Church Leaders: Zimbabwe Health Services, People Collapsing

Believers in Zimbabwe are waiting for God to intervene as life-threatening difficulties continue to face the people of the nation.

In the meantime, church leaders familiar with the plight of Zimbabwe's people are encouraging believers outside of the country to intervene on God's behalf by making donations over the next four to five critical weeks.

"God is calling us to share, to walk with the hungry and, to the best of our knowledge, speak on behalf of the voiceless," said the Rev. Benyam A. Kassahun, Southern Africa program director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Global Mission organization.

"We are called to share from what we have, share from what is at our table," he stated this past week after traveling to Zimbabwe last month. "That is what the gospel is to me, what I have come to realize. To feed the hungry is where I find hope and where God wants us all to be."

Currently, Zimbabwe faces a nightmarish economic meltdown that is spiraling out of control, with inflation at more than 231 million percent. Half of the population is in need of emergency food aid, and there is a deadly outbreak of cholera in the capital city of Harare due to lack of basic services.

Kassahun described the situation in Zimbabwe as "a human disaster."

Among those who suffer most are "children, especially those under five, and pregnant women, who do not know if they will be able to give birth just because they are hungry," he said, according to the ELCA.

Even nurses at the hospitals are collapsing because they are so hungry, Kassahun added.

"I've never seen this kind of disaster and death," he said.

The food crisis began after 2000, when Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe launched an often violent campaign to seize white-owned farms, disrupting the economy of what had been the region's breadbasket. The farms were to have gone to poor blacks, but many went to veterans of Mugabe's guerrilla war against white rule over the former British colony.

Since then, agricultural production plummeted and one of Africa's best economies found itself faced with a meltdown that included the world's highest inflation rate and a staggering unemployment rate, which currently stands between 80 to 85 percent.

To help make sense of the inflation rate, which jumped from 11.2 million percent in June to 231 million percent in July, the Rev. Rafael Malpica-Padilla, ELCA Global Mission executive director, took the example of a pastor whose monthly salary is about 300,000 Zimbabwean dollars.

"That salary only buys one loaf of bread," he said. "But, even if you have money, there is no food to buy."

So bad is the food situation that some villagers resort to plucking undigested corn kernels from cow dung to wash and eat. Beetles, crickets, and termites also can make a meal.

"Student, pupils are collapsing in schools, in classrooms" because they're so hungry, reported the Rev. Ambrose Moyo, executive director of Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa.

"At the moment the challenge really to the churches, which they're really working on, is getting food on the table for the people," he said in a video report. "And secondly, to get some seed to the people so they can grow their food."

But the Church, he says, is in a very difficult situation.

"The Church, like any other institution, is struggling to make a living, to provide whatever they can find for the people," the former bishop said.

Furthermore, pastors are reporting that they're spending most of their time either consoling people or burying people, he added.

Moyo attributed the high death rate to the collapse of health services and called it "just totally unacceptable."

To help sustain the services of four hospitals of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe (ELCZ), ELCA is providing $600,000. The U.S. denomination is also allocating $330,000 for the purchase of 90 metric tons of seed and fertilizer to help secure food production.

According to Malpica-Padilla, if seeds are not planted within the next four to five weeks, during planting season, it will be too late.

"Our hope is that these efforts will leverage the support of the United Nations World Food Programme to assist in providing food for the entire community," he said.

Meanwhile, the country continues to be in political paralysis following disputed elections in March. A power-sharing deal signed two months ago has stalled over the allocation of ministries between President Robert Mugabe's party and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.

Lutheran leader Moyo said the hope of believers in Zimbabwe is in the message of resurrection and, as people of God, they believe in a God who intervenes in history.

"And the people certainly hope that sooner or later God will intervene and there will be a change," he reported.