"We are now losing the last shreds of normality. Three tomatoes now sell for one US dollar on the streets, and two fish cost five US dollars". The words are those of Bishop Dieter B. Scholz of Chinhoyi in Zimbabwe. He is describing the continuing bitter plight of the people in this ravaged country, as of February 2009.
Zimbabwe may have temporarily slipped from the headlines, but the catastrophic political and economic plight of this country under the dictatorial rule of President Robert Mugabe has not changed. One former ally of Mugabe, the journalist Wilf Mbanga, who now lives in exile in Britain, described the attitude of the president in an interview in 2008.
He said: "28 years as ruler have made him drunk with power and the fear of possibly losing this power has made him as dangerous as a wounded beast. At the moment he is capable of anything, including genocide".
Zimbabwe, once seen as the bread-basket of Africa because of its rich harvests, now faces the prospect of starvation. Bishop Dieter writes: "The anger wells up in me when I hear that the government officials of the ruling party are still trying to intimidate our parish priests and prevent them from helping people who have been reduced to living off tree bark, grass seed and wild fruits. But we will not let them take away our right to share our bread with the hungry".
Bishop Scholz, a Jesuit, has lived and worked in Zimbabwe for over 40 years and since 2006 he has been bishop of the diocese of Chinhoyi in the northeast of the country. Among the agencies which regularly support his work is the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Originally from Berlin, the bishop worked for many years in Silveira House, a Jesuit formation centre founded in 1964, about 12 miles (20 km) east of the capital Harare. To this day, this pastoral and social development centre is striving to strengthen the surrounding communities, offering courses in such diverse fields as healthcare, agriculture, democracy and human rights and also in the local cultures and languages.
Its goal is to help the Zimbabwean people to help themselves. However, in the current profound crisis these courses no longer find many takers. Conditions of life for ordinary people are pitiful, their poverty indescribable. Schools and hospitals have been closed. The local economy has long since collapsed and the currency become worthless.
Everyone is desperate to get hold of hard currencies in order to survive, but many do not succeed. Facing starvation, they flee with their remaining strength to neighbouring countries, or simply die. Hunger is everywhere, a brutal plague that can seize upon entire families and wipe them out – as one observer put it, "like an endless, silent tsunami".
Since August 2008, this grave food shortage has gone hand-in-hand with a cholera epidemic. And while the number of new cases has now fallen sharply, according to the World Health Organisation in Geneva, this dangerous disease has not been defeated and could easily break out again at any time, as the WHO reported at the end of March. According to its data, in February 2009 around 8,000 new cases were being registered each week, whereas by the second week of March this had fallen to 2,000.
The death rate among those affected has also fallen, from almost six percent in January to 2.3 percent by mid-March. All in all, since the outbreak of the epidemic, over 91,000 people have been infected with the cholera virus and of these, some 4,000 have died, according to the WHO figures.
Against this background Bishop Scholz told a representative of ACN, "We must bring back the humanity that we have lost". And the bishop, who visited his home country in January and February this year to seek help for the people of Zimbabwe, insisted that he will not allow his diocesan staff to be deterred from distributing food to the starving population, despite the fact that his priests have repeatedly been threatened and summoned before the district authorities. Bishop Scholz has protested energetically against these actions.
(c) Oskar Wempter coordinates Jesuit Communications in Harare, Zimbabwe. See: www.jescom.co.zw
With thanks to the communications office of the Jesuits in Britain - www.jesuit.org.uk/