(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Families have lost traditional coping mechanisms

[Swaziland] Vusie Malambe, 10, stirs a pot of porridge that will be the only meal for his family of 8 in Mliba.

Thousands are starving in a nation that until this year boasted that its traditional social system never let a single Swazi go hungry.

"We have never been in want like this," Cyril Simelane, 59, the husband of three wives and father to 19 children told IRIN. "In my father's and his father's time, there were droughts, but no one perished because there was still wild game to shoot and wilderness areas to dig edible roots."

Without ever realising it, Simelane helped undermine the Swazi tradition - where he as headman would support the family through the output of his farm - when he at first accepted and then grew to depend on his son's remittances from a job in South Africa.

Thulani Simelane was employed in a gold mine until he died of AIDS.


Only the smallest of Simelane's children, aged two to 17, are at the homestead an hour after sunrise. The older siblings are out foraging the rural landscape for firewood to sell in bundles along the highway. None of them go to school.

Although school fees at the dilapidated local primary school, which like the rest of the area has no water or electricity, are less than US $20 a year, it is an unaffordable luxury when the money could be spent on life-sustaining food, assuming there was money to be had.

A report issued last week by UN agencies in Swaziland suggested a school lunch programme to guarantee children at least one nourishing hot meal a day. This would also be an inducement for parents to send their children back to school.

But the return to even partial normality seems beyond the eerie lassitude that has settled on eastern Swaziland, where 112,000 people, more than a tenth of the country's population, are starving. Another 80,000 Swazis will be reduced to a meal a day by the end of this month, and by year's end a quarter of the nation will be starving if emergency relief food does not arrive.

"The drought, bad land policy and AIDS have undermined what remains of the traditional family's ability to cope," Catholic charity aid worker Cynthia Nsibandze told IRIN. "In the old days, the multi-generational family homestead, headed by a polygamous male elder, was self-sustaining. But that system started disintegrating years ago when younger members left to seek education and jobs."

In order to secure a labour pool for industry and mining operations, British colonial authorities forced a need to earn cash on Swazi homesteads by imposing a hut tax. Taxes on Swazi Nation Land, where 80 percent of the population lives on communal land under chiefs, were dropped after independence.

But cash was still needed for things people wanted, be it goods at shops or bus fare to visit distant relatives.

"The little field of maize could barely feed a family, so income was sought from younger family members who went to towns, and there was no thought about improving farm output," said Sive Khoza, an agriculture ministry field officer.

The result is tens of thousands of small but labour-intensive family farms that depend on rainfall for crop sustenance. With a third of adult Swazis HIV positive, primarily the most productive workers, there are fewer hands to tend the fields.

Less land under production is one reason the 2002 drought is more devastating than another severe drought in 1992.

"Meat, what is meat?" asks Gogo Dlamini, 60, a grandmother who looks after seven grandchildren left in her care. "All we eat is hard porridge, once a day. We don't eat breakfast, but we try to wait until it is midday. If we are lucky, we can find some wild spinach. But you can see that it is winter, and nothing grows. There is no water, so we can't have a garden."

Dlamini lives near Big Bend, a town in the eastern lowveld, about two kilometres from a highway that leads to a sugar processing plant. She sends her grandchildren to the highway to scavenge for sugarcane that drops from trucks.

"We boil the cane, and that is our tea," she says.


What Dlamini does not know is that critics of government land use and agriculture policy say the food crisis is artificial, and sugarcane is a reason food security is lacking. "With all the big rivers and streams in Swaziland, there is plenty of water for irrigation, but only 1 percent of land where peasant farmers grow their crops is irrigated," said MP Clement Dlamini.

The UN food crisis report notes that the government is channeling irrigation water to industrial agriculture, such as sugarcane and timber production.

Sugar and timber are Swaziland's top exports, and earn hard currency for the cash-strapped nation's treasury. This has led to food security becoming a political issue.

"Government allows the people to starve so it can earn export revenue in order to purchase a luxury jet for the king," said Obed Dlamini, president of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress which, like all opposition parties that are pushing for political reform and democratisation, is banned by royal decree.

Politics and the immediate need to keep a sizeable portion of the population alive aside, cultural experts are saddened that the food crisis has shown the traditional Swazi family as a viable entity is a thing of the past. Worse, modern crises have shattered the treasured belief that all Swazis look after each other, and none ever go hungry.

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