During the nearly three months that nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in Zimbabwe were banned from operating by President Robert Mugabe's government, people desperate for food foraged for wild fruits to survive, in some cases with tragic consequences.
Janet Chagwiza, 70, who lives in Nharira village, about 40km south of the Mashonaland East town of Chivu, told IRIN that two of her grandchildren were thought to have died from eating too much of a wild fruit that grows abundantly during the dry season.
"This fruit has become our staple food. We don't have mealie-meal [maize-meal] and our vegetable gardens have been overwhelmed by the daily demand, leaving whole villages in this area to depend on wild fruits," Chagwiza told IRIN shortly after burying her grandchildren in a single pit "because people here no longer have the energy to dig graves."
The fruit's pulp is separated from the hard seed by pounding it in pestles, but if eaten in excess it can cause extreme constipation, a nurse told IRIN at a nearby referral hospital where the two children were taken.
A nationwide strike by government doctors began a few weeks ago, which meant that the two children were unable to receive medical attention at the hospital.
Zimbabwe's hunger rates will peak early next year at about 5.1 million people in an estimated population of 12 million, according to the UN, but the ban put aid agencies on the back foot because they rely on NGOs to distribute food aid.
In the absence of food aid, villagers have been competing for the wild fruits with baboons and monkeys, sparking conflict between people and animals, and also between people.
Food shortages causing conflict
"The animals aside, competition for the fruits is so extreme among us and there are fights at times if some villagers feel that their territory has been invaded," Chagwiza said.
|Because of overwhelming demand, we are harvesting the fruits before they get ripe; we cover them with soil and set fire on top of the soil to ripen them. The taste is not so good but at least we would have filled our stomachs|
"Because of overwhelming demand, we are harvesting the fruits before they get ripe; we cover them with soil and set fire on top of the soil to ripen them. The taste is not so good but at least we would have filled our stomachs," she said.
Chagwiza said there had been droughts and poor harvests in her life, but this year was the worst she had witnessed and "clearly the situation has been made worse by the fact that aid organisations are no longer free to come in and help."
In Mhondoro district, about 60km southeast of the capital, Harare, children have been playing a vital role in finding food. "We go out early in the morning and return in the evening, looking for wild fruits and gathering leftovers from shopping centres, some of them as far away as 30km. We are helping our parents in these difficult times," said Yeukai Chirinda, 13. "If we don't do that, there won't be anything to eat."
Her daily chores also include a 16km round trip to fetch water from a stream, as boreholes in the area have fallen into disrepair, as well as collecting firewood.
The onset of the school term has provided some relief for Yeukai, but some of her peers have had to leave school to be able to do chores for their families.
A blanket ban on all NGO operations - with the exception of those doing HIV/AIDS-related work - was imposed on 4 June, a few weeks ahead of the second round of voting in the presidential ballot on 27 June, for alleged political bias against the government. Mugabe, the only candidate, won the run-off ballot, but the election was widely condemned as flawed.
The ban was lifted on some NGOs on 29 August, but there are strict new operating rules, which if flouted can lead to prosecution. NGOs concerned with democracy, justice and governance remain banned.
The permanent secretary in the social welfare ministry, Lancaster Museka, told a Harare meeting of NGOs on 1 September that they would have to regularly inform the government of their programmes, areas and modes of operation, and report to the authorities and police in the areas where they were operating.
These requirements are expected to delay the resumption of food distribution.
Difficult working conditions expected
Farayi Ngirande, spokesman for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO), told IRIN that "Naturally, the lifting of the ban is desirable, but it should not have been effected in the first place."
|NGOs would face difficulties in re-engaging communities that have suffered internal displacement, are still smarting from recent political violence and do not know whether or not to welcome NGOs once again, considering that some of the people were beaten for simply wearing a T-shirt with the name of a humanitarian organisation on it|
"There is a new set of operational requirements that the government has set in place, and the biggest challenge is how best to operate under the confining conditions. Our members will be expected to work through local authorities, and that is bound to introduce unnecessary red tape and create suspicion and confusion."
Conditions on the ground had changed and NGOs would "face difficulties in re-engaging communities that have suffered internal displacement, are still smarting from recent political violence and do not know whether or not to welcome the NGOs once again, considering that some of the people in those localities were beaten for simply wearing a T-shirt with the name of a humanitarian organisation on it," Ngirande said.
NGOs are expecting less acceptance when they return, especially in areas where high levels of political violence were experienced. Some communities are expressing hostility to relief agencies, while others are fearful that they could be labelled as political enemies of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party if they associate with humanitarian workers.
After the March 29 parliamentary, council and presidential elections, in which the rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won a majority in parliament for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980, political violence erupted across the country. The opposition party has claimed that more than 100 of its supporters were killed, thousands more injured and tens of thousands displaced.