IT is 7am and hundreds of children have come out on this chilly morning to queue for a plate of porridge.
With makeshift masks covering their faces, the children wait for Samantha Murozoki to start dishing up the warm food into whatever plastic tub, plate, tin cup – or even ripped-off corner of a cardboard box – is presented to her.
The winding queue is a sign of the desperation that has gripped the populous township of Chitungwiza, on the outskirts of Harare, since Zimbabwe enforced national lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, which has seen 46 cases and four deaths.
The queues have become a common sight in Seke Unit A, where Murozoki prepares porridge in the mornings for children and supper later in the day for hungry families.
With a makeshift stove, a couple of large pots and a few cooking utensils, the mother of two has been winning the respect of thousands who pass by her kitchen daily and is gathering volunteers who help her keep track of the children. A team of women serve and wash up the utensils.
None of the children have been turned away.
The feeding programme that began about a week into the national lockdown has become essential for the Chitungwiza community.
“I started with a 2kg packet of rice and 500g of beans. The number of people needing food has doubled since then. It’s not something that I had planned for,” Murozoki told the Guardian.
When food supplies were getting low soon after she started, she sold some of her personal possessions to get more.
“When my money ran out I started bartering food supplies with my jeans and sneakers,” she said.
Murozoki said her feeding programme was driven by compassion after a neighbour told how her family had gone to bed hungry as work and informal trade has dried up under the lockdown.
An immigration lawyer, Murozoki has won the support of Zimbabweans on social media.
“After I posted pictures of what I was doing on WhatsApp my friends and family chipped in to help out. A colleague also decided to put my story on Twitter and Facebook, that is how the Zimbabwean community started helping out. They have been donating groceries and some are even wiring money from overseas,” she said.
She said beneficiaries of the programme are required to register before receiving food aid.
“We just get people coming in to register their families, so we do not segregate. The lockdown is affecting everyone. We cannot turn people away because everyone wants food,” Murozoki said.
Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has partially opened up the economy to the manufacturing and mining sectors. But millions of informal workers remain on lockdown and food stocks continue to run low.
With a baby strapped on her back, Anastencia Hove, 35, came to Murozoki’s kitchen for breakfast and has stayed to volunteer as a cook.
“I was moved by her love. It is rare to find people who think about others. So I said as a token of my appreciation for her support, I should volunteer. This lockdown has not spared us at all, so people are suffering. The number of people I see here shows that many are hungry,” Hove said.
Gracious Mango, 39, clutches a plastic food container as she waits for her name to be called out. She explains how life has worsened during the lockdown.
“There is no food at home. It is becoming difficult every day,” Mango told the Guardian. “My husband and I have not managed to make any meaningful money because the economy had literally shut down.”
Mango’s friend, Michelle Makuvise, 30, a street vendor, said Murozoki needed everyone’s support. “I think this is good work which should not go unnoticed. The community is literally feeding on her generosity so support is needed.”
Zimbabwe experienced yet another poor harvest this year, leaving almost half the population in need of urgent food aid, with the most vulnerable people in rural areas already on the verge of starvation, according to humanitarian organisations.
In urban areas, 2.2 million people are in urgent need of food aid as many struggle to put enough on the table.
Government lockdown relief of US$4 per family is yet to be distributed at a time vulnerable families are failing to earn a living amid skyrocketing inflation.
As more urban Zimbabweans go hungry every day, Murozoki sees herself feeding more people, especially during lockdown.
“Even if the lockdown is lifted, I might continue for a month or so until everyone gets back on their feet. As long as Zimbabweans help me, I will be able to continue with my work,” she said.