Widow Maintains Faith Despite Gloomy Harvest Forecast

Nov 18, 2002 03:00 AM EST

EASTERN ZAMBIA -- "Do please have some," says a smiling woman in front of me in the beautiful-sounding Bantu language, holding out a pot. The interpreter at my side translates and indicates that I ought to taste the beans.

I hesitate a little, since I do not want to eat the food that this family needs more than I do. I am in a small village in Eastern Zambia. The purpose of this visit is to find out more of how our partner in co-operation, the Lutheran World Federation, works on location.

The woman, whose name is Mary Pehri, continues, tears in her eyes: "Do have some. You have traveled such a long way in order to visit us here in Zambia. You must be tired and hungry".

Of course we have traveled a long way, I say to myself, but are we hungry? A little, maybe. We had our breakfast only a few hours ago. The woman standing in front of me with this dented cooking pot is inviting me to share the only meal this family will have all day.

There are five children in the family. The husband has died as a result of HIV/AIDS. Mary has to bear the whole responsibility for this family on her own.

Mary continues to tell me how she went out very early to find some roots and wild beans. "We go out as soon as the sun rises, because nowadays it takes many hours before we find any food. Sometimes we do not return to the village until dusk. Sometimes we do not find any food at all".

I take a look at her feet. A few pieces of material is the only thing that protects the soles of her feet against the harsh terrain. Zambia is a beautiful country, but it is mostly woodland with valleys and hills, green trees and blue-flowering jacaranda trees.

Yet again the pot is offered to me, and I feel that I cannot refuse a third time. I am overwhelmed by this care and hospitality. And pride! It is a strong woman who stands before me.

A woman who is proud that she is able to take care of her family; proud to have a hut of her own with a grass roof. The hut is Spartan but well cleaned. The family does not own any mattresses or any cloth, so they sleep on the earthen floor.

I pick up a large bean and taste it carefully, for I have heard how toxic the beans that have been picked in the jungle can be. And I feel ashamed when I think that this is the food that this family eats every day. I ought not to be afraid.

The bean does not taste of anything much, almost like a wet newspaper. Mary tells me that her hope is that the children will be able to eat until they are satisfied, but they do need help to find food. Another of her wishes is that the children will be able to attend school, which Mary herself has never been able to do.

We traveled around, altogether about 3,000 kilometers in southeastern and eastern Zambia. Everything we saw and heard was alarming. There is no more food! The harvests have failed for two years running.

The next harvest period will come in March, but there are so few people that can afford any grains that the hope for a large harvest is steadily decreasing. There is nothing left to eat, except green unripe mangoes, toxic roots and wild beans that must be boiled for many hours in order to become edible. And this is only a short-term solution.

The mangoes will soon be ripe, and then they will rot and become inedible. The rainy season will start in a few weeks or maybe within days.

By Marianne Edjerstan