The 36 children attending an early childhood centre in north-west Zimbabwe were lucky, and they knew it. They were wearing their best clothes – even if, as in the case of three-year-old Milesh, this meant a shirt that, while clean, was shredded at the back.
Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean children the same age are on the brink of starvation, and millions are losing their education as the collapse in government services closes school after school. All are at risk from the cholera epidemic. But Milesh and friends were looking forward not only to playing and learning together, but to getting what for many of them would be their only meal of the day – a plate of porridge.
The children waited patiently under a tree, clapping and singing while the food was prepared. They could not have been more orderly as they came forward, were given a plate and carried it carefully back into the shade. As soon as they were sitting down, the porridge – a special formula called corn-soya blend, or CSB, fortified with minerals and sweetened with sugar – disappeared in seconds.
Save the Children is helping more than 1,000 pre-school children in Zimbabwe in this way, but such is the chaos in the country that it is having to feed the centre's helpers, too. "It would be very difficult for me to travel here on an empty stomach," said one. She was scanning the pupils to see who was missing, and was not surprised that Godgave, four, was absent.
"Godgave is an orphan, and lives with his widowed grandmother," said the helper. "They are very poor. He is often too weak from hunger – he comes for one or two days, then he is away sick. We go and check on him, but we have no food to carry to him." In such a state any childhood disease, let alone cholera, could take his life.
Some of the children at the centre showed signs of malnutrition. While most rushed around once they had eaten, playing on the slide and the climbing frame, Milesh's six-year-old sister Zineth hovered near those with food, until an adult gave her a half-eaten portion of CSB. She made instant work of it. When workers later checked the children's weight-to-height ratio, Zineth was one of seven who fell into the red zone on the chart, showing she was malnourished. Milesh and 12 others were in the green zone, indicating normal development. Another 16 came up yellow, which meant that of the 36 children at the centre that day, 23 were either suffering from malnutrition or were close to it.
It is not uncommon in Africa for boys in a family to be favoured over girls at times of hardship, but when we accompanied Zineth and Milesh home, their grandfather Mathias denied it was intentional. "We want to treat the children the same," he said. "But when we have very little food, we give it to the youngest. It's not because he is a boy."
Mathias and his wife Mary have brought up their daughter's three children since she died five years ago and her husband deserted them soon afterwards. "We haven't had sadza [a mash, made from maize meal, that is Zimbabwe's staple food] for three days," he said. "We've been eating wild fruits and begging a little maize meal from our neighbours. We got a few cupfuls, which we gave to the children to eat. We had nothing for ourselves."
The United Nations estimates that more than five million Zimbabweans, roughly half of them children, urgently need food aid. Save the Children is preparing to set up emergency feeding centres for children under five, where even the severely malnourished can be rescued with a special food called Plumpynut. Neither of these programmes will benefit Mathias and his family, however, because they have livestock, and others are worse off.
"We have three donkeys, which we use to plough our field," he said. "We didn't get any seeds when they were given out, but we managed to barter some with a neighbour, in exchange for ploughing his field. We're living each day as it comes. It's hard for the children – they see others getting food and toys at Christmas, but we have nothing." His wife added: "When they ask us about the situation, we have no answers. We feel very helpless."
This story is being repeated across Zimbabwe. Millions are suffering, through no fault of their own, as the nation falls into chaos. Unless we help them, they have no cause for hope.
Some names have been changed.
Donations to date
The Independent on Sunday Christmas Appeal has already raised over £25,000, but the plight of Zimbabwe's children means much more is still needed.
£10 will feed 40 pre-school or primary school pupils and teachers for one week.
£25 will provide toys for a pre-school classroom.
£30 will clothe a family of three children so they can go to school.
£40 will buy teaching materials, including pens, paper and text books.
£66 will train a teacher.