The Common Good
March-April 2003

Food as a Weapon

by Jyl Hall | March-April 2003

The church's role in southern Africa.

Seven million people could die in Zimbabwe this year, part of the 15 million at risk of starvation in southern Africa as a whole. The famine killing these people is not only due to drought, but to politics and corrupt government. During a recent stint in the country, I met scores of people who had food confiscated from them because they were not affiliated with the correct political party, that of President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe's regime has severely restricted the distribution of food from the United States. The official reasons range from U.S. support for the political opposition to the dangers of genetically modified food to U.S. alliances with the white farmers that Zimbabwe is trying to get rid of by a brutal process of land redistribution. For Mugabe's regime, food is nothing more than a weapon of power.

Neighboring Malawi is faring marginally better. Three million people are at risk of starvation, but the country has a more stable government structure that can work with the United Nations and other organizations to bring in food. In Malawi, the problem is economics. The majority of the population consists of subsistence farmers without enough food to carry them through the dry season. Food shortages are so common that the months of January and February are called the "hungry months."

Along with rampant hunger and malnutrition, the other scourge ravaging modern Africa, of course, is AIDS. Unless the world devotes serious resources to prevention programs, by 2010 there will be nearly 6.5 million African AIDS orphans under 15, and as many as 20 million African children under 15 will have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Imagine if those numbers were in America; it's as many as if the entire state of Texas—every single city and town—were filled with AIDS orphans. What would the church in America do then?

A cancer continues to spread through Africa. Cancer can win when the rest of the body refuses to fight the infection. Everyone I met in Zimbabwe—from medical personnel to relief and development workers and missionaries, from the political opposition to the politically neutral—agree on one thing: The only way to help this country is through the church. Churches—which can be effective centers for food distribution and assistance—play an important, nonaligned role in African society. As the body of Christ, it is our duty to help those in need. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."

Jyl Hall worked with World Relief in southern Africa when this article appeared.

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