Hunger stalks Africa's struggling people

By Edward Harris

Dakar - From locust-devastated western dust bowls to the conflict-ridden central jungles and the plains of the Aids-struck south, hunger pangs are growing among Africa's most vulnerable, and relief officials say they're increasingly unable to help.

Much of the world's poorest continent is entering its annual "lean season" - the months leading up to harvest when food stores dwindle and bellies gurgle among the most impoverished. Calls for international assistance are multiplying, but funding shortfalls and endemic strife are hitting efforts by humanitarian workers to respond.

"Essentially, we are really concerned because of drought, lack of harvest, civil war, or insecurity in general: it all comes down to a deadly cocktail of need," said Caroline Hurford, a spokesperson for the United Nations' World Food Programme, which spearheads food-distribution efforts - but is suffering serious funding shortfalls.

"People are slipping away in the dusty villages of Malawi or Sudan, or wherever," she said from the agency's headquarters in Rome. "We need to sound the alarm now."

While the great majority of sub-Saharan Africans have plenty to eat and now live in democracies, where famine is all-but unheard of, those inhabiting conflict zones, harsh climes or hard-to-reach areas are increasingly going hungry.

Aid workers say the plight of Africa's hungry has been overshadowed by the massive aid outpouring after the Asian tsunami - a phenomenon known as "donor fatigue".

And since there is no African famine raging, pictures of skeletal, dying babies aren't arriving in morning newspapers or on evening news programmes, they say.

But the needy are there - one in three sub-Saharan Africans don't get enough nourishment each day, the UN says.

In Central Africa's Uganda, the UN made an urgent appeal on Wednesday for food worth $45-million to help more than three million Ugandans, half of them victims of a 19-year civil war.

UN World Food Programme official Ken Noah Davies said existing supplies would run out by the end of June, the start of the dry season.

"We are going to see a terrible situation getting worse if we do not get food immediately," Davies said. "We have a huge shortfall of 90 000 tons."

In nearby eastern Congo, people fleeing ongoing strife are hiding in the jungle, where aid workers can't reach them. When hunger overcomes fear, they emerge with cheekbones showing on gaunt faces.

For sprawling refugee camps in that restive region, food distributions are shelved periodically when travel becomes too dangerous for aid workers. Some feeding programmes for refugees in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have also been curtailed due to lacking funds.

Funding shortfalls are also looming for southern Sudan, while nearly three million are displaced inside in the western Darfur region, where they've been driven from their homes by strife. A quarter million other have fled to Chad, where they've become refugees.

Worldwide, the World Food Programme said last month it urgently needs $315-million to meet the needs of 2.2 million refugees sheltering in camps, 75 percent of whom are in Africa.

Those who have fled their homes due to conflict are the easiest counted since they're often registered and monitored by relief workers. Untold numbers of other Africans are growing hungry for reasons other than strife.

In the south, where HIV/Aids is ravaging populations, some crops are failing because farmers are sick. Without proper nourishment, Aids claims other victims ever quicker.

Similarly, development schemes meant to help grow African economies and break a dependence on international aid are undercut by hunger and its corollary, disease. "You can't build roads on an empty stomach," says Hurford.

Zimbabwe said Thursday it didn't ask for and doesn't need the food aid the United Nations has promised, insisting it could provide for its own people amid a mounting humanitarian crisis rooted in politics. But Social Welfare Minister Nicholas Goche said Zimbabwe welcomes any that comes.

A day earlier, the head of the UN World Food Programme met with President Robert Mugabe to discuss what he described as "an enormous humanitarian crisis". James Morris added that between three and four million Zimbabweans will need food aid in the next year with the peak time of need coming between December and March.

The economic decline of what was once the region's breadbasket is traced to a campaign Mugabe began in 2000 to seize farms from whites and redistribute them to blacks. Agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, was devastated and Mugabe has faced international isolation for his attacks on blacks and whites who opposed him.

In far West Africa, yellow locusts flitted through blue skies last year, delighting children but auguring troubles only manifesting themselves now in the sere, scorching region.

The locusts devastated crops across the area just south of the Sahara desert known as the Sahel, meaning already poor countries are now running out of food - with harvests still months away.

In Mali, 10 percent of the country's 11 million inhabitants are at risk as the country struggles to make up for a cereal deficit of 350 000 tons, officials said this week. So far, they have only received a fraction of what they need.

The UN appealed last month for $16.2-million to provide food aid for 3.6-million people in Niger, hit by drought and the locusts.

On Wednesday, hundreds marched in Niger's capital, Niamey, demanding free food and carrying signs reading: "We're hungry, help us." - Sapa-AP

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