QUALIFYING for free food aid in Zimbabwe can mean negotiating a labyrinth of bureaucracy, standing in lines for hours, and waiting months before receiving the next ration of corn.
The crux of the problem is a grain quota system which reflects the fact that, as one of southern Africa's wealthier nations, Zimbabwe has tried to buy its way around the impact of the drought.
Usually a regional breadbasket, Zimbabwe ran out of grain in April because it continued to meet export contracts despite crop losses of about 75 percent. Since then, Zimbabwe has secured 2.9 million tons of cereal imports, including more than 2.5 million tons of corn.
But the official allotment of corn per month is hopelessly insuffient, and has necessitated complicated checks to ensure that recipients do not cheat the system, according to officials of the Department of Social Welfare and the Department of Health, and district administrators.
Take the case of Ruth Vuma (not her real name). In order to receive 5 kg (11 pounds) of corn, she must start by filling in a three-page form entitled: Drought Relief Application and Assessment Form.
On the form she must declare her identification number, province, council ward, village, marital status, along with the name, ID numbers, and location and birth date of each of her children.
Then she must give a full declaration of her monetary assets, including pension, public assistance, and allowances, if any. She must also list all her livestock and provide a detailed accounting of expected harvest crop-by-crop, with projected earnings and surplus.
This information must then be certified by the Department of Agriculture (Agritex) and by her local ward councilor.
The certified information must then be assessed by an officer of the Department of Social Welfare, and that assessment must be reviewed and authorized by a senior department officer.
This involves many hours of lining up at the food distribution point.
When she presents the three-page form to the assessing officer, she must produce her metal ID card, which must correspond with the number on her form, along with either the birth certificate of each of her children or their health ID cards.
When she failed to produce the right information at one of these steps, Mrs. Vuma joined the many other Zimbabweans turned away without food to begin the process all over again.
Such is the scene at Chegute Secondary School in Mwembe, a remote village in the drought-stricken southern district of Mberengwa.
An empty classroom at Chegute School served as the distribution point, and about a dozen 110-pound bags of corn were piled in one corner of the classroom. Welfare officials dispensed the grain into a variety of bags and containers with a 5-kg can.
It took nearly five hours from the time the first line formed for the first applicants to receive grain.
"It is a continual process of screening to ensure that people are not cheating," says Felix Manungo, the social welfare officer for Mberengwa. "We are reducing the numbers of people who qualify for free food because people are cheating."
Mr. Manungo's deputy, an assessing officer who asked not to be named, seemed frustrated. "It's a very difficult and very slow process. But I have my instructions, and I cannot make any exceptions," he says.
The most common form of "cheating" appeared to be mothers declaring children who, in fact, were staying with relatives in another village or working away from home.
Recipients say that 5 kg lasts no more than a week. In theory, distribution is carried out on a monthly basis. In practice, there is often a delay of two or three months between distributions.
"Clearly, 5 kg of corn is not enough," says Mberengwa district administrator Crispian Mudenge.
Unlike Mozambique, which relies almost entirely on food aid, airlifts, and food convoys, Zimbabwe is relatively prosperous, well endowed with natural resources and a sound transport and communications infrastructure.
Corn is now entering the country through South Africa and Mozambique at the rate of 6,600 tons a day. But Zimbabwe needs 8,800 tons a day if it is to meet its needs through the end of the year.
Relief workers and Southern African Development Community officials have predicted that it could take Zimbabwe between three and four years to recover from this drought, which also means a deficit in its corn exports to neighboring states.
About 85 percent of the food aid distributed in Zimbabwe has been bought by the government on the commercial market and is stored at local depots of the Grain Marketing Board (GMB).
The Department of Social Welfare then requisitions grain from the GMB depots for drought relief. The rest of the corn is sold commercially.
Initially, about 2 million of Zimbabwe's 10 million people registered through the Department of Social Welfare for food aid. The quota per person then was 10 kg of corn.
But President Robert Mugabe announced in August that the allocation would be increased to 15 kg, and the increase had a disastrous impact on grain stocks.
The number of registered people acquiring relief assistance skyrocketed, and the allocation was reduced in September to 5 kilograms - half what it had been in the first place. By October, 5 million people, nearly 80 percent of the rural population, were registered to receive food.
"The problem is that once you have opened the floodgates it is very difficult to reduce the number of people receiving aid," a Western diplomat in Harare says.
"Feeding 5 million people is a major undertaking on an Ethiopian scale," says David Morton, Southern Africa director of the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP). "What makes this different from Ethiopia is that Zimbabwe can afford to import the food."
Mr. Morton says that the WFP was trying to get Zimbabwe to target the most needy people and increase the ration.
Backlash from the quota reduction to 5 kg has been tinged with political dissent among the minority Ndebele tribe in the Matableleland provinces.
Many Ndebele community leaders, who already blame a critical water situation in Bulawayo and Matabeleland on neglect by the Shona-dominated Mugabe administration, feel that the government is using drought relief as a political tool to bolster its waning support in advance of the 1995 ballot.
The quota reduction also has had an interesting side-effect. The WFP has found that most rural households receiving assistance now depend on relief food for only a portion of their needs. Many have devised other ways of coping.
These include: receiving food and money from relatives in better-off areas; sending children to live with relatives in urban areas; illegal gold-panning in river beds; and a change of diet to include more wild fruits and game.
"People need to learn to cope by themselves before the food safety net kicks in," says Ted Morse, Zimbabwe and Southern Africa director of the United States Agency for International Development.
"Otherwise they become so food-dependent that they can't help themselves," he says.
Another grievance over the quota system is evident in Zaka, a drought-stricken southern district where distribution has been erratic despite a mountain of corn at the local GMB depot in the town of Jerera.
"We are waiting for a requisition from Harare before we can order and distribute the corn," says Mugore Gundiro, a Social Welfare officer in the town of Jerera.
But local inhabitants were not impressed with official explanations.
"We are starving here," says Rudo Chivasa, nursing her five-month-old baby under the shade of a large tree.
"The 5 kg last for half a week, and we last got food nearly two months ago," says the mother of five.
Even the Department of Health's Child Supplementary Feeding Program, wherein about 800,000 children under the age of 5 receive a meal a day at clinics, has been affected. The program's positive impact at times has been offset by inconsistent food distribution.
The feeding program "makes the children healthy and strong but the last time the clinic [at Jerera] fed the children was two weeks ago," Mrs. Chivasa says.