From Sudan to the South African border, more than 60 million women and children will experience prolonged hunger this year because of mounting food problems in eastern and southern Africa.
Drought, or rain at the wrong time, is the immediate cause but the hunger is part of an even more depressing picture as Africa falls farther behind in efforts to feed itself.
A report issued this month by the United Nations World Food Council listed 26 countries facing abnormal food shortages, 17 in Africa. Because of high birth rates and stagnant food production, black Africa is the only area of the world where per capita food production has declined in the last two decades -- averaging a 1.3 percent annual slide in the 1970s.
The current famine is not as severe as those that hit the Sahel countries and Ethiopia. Killing hundreds of thousands of persons, in the early 1970s.
Some international aid experts feel, however, that a continuation of the drought that has been going on in some areas for two years could have a similar impact in what is, in effect, the eastern Sahel -- parts of Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, southern Sudan and Ethiopia.
One aid specialist estimates that in the dozen countries in eastern and southern Africa experiencing food problems, half of the children under 7 and half of the women between 15 and 40 will suffer abnormal hunger this year.
That estimate, which the specialist and others agree is probably conservative, means at least 60 million people will be affected. The women and children suffer most because in many African societies the men working in urban centers or mines are assured a source of food.
Robert Kitchen, the chief U.N. official in Kenya, said the food situation "is as bad as it's ever been and deteriorating." The area is about 1.2 million tons short of grain, chiefly corn, the staple of the east African diet, he added.
That puts a strain on Western and U.N. food aid and has forced many of the countries to buy on the world market, using scarce foreign exchange.
In the last two decades, grain imports in black Africa have increased to 8.5 million tons from 3 million, with cost skyrocketing to $1.8 billion.
If current trends continue, African import needs will increase 50 to 100 percent by 1990 according to U.N. estimates.
"If Kenya doesn't have a bumper crop and Uganda doesn't stabilize politically, this year is just a downpayment on 1981 and 1982," said Kitchen.
A retired State Department official and long-time black activist, he complained of "the fairly callous response" by the world so far. "Some say if you could paint all these people white, the response would be different," he said.
Foreign agricultural specialists point out that the current drought has only exacerbated the usual farming problems in Africa. The difficulties include government pricing policies and shortage of planning, storage facilities, research and technology. In addition, frequent government emphasis on showpiece industrial projects rather than agriculture simply increases the exodus from the land to the cities and means that fewer farmers have to feed more mouths.
The worst-hit areas are Karamoja Province in northeastern Uganda, where the United Nations has taken over distribution of food because of civil unrest; parts of Tanzania; and Somalia, suffering from an influx of a million refugees from the Ogaden.
The list of countries with food problems also include Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, all of which have exported food at one time.
Ethiopia, where famine covered up by the government in the early 1970s led to the downfall of emperor Haile Selassie, is once more experiencing drought in the south and central regions. The government says 5 million people face famine.
Neighboring Djibouti and southern Sudan also have shortages of food. Others affected are Mozambique, Botswana and Rwanda. Drought, which hit all these countries in varying degrees in the last year, is only part of the problem as illustrated by Kenya -- where a 4 percent annual increase in the nearly 16 million population means 600,000 more stomachs to fill each year.
Just a year ago Kenya exported about 180,000 tons of corn. The move is still having political repercussions. Only six months later, the country was desperately seeking to buy corn at a higher price on the world market.By January, Kenya was down to a nine-day supply. Corn, ground into meal, forms the basis of the diet.
The shortage was so severe that Kenya had to renege on a swap, worked out through the United Nations, to provide 8,000 tons of corn for the starving Karamojong in Uganda in return for receiving a similar amount of wheat last fall. It was the first time a country ever defaulted on a U.N. exchange agreement.
The United Nations has simply deducted the amount from future food aid, but Canada which provided the wheat to the world organization, is "sore as hell," according to a diplomat.
Kenyan officials refuse to talk about the swap or, indeed, any aspect of their food problems. Agriculture Minister James Osogo refused an interview, saying over the telephone: "I don't think it would serve any need for any official of the Ministry of Agriculture to talk to The Washington Post at all."
One Kenyan official did say privately that the problem was a "political drought," a reference to lack of agricultural planning and to allegations of corruption.
There are unconfirmed reports that about 60,000 tons of the corn was exported illegally, kept on ships at sea for about 10 weeks and then reimported at a price $60 more per ton. That would reap a profit of $3.6 million.
The heart of the problem, however, is that the Kenyan government did not anticipate the 1979-80 crop would decline to only 1.3 million tons from bumper harvests in the past few years of around 2 million tons.
Part of the reason for the delcine was the failure of the "small rains" in late 1979. Then the monsoon rains came six weeks late this year, which will be a factor in next year's crop.
But the major culprit, according to foreign specialists, is the government's pricing policy. Faced with a glut in which corn rotted for lack of storage space the previous two years, the government lowered the price from about $11 for a 200-pound bag to less than $9.
The farmers consequently shifted about 60 percent of their acreage from corn to more profitable sugar cane and other products. The price for this year's crop still on the stalk has been set at $12.30 a bag.
"Every year they make last year's pricing decision," one aid official said.
As a result, Kenya has to import about 300,000 tons of grain until the new harvest comes in starting in November. President Daniel arap Moi arranged for about 100,000 tons of food aid from the United States during a recent visit to Washington.
Much of the rest is being bought from drought-free South Africa. For political reasons, Kenya says it is imported from Mozambique, which is itself suffering shortages.
"The only thing exported from Mozambique is the invoice," a diplomat said.
A maze of state-related organizations here control agriculture policy but there is little coordination.
Last year the government started a major free milk program through the schools, not realizing that there was a milk shortage because the drought reduced output.
Kenya has another problem common in Africa: deforestation that causes soil erosion, taking thousands of acres out of production.
For Kenya, however, there is one major difference from some of the other African countries facing agricultural problems. Although the shortage of corn has caused the people to grumble, there is plenty of other food to eat. Elsewhere, as in Karamoja, Uganda, much of the time there is nothing to eat.