Loveness Mudaala has the face of a teenager and the hands of a 60-year-old. She is, in fact, 43 and the mother of 18 children. They are not all hers by birth, but like many mothers across southern Africa she has taken in nephews and nieces as her own brothers and sisters have died — nine so far, leaving 12 orphans — of a disease that, says Mudaala, "I will not mention because it may cause problems." Mudaala, who lives in the Siavonga district of southern Zambia, has seen drought before, but the disease she will not name — aids — and the children it left behind are sapping her ability to cope with the worst dry spell to hit the region in a decade.The patch of land behind her tiny tin-roofed hut is littered with the shriveled stalks of dead sorghum and maize plants. For the past three months she has sent her children into a nearby forest to collect berries and nuts, which she boils for days to get rid of their poisons and then feeds to her family. She needs help, she says, and the food aid — a bucket of maize that lasts a family of six just three days — distributed once a month at the local primary school goes first to the village's eldest and most vulnerable, so she usually misses out. "If there is nothing, there is nothing," she says. "God makes a tough life."Mudaala is one of more than 13 million people across southern Africa who are the victims not just of bad weather but of a savage confluence of erratic climate, bad governance and worse economic policies, war and, most brutally, the aids pandemic. The crisis is not yet a famine, according to the United Nations World Food Program, which is coordinating the relief effort, but it is heading that way. And without help, people will soon start dying. "We're at the point of no return," says Brenda Cupper, Zambian country director for the aid agency care International, which is distributing food in three of Zambia's worst-hit districts. "If this drought is not to turn into a famine, people have to start to make a commitment."How did one of the richest and most fertile regions on the continent come to this? Droughts occur regularly in southern Africa. The last big one was in 1992, when more than 18 million people needed feeding. But this year's drought, following one and in some places two years of failed crops, has been exacerbated by human folly. In Angola, a 27-year civil war has forced millions off their land, destroyed infrastructure and left huge swaths of the country off-limits for farming. A cease-fire signed nearly four months ago offers the chance for a new beginning, but it will take years before the country recovers. Malawi aggravated its food shortage last year by selling, at a loss, its entire Strategic Grain Reserve, an emergency store of food built up in case of dry spells. Malawi says it was an "honest mistake" and blames in part poor advice from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. The IMF says it advised selling only part of the store and notes that Malawi did not retain even the minimum amount required by its own policy. In Zimbabwe, the worst-affected country, President Robert Mugabe's land-reform policy has left 6 million people vulnerable to starvation. Agriculture there has long been dominated by white commercial farmers, but gangs of Mugabe-supported thugs have spent the past 29 months appropriating their land and handing it over to black Zimbabweans, mostly party cronies and unskilled peasant farmers who supported him in this year's presidential election. Even if Mugabe's sentiment of righting past wrongs were sincere, which many doubt, his chaotic program of intimidation and violence has reduced agricultural output by three-quarters in what was until recently known as the breadbasket of Africa. Mugabe promised poor Zimbabweans "the earth before the election, but there is nothing," says Ngoni, 26, who now ekes out a living by crossing into Zambia to sell washing powder and soda syrup at a small mark-up. "The earth has all dried up." Worse, Zimbabwe's opposition party claims that Mugabe is using United Nations food aid as a weapon, directing it to loyal supporters and denying it to oppositionists. "This is not bad weather," says Ngoni, who would not give his last name for fear of retribution. "Mugabe actually caused this disaster to happen because of the land issue."Unlike poor blacks, who cannot afford to escape, a growing number of Zimbabwe's white farmers are moving north to Zambia, a sprawling country with nearly half of southern Africa's water resources. But Zambia has problems of its own. For years the country has relied on copper to bring in vital foreign reserves. The fall of world copper prices and the bungled privatization of Zambia's biggest mine have seen earnings and the value of the national currency plummet. Policy mistakes have also hurt. In the early 1990s the IMF and Western donors urged Zambia to open up its economy by dropping agricultural subsidies and scrapping a centralized marketing board — steps rich countries are reluctant to take themselves. Few of Zambia's farmers were ready to find their "own market," as the government urged, and in any case the West's markets remained closed. Zambian farmers couldn't even compete at home against subsidized food pouring in from South Africa and Zimbabwe. Result: "A massive decrease in the area that farmers are planting," says Richard Ragan, head of the World Food Program in Zambia. "I would like to buy beans locally, but even if there's a huge bean field right across from a refugee camp, if the price in Zambia is three to four times what we can buy them for from a subsidized market, then I have to go for the cheaper option to feed the camp."The IMF's representative in Zambia, Mark Ellyne, says that the country simply could no longer afford subsidies and that the government has hurt farmers by tampering with the retail price of maize. But he is also critical of farm subsidies in Europe and the U.S.: "The best thing developed countries can do to help the poor countries is import their agricultural products."But perhaps the biggest difference between this drought and previous ones is the impact of AIDS. Southern Africa is the epicenter of a modern plague; in some areas the infection rate is as high as 30%. Those with the disease need more food than normal just to stay alive. The virus thrives in people with poor nutrition, wearing down the body faster and attracting lethal infections. In turn, the rising death toll feeds the food crisis: land goes untilled, children lose their parents before they can learn how to farm, families are burdened with extra mouths to feed. "If the parents die and orphans remain, then it's up to the relatives to look after them," says Mathilda Jum, 28, who lined up behind Loveness Mudaala at the food distribution center last week. "But taking care of someone means food. And if there is no food, ahh, that's trouble." For Jum, Mudaala and for southern Africa.