A Morsel of Goat Meat

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

March 23, 2005

Binga, Zimbabwe The hungry children and the families dying of AIDS here are gut-wrenching, but somehow what I find even more depressing is this: Many, many ordinary black Zimbabweans wish that they could get back the white racist government that oppressed them in the 1970's.

"If we had the chance to go back to white rule, we'd do it," said Solomon Dube, a peasant whose child was crying with hunger when I arrived in his village. "Life was easier then, and at least you could get food and a job."

Mr. Dube acknowledged that the white regime of Ian Smith was awful. But now he worries that his 3-year-old son will die of starvation, and he would rather put up with any indignity than witness that.

An elderly peasant in another village, Makupila Muzamba, said that hunger today is worse than ever before in his seven decades or so, and said: "I want the white man's government to come back. ... Even if whites were oppressing us, we could get jobs and things were cheap compared to today."

His wife, Mugombo Mudenda, remembered that as a younger woman she used to eat meat, drink tea, use sugar and buy soap. But now she cannot even afford corn gruel. "I miss the days of white rule," she said.

Nearly every peasant I've spoken to in Zimbabwe echoed those thoughts, although it's also clear that some still hail President Robert Mugabe as a liberator. This is a difficult place to gauge the mood in, because foreign reporters are barred from Zimbabwe and promised a prison sentence of up to two years if caught. I sneaked in at Victoria Falls and traveled around the country pretending to be a tourist.

The human consequences of the economic collapse are heartbreaking. I visited a hospital and a clinic that lacked both medicines and doctors. Children die routinely for want of malaria medication that costs just a few dollars.

At one maternity ward, 21 women were sitting outside, waiting to give birth. No nurse or doctor was in sight, and I asked the women when they had last eaten meat, eggs or other protein. They laughed uproariously. Lilian Dube, a 24-year-old who had hiked 11 miles to get to the hospital, said that she had celebrated Christmas with a morsel of goat meat.

"Before that, the last time I had meat was Christmas the year before," she said. "I just eat corn porridge and mnyi," a kind of wild fruit.

An elementary school I visited had its fifth graders meeting outside, because it doesn't have enough classrooms. Like other schools, it raises money by charging fees for all students - driving pupils away.

"Only a few of the kids who started in grade one are still with me in school," Charity Sibanda, a fifth-grader, told me. "Some dropped out because they couldn't pay school fees. And some died of AIDS."

As many as a third of working-age Zimbabweans have AIDS or H.I.V., and every 15 minutes a Zimbabwean child dies of AIDS. Partly because of AIDS, life expectancy has dropped over the last 15 years from 61 to 34, and 160,000 Zimbabwean children will lose a parent this year.

AIDS is not President Mugabe's fault, but the collapse of the health system has made the problem far worse.

The West has often focused its outrage at Mr. Mugabe's seizure of farms from white landowners, but that is tribalism on our part. The greatest suffering by far is among black Zimbabweans.

I can't put Isaac Mungombe out of my mind. He's sick, probably dying of AIDS, and his family is down to one meal a day. His wife, Jane, gave birth to their third child, Amos, six months ago at home because she couldn't afford $2 to give birth in the hospital. No one in the family has shoes, and the children can't afford to attend school. They're a wonderful, loving family, and we chatted for a long time - but Isaac and Jane will probably soon die of AIDS, and the children will join the many other orphans in the village.

When a white racist government was oppressing Zimbabwe, the international community united to demand change. These days, a black racist government is harming the people of Zimbabwe more than ever, and the international community is letting Mr. Mugabe get away with it. Our hypocrisy is costing hundreds of Zimbabwean lives every day.