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– The people lined up early for a chance to buy subsidized maize meal from the government-run Grain Marketing Board depot in Harare, at prices they could afford. After three hours, a guard emerged to announce that the depot’s supply was rotten so there would be none for sale that day.

The crowd of 150 reacted with disbelief and anger.

“Life is hard, all things are expensive, there are no price controls and inflation just keeps getting worse,” said Benjamini Dunha, 57, a plumber who makes 700 Zimbabwe dollars a month — about $38 at official exchange rates. Less than a year ago, his salary was worth much closer to $700.

Another shopper, Nyasha Domboka, 52, spoke cynically about a truckful of maize meal, also known as mealie meal, that he had just seen in the depot parking lot. “How can mealie meal packed just recently be said to have gone bad all of a sudden?” he asked.

A combination of government dysfunction, an economic meltdown, droughts and a calamitous cyclone in March have hurtled Zimbabwe toward a hunger disaster that has become the most severe in southern Africa and among the most alarming in the world. While food is not necessarily scarce yet, it is becoming unaffordable for all but the privileged few.

“I cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation in Zimbabwe,” Hilal Elver, an independent U.N. human rights expert on food security, said after a 10-day visit in November. Sixty percent of the country’s 14 million people, Elver said, are “food-insecure, living in a household that is unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs.”

Hunger in Africa is a pervasive problem, but in Zimbabwe, once known as the continent’s breadbasket, it has been compounded by dysfunction that has left the country in its most serious economic crisis in a decade. The annual inflation rate, which the International Monetary Fund has called the world’s highest, is 300%.

Gerald Bourke, a spokesman for the southern Africa operations of the World Food Program, the anti-hunger agency of the U.N., said that until recently, 60% of its assistance to Zimbabweans was in the form of cash, but that the recipients no longer want the money.

“Inflation is a rampant problem and people said, ‘we’d prefer the food,’ ” Bourke said.

So by January, he said, the agency intends to switch to a “fully in-kind food program” for the first time in Zimbabwe, distributing monthly rations of grain, oil and nutritional supplements for children younger than 5. The agency also will double the number of recipients to 4 million.

“This is certainly the worst we are seeing in southern Africa,” Bourke said during a mid-December field visit to Harare, the capital. While cases of acute hunger have not been uncommon in rural Zimbabwe, “it’s seen in the cities now,” he said. “Hungry people in the countryside are moving to the cities” in search of food.

Many historians attribute Zimbabwe’s predicament to the legacy of Robert Mugabe, the father of independence in 1980. An icon of African anti-colonialism, Mugabe became a despot and presided over the decline of what had been one of Africa’s most prosperous lands. He was ousted in 2017 and died in September at 95.

Any hopes that Mugabe’s former ally and successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, could revive Zimbabwe’s economy have almost completely faded.

In June, Mnangagwa scrapped a policy known as dollarization, in which the U.S. dollar and other foreign currencies were used as legal tender. That policy had been introduced in 2009, and helped end an era of hyperinflation, which had rendered the Zimbabwe dollar less valuable, literally, than the paper it was printed on.

But a newly introduced version of the Zimbabwe dollar has plunged in value, drastically raising the prices of goods priced in the currency.

Foreigners are reluctant to invest in Zimbabwe despite Mnangagwa’s proclamation that the country is “open for business.” Export sales and remittances from the Zimbabwean diaspora, important sources of U.S. dollars needed to import food and fuel, have fallen.

Mnangagwa has rejected calls to restore dollarization.

Four million Zimbabweans are now not that far away from famine, according to a scale commonly used internationally to classify the severity of food insecurity and malnutrition. In the scale’s five phases, Phase 1 is minimal and Phase 5 is famine.

Bourke, the program spokesman, said the hungriest Zimbabweans are now in either Phase 3 or Phase 4.

With Zimbabwe’s last maize harvest down by half, compared with the year before, because of drought, he said, the aid will continue until at least through the end of April, when the next harvest is due. But he was not optimistic. “The weather forecasters are basically saying we’re looking at a very dry growing season,” he said.

Ursula Mueller, the deputy emergency relief coordinator at the U.N., who visited Zimbabwe in June, said the country’s travails were partly tied to a broader climate crisis in southern Africa that has rippled through all facets of life.

Drought begets less food, which in turn begets declines in health and education and increases in crime, she said.

“This is not just a food crisis. It is a wider more complicated situation,” she said in a phone interview Friday. “People have to make choices: Do I seek HIV treatment or food?”