Zimbabwe (MNN/BP) — Southern Baptists have brought badly-needed relief to an isolated region of Zimbabwe, where a national political impasse — compounded by hyperinflation, a cholera epidemic, and a burgeoning food crisis — have brought the country near the point of collapse.
According to Baptist Press, Zimbabwe's government declared a national emergency Dec. 4 because of a cholera epidemic, which has spread across the entire country, claiming at least 565 lives. The inflation rate has been estimated at 231 million percent, and United Nations food analysts believe the hunger crisis will grow worse in the spring because many families have eaten seeds needed for planting.
People in Zimbabwe are growing more desperate by the day, said Susan Hatfield, who with her husband, Mark, directs work in Sub-Saharan Africa for Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization.
"Grocery store shelves are almost completely empty, except for the U.S. dollar stores, accessible by only a very few," Hatfield said. "People do not want to be paid in cash, but in food, as many are hungry and starving. Many of the schools have closed. The main hospital in the capital, Harare, has closed down. The water has been turned off in most parts of the country, including much of Harare, and I just received word of an anthrax outbreak that has killed several people as well as a growing number of cattle in the Bulawayo area."
Far from major cities like Harare and Bulawayo, the Tonga people on Lake Kariba, along Zimbabwe's border with Zambia, receive very little assistance from the central government in dealing with their hunger. International Mission Board worker Daren Davis reported seeing telltale signs that hunger was becoming a serious problem among the Tonga.
"Some of the villages I visited were the first I have ever been in where chickens were not running around," Davis said. "I also saw very little grain stored. Several villagers told me they were eating roots and other foods that grow wild in the bush. This seems to be the norm in rural Africa when there is a food shortage. The dogs looked even worse than the normal African dog — and that is bad.
"The people are currently surviving on food relief from a variety of organizations," Davis added. "The current situation is bleak and not getting any better. Each day, the news shows only more problems and no solutions."
Davis zeroed in on the Tonga homeland as an area where targeted Southern Baptist relief could make a difference. On Nov. 17 International Mission Board workers from Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa gathered in Binga, a town on the southeastern shore of Lake Kariba, to deliver 500 boxes of food and soap provided by Baptist Global Response.
The food boxes were part of a larger project conducted by Baptist Global Response to mobilize relief in the country through resources provided by the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund. Each parcel contains about 50 pounds of food, including rice, dry beans, wheat flour, cooking oil, salt, powdered milk, sugar, peanut butter and tea.
Southern Baptist workers Duncan and Tatjana Pitts laid the groundwork for the project in meetings with the government administrator in Binga and a leading Tonga chief, Davis said. The chief helped them identify a village of 450 families so that no families would be left out of the relief effort. The remaining 50 boxes, along with 2,640 pounds of maize meal purchased with private donations, were taken to a village of 145 families.
Residents of the villages were thrilled that Southern Baptists cared enough to bring relief supplies to their isolated homes.
"They were very appreciative for this gift," Davis said. "We saw numerous people open the boxes and erupt into shouts of joy, dances, and great laughter.
"When the distribution was complete, several missionaries continued mixing with the people and kids," Davis added. "This interaction expressed that we were concerned about them and that we were not there simply to hand out food and leave. We shared that we were doing this because we are followers of Jesus and our desire is to bring Him praise and glory."