SHANGANI, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - With her hand on her cheek, the 68-year-old woman gazes patiently at the cars racing past her, hoping someone will stop and buy the firewood at her feet so that she can feed her three grandchildren.
MaNcube, as she is called in her village here in Shangani, a dry arid land 360 km (228 miles) west of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, has one plea.
“If only the government could bring us food. The maize crop is a total failure and I am worried about those grandchildren of mine,” she says, turning her creased face away from the sun.
MaNcube’s story is all too common across Zimbabwe’s once-rich countryside, and it offers an insight into why President Robert Mugabe is facing his biggest electoral challenge since coming to power 28 years ago.
Ahead of March 29 presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections, many voters say all they want is an end to the economic crisis that has left them hungry and their country in ruins.
The question is will rural voters like MaNcube, who have carried Mugabe in the past, trust him to bring this about, or will they turn away from the 84-year-old, who has led Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, and from his ZANU-PF party.
“There is now a convergence of grievances between rural and urban voters to the extent that you can no longer isolate the rural voter as a ZANU-PF supporter,” Eldred Masunungure, a political commentator told Reuters.
“The rural areas are now a rich ground for the opposition and their vote can no longer be taken for granted. We could actually see an upset in the rural areas,” he said.
Mugabe, widely blamed for a crisis marked by the world’s highest inflation rate -- above 100,000 percent a year -- faces a tough challenge from former finance minister Simba Makoni and long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai in the main presidential race.
And MaNcube for one is running out of patience.
“If I am to vote, it will certainly not be for President Mugabe this time round. We are hungry, my son,” she says, declining to name her preferred candidate.
Analysts say Mugabe’s failure to reverse the economic decline poses a serious threat to his bid to retain power.
He has been battling to secure support.
Earlier this month, he gave out tractors, combine harvesters, ploughs and several thousand other farming implements to beneficiaries of his land reforms, which included confiscating farms from white farmers.
He has also promised to give blacks majority shares in foreign-owned companies, such as mines and banks. And he has promised big salary increases to government workers, like teachers, some of whom are on strike.
But people like MaNcube are still going hungry. Adding to their woes, the state food aid that usually accompanies an election is not being given out this time.
Because of the failure of the maize crop in what was once southern Africa’s breadbasket, Zimbabwe is having to rush in staple maize from Malawi, Zambia and South Africa.
Mugabe denies mismanaging the economy and says it has been sabotaged by Western states as punishment for his land reforms.
And despite the hardships, he still has loyal followers like 55-year-old Maphio Kabwe who lives in Mahusekwa, a rural community 70 km (43 miles) south of Harare.
Half of Kabwe’s maize crop was destroyed this season, first flooded by heavy rains and then hit by dry weather.
“That is not caused by Comrade Mugabe, he is a man of his word and that is why we vote for him. He said maize is being imported and I believe him,” Kabwe told Reuters as he rushed to get free food at a Mugabe campaign rally.
At a shopping centre near the rally, the stores were decorated with large posters of Mugabe but inside the shelves were almost empty. An official price freeze last June has left the country short of basic goods.
Despite these privations, the opposition has largely failed to penetrate rural areas, which still bear the scars of the independence war which made Mugabe a national hero.
Makoni and Tsvangirai are confident they can yet lure rural voters with promises of an ambitious economic recovery, quicker food imports and an end to corruption.
But Mugabe’s challengers have made more inroads in cities where urban workers grapple with galloping inflation and shortages of food, fuel, foreign currency and electricity.
Some food is available on the black market but prices can fluctuate wildly. Bus and train fares rise each week and around them, urban Zimbabweans see their cities collapsing as roads crumble, sewers burst and civil servants go on strike.
Although officially pegged at 30,000 Zimbabwe dollars to the U.S. dollar, the local currency is trading at about 40 million Zimbabwe dollars to the U.S dollar on a thriving black market.
Israel Chitiga, a barber living in Glen View township in Harare, hopes a change at the top could end the hardships.
“I am afraid if Mugabe wins again we might as well all die from stress,” says Chitiga, while going through his salary slip at a hair salon in central Harare. “I will vote for Tsvangirai. I have known him over the years as a fearless leader.”
Chitiga is acutely aware of the shortages. The previous night he had to rush his feverish seven-month-old to a state hospital. He was lucky. He saw a doctor after just three hours.
Doctors working at government hospitals have gone on strike at least three times over the past year, putting more strain on a health system already overwhelmed by shortages of drugs and the HIV scourge.
“Mugabe should make way for a younger leader like Simba Makoni, there is hope there,” a junior doctor at Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital said.
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile