By Jeffrey Moyo
SEKE, Zimbabwe, Feb 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - W earing a torn shirt that hangs below his knees, 11-year-old Mirirai Gwauya sits under a tree near his home in eastern Zimbabwe eating wild fruits and reading aloud from an old primary school textbook.
The boy is grateful for the green sugar plums, which began sprouting in November and are now ready for plucking. They are often the only food he and his younger brother eat.
"There is no food at home. Wild fruits have become our meals," he said. "We endured going to school hungry for some time, but in the end we dropped out."
Zimbabwe's worst drought in 25 years has left more than 4 million people needing food aid during the peak of the lean season, which usually runs from January to the end of March.
The 2016 drought, which also withered crops in other southern African countries, has been particularly bad in Zimbabwe, where severe cash shortages have caused widespread food shortfalls and fuelled anti-government protests.
Heavy rains this month have inflicted additional damage, battering crops and threatening more hunger in rural areas amid complaints that Zimbabweans who oppose President Robert Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party are being denied assistance.
"There is food given to poor families here by the government but we have not been able to access it," Gwauya's mother, Sithela, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"ZANU-PF local leaders who lead most of the processes have barred my family from getting food aid because we are active members of the opposition MDC-T," she said.
Complaints about unfair food distribution prompted an investigation last year by the independent Zimbabwean Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), which found evidence of bias among some officials.
Despite government assurances it had addressed the issue, the commission has since received fresh complaints and plans to carry out further monitoring of aid delivery in the coming weeks with the Ministry of Labour, Public Service and Social Welfare.
"Since the publication (of ZHRC's report) we have received an increased number of complaints alleging discrimination in food aid and agricultural inputs distribution," ZHRC Chairman Elasto Mugwadi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Zimbabwe's minister of labour, public service and social welfare, Priscilla Mupfumira, denied that food aid was being distributed along party lines.
"My ministry has never, ever said food aid should be given along political party lines, and these are mischievous reports and allegations because food is available to everyone," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Similar allegations have surfaced before, notably during a crippling food crisis caused by drought and the violent seizure of white-owned commercial farms in 2002, when Britain accused Mugabe's government of using food aid as a political weapon.
Once the region's breadbasket, Zimbabwe has been forced to import maize from South Africa, Zambia and Argentina, among other countries.
Mugabe has said his government would give seeds and fertilizer to 800,000 poor farmers in an attempt to lift maize production to 2 million tonnes this year.
Some civil society organisations accuse traditional leaders of working with ZANU-PF officials to deprive communities with large numbers of opposition supporters of aid.
"There is certainly no fairness in the way food is distributed by traditional leaders, most of whom are staunch supporters of ZANU-PF," said Catherine Mkwapati, director of the Youth Dialogue Action Network, a civil society organisation.
Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth Development, said his organisation had been observing food distributions in Manicaland Province.
He said he had witnessed people suspected of supporting opposition parties of being turned away by traditional leaders.
"Food is vanishing into the hands of those with links to the governing ZANU-PF party," she said.
However the ZHRC's Mugwadi said some grievances are simply the result of not having enough aid to go around.
Last year's U.N. appeal for $352 million to respond to the humanitarian needs in Zimbabwe has only been 57 percent funded, the United Nations' Financial Tracking Sevice shows.
"There are many people in need of food aid yet the resources are not enough to cater for everyone," Mugwadi said.
"Some deserving cases are being turned away empty-handed because of this reality."
(Editing by Katie Nguyen and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)