church leaders ask that United Methodists keep the people in prayer and continue to support the church, he said. "Our people are sincerely grateful for the prayers and generous support of the people called United Methodist in the United States and other lands."

Donations can be designated for the Africa Famine, Advance #101250-4, and dropped in church offering plates or sent to UMCOR, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 330, New York, NY 10115. Credit-card donations can be made by calling (800) 554-8583.

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*Green is United Methodist News Service's Nashville, Tenn., news director.

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