Battling with food insecurity, some Swazis have adapted their lives to the reality of relying on food aid for their survival.
A joint report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Food Programme (WFP) found that an estimated 262,000 Swazis in a population of 970,000 - 15,000 more than after the 2003/04 agricultural season - would be in need of food aid by the beginning of 2005.
Swaziland's food production suffered again this year from erratic rainfall, which started late and then became so heavy in mid-season that it threatened budding crops.
"My grandchildren would starve without this food," said 'Gogo' (granny) Thwala, 58, a widow who lost her son and daughter-in-law to AIDS.
Thwala lives in Embekelweni, a rural area on the outskirts of Swaziland's largest urban centre, Manzini, where the residents are considered less at risk of starvation than people living in the dry, drought-stricken lowveld.
"But there are people here who don't have food. It is because of AIDS ... people are not able to cultivate their fields like they used to," Isaac Gamede, a member of the Embekelweni Inner Council, told IRIN.
GOGO THWALA'S STORY
'Gogo' Thwala's two granddaughters aged 5 and 7, and grandson, 4, live in the relative comfort of a house that has electricity, just 50 metres from a neighbour's tap. She has no reliable source of income, and saves the little money she is able to make from knitting shawls and sewing shirts to pay the oldest girl's school fees.
"Our standard of living will decline as time goes on. There will be no money to pay for windowpanes when one breaks, and no way to put on a new coat of paint or fix a fence - we don't have money for food. Some of our neighbours who lost breadwinners to AIDS are in the same fix. The 'givers' (donor organisations) will see that we don't starve, but you will see that, in time, our circumstances will get poorer, and this area will settle back into dust," She commented.
WFP has concentrated on the drought-prone southern and central lowveld areas of the Shiselweni and Lubombo regions in its emergency operations phase, which comes to an end in December. The Manzini region, where Thwala lives, is served by a patchwork of smaller local groups, mostly faith-based organisations, who distribute food to the needy known to them.
Chris Anum, the WFP information officer in Swaziland, said Thwala's decision to use her limited funds for her grandchild's school fees was correct. "If it is a choice between buying food or paying school fees, obviously, the choice should be school fees because WFP will take care of people with food needs," he told IRIN.
"When the emergency operations phase ends at the end of the year, we will begin implementing, in January 2005, a Protracted Relief and Recovery Programme that will include 45,000 Swazi children in a school-feeding programme," said Anum.
These children often come from homes where food is virtually nonexistent and their only guarantee of getting a meal is at school.
LIVING OFF THE LAND
"We eat yellow porridge in the morning," said nine-year-old Sifiso, whose only footwear is a pair of plastic sandals. His breakfast is made of a corn-soya blend provided by WFP and distributed by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to neighbourhood care points like the one he goes to the eastern Lubombo region. "We have a hot meal in the afternoon. It is maize meal porridge and beans with oil."
The diet is occasionally augmented by vegetables, usually cabbage. Meat is rare. "We had bread at Christmas. We sliced it and put it on the grill to make toast, he reported.
Sifiso lives with his widower grandfather and a cousin on a dusty plot of land beside an untended field where nothing has been grown since 1999, the last time rain fell. A few skinny chickens peck between the pebbles - they are kept for their eggs, which the family sells.
"My grandfather showed me how to find things to eat. He tended cows when he was a boy my age ... all he had to eat was what he could find along the way. I can dig nuts from the ground, and there are insects you can cook and eat ... I can find berries in the woods," the boy explained.
Every second Saturday of the month Sifiso pushes a wheelbarrow to a WFP food distribution point two kilometres away to fetch maize meal, beans and cooking oil for his family, who are among the 200,000 that WFP expects to feed until next year.
"Drought victims will be fewer when good weather returns. In general, food distribution will be focused primarily on mitigating the effects of HIV/AIDS, and direct support to households with no access to food because of poverty," said Anum.
In addition to the 200,000 people already receiving food aid, and the 45,000 learners participating in the school-feeding programme, 20,000 children aged below five and post-natal mothers will be given food assistance, as will 20,000 orphans and vulnerable children. In support of the antiretroviral rollout programme, 10,000 HIV-positive Swazis will also get WFP aid.
PROMOTING COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Banele Khoza, 25, is head of a household that includes his wife, infant daughter, and deceased brother's two children. Their mother left the village to seek work as a seasonal harvester in the pineapple fields of central Swaziland and her remittances keep her children in school, but food assistance keeps them and the rest of the household fed.
Unable to cultivate his parched fields, Banele volunteers to unload sacks of maize from the delivery trucks rumbling in from the railway yards of Matsapha near Manzini at the local food distribution point.
"This gives me something to do, and I am helping other people," Banele said. He has driven some of the smaller delivery vehicles and hopes to use the experience to get a job as a truck driver.
"I am improving my farming skills at the Inkhundla (community) centre. There is a plot of land there for the orphans - we grow vegetables for them. We never grow such things at our home because there is no water," Banele said.
"We are working with the Ministry of Education and the NGO, Save the Children, to mobilise communities to provide vegetables, salt and sugar for the children. The WFP does not provide these," Anum said.
By embracing the projects as their own, communities will have a sense of ownership and ensure they remain sustainable.
"The people must become part of the process, and not just be passive recipients - at least they must provide vegetables and salt. But there is also a need for firewood for cooking hot meals, and drinking water for schools that are located far away from water sources," Anum said.
The strategy is working in Banele's area, and promoters of community involvement see this as a way to eventually wean the sizeable majority of Swazis who will receive food aid in 2005 away from total dependence on such assistance.