The RTE report on Zimbabwe this morning described the situation there as something akin to the Irish famine: one quarter of the people had fled the country, one half of those remaining were surviving on handouts.
John Mitchell, an Irish nationalist who lived through the years of the Great Hunger, described the Irish experience of the 1840s
A calm, still horror was over all the land. Go where you wouId, in the heart of the town or in the church, on the mountain side or on the level plain, there was the stillness and heavy pall-like feeling of the chamber of death. You stood in the presence of a dread, silent, vast dissolution. An unseen ruin was creeping round you. You saw no war of classes, no open Janissary war of foreigners, no human agency of destruction. You could weep, but the rising curse died unspoken within your heart, like a profanity. Human passion there was none, but inhuman and unearthly quiet. Children met you, toiling heavily on stone-heaps, but their burning eyes were senseless, and their faces cramped and weasened like stunted old men. Gangs worked, but without a murmur, or a whistle, or a laugh, ghostly, like voiceless shadows to the eye. Even womanhood had ceased to be womanly. The birds of the air carolled no more, and the crow and raven dropped dead upon the wing. The very dogs, hairless, with the hair down, and the vertebrae of the protruding like the saw of a bone, glared at you ditchside with a wolfish avid eye, and then slunk away scowling and cowardly. Nay, the sky of heaven, the blue mountains, the still lake stretching far away westward, looked not as their wont. Between them and you rose up a steaming agony, a film of suffering, impervious and dim. It seemed as if the anima mundi, the soul of the land, was faint and dying, and that the faintness and the death had crept into all things of earth and heaven. You stood there, too, in the presence of something unseen and terrible.
As anyone who knows the words of The Fields of Athenry will tell you, exports of grain from Ireland continued through the years of hunger – this was more than a natural disaster; human agency played a part in leaving people to endure suffering that might have been alleviated.
Human agency has played a major part in the misery of Zimbabwe; in particular, one human’s agency. The violent, corrupt and delusional Robert Mugabe has brought to its knees what was once one of the most fertile countries in Africa.
There is a strong tradition in the Old Testament of praying against evil rulers; there will be many people praying against Mugabe this weekend. That anyone in 2008 should endure the conditions of Ireland in the 1840s brings disgrace on those who have stood by and watched.