Byline: Caroline Foulkes
By now, if the rains have not fallen, Choonya Fabian Chinimba and his family will have been without food for 19 days.
If they have been lucky, a neighbour may have been generous and given them a share of their own meagre food stocks. But a little doesn't go far, not among a family of 27. Even if they kill one of the few skinny goats they have left and mix it with the maize meal, to make the food go further, it will not last long.
In a good year, Choonya's farm could flourish. He could grow maize and cowpeas and sugar. If his crop were successful, he would not only have enough to feed his family, but there might also be a little over, which they could sell to make a profit. He had 300 cows. He now has just 25. As he waves his skinny, wrinkled arms to proudly indicate the extent of his lands, the old, silver-coloured watch on his left wrist rattles loosely. It is already fastened as tight as it will go.
Choonya has worked the land around Chintibule village, in the Nkonkola area of Zambia since 1951. He has seen bad times before, but never like this.
'Now 1995, that was bad,' he says, reclining in a faded, flowerpatterned armchair beneath the shade of a tree as scrawny chickens run themselves ragged in the heat, scratching the dry ground in vain for a peck of grain.
'But this is worse, because the time for planting has gone. It is late now. If the rains don't come, we will die.'
His face registers little emotion as he says it. At 80-years-old he speaks of what he knows to be a certainty rather than a possibility. At this time of year, it should be raining, heavily, consistently, at least three times a week all across Zambia. But the rainy season this year exists in name alone.
Even if rain were to fall it could not make up for what has been lacking until now. Even if it were to rain from now until Christmas Day it wouldn't make a difference. It would simply dampen the surface of the cracked, parched ground and roll away.
Zambia's southern province suffers more from drought than any other. Drought has been a problem here for the last four or five years as the rains have slowly begun to thin out from a torrent to a trickle. It hit farmers like Choonya first, farmers who depend on the rain, drying up their crops and turning their land into a crazy paving of split earth. The commercial farms, the big sugar beet producers, managed for a while, using irrigation systems to draw water from the Kafue River, one of the few solid bodies of water left in the area as its tributaries began to dwindle. But even they are beginning to suffer now.
A local dam which some of them depend on for water has dried up. At a time when sugar beet and maize is supposed to be flourishing the rains have stopped and show no sign of returning.
In a bid to save their crops, some local coffee farmers have cut back their plants almost to the root in the hope that if it rains they will flourish again from the shoots.
Every day the people here look above them, hoping for clouds, for some sign that rain might come. …