Hunger, A Personal Message
There is too much theorizing and abstract thinking when it comes to tackling world hunger. It is time to bring a harsh dose of reality to the conversation and eradicate this global issue.
There is no shortage of information about the plight of world hunger, but when does it get personal? When do we realize that it could be us, or that it is us? When one person is hungry, we are all hungry.
Too often, I hear people talking about ‘the hungry’ – as though ‘people who are hungry’ are somehow removed from us. They are ‘the other’ and not us. If a group is identified with ‘the’ in front of it – e.g., ‘the hungry’ and ‘the homeless’ – it feels like we do not have to confront the reality of what our sisters and brothers around the world are living through.
This is not to say that we do not provide charity, or are not concerned about the plight of people who are starving to death. But the question for me is this: when will we care enough to eradicate this horrible global issue? When will we put in the work to change the systemic, economic, and political activities and personal attitudes that promote this problem?
This is not to say that we don’t care or that we are not doing what we can to make a difference in our own ways. But this needs to be happening on a larger scale that brings significant changes to a global system that allows for such disparity. We must be willing to be innovative and deviate from the way things have always been done. We must also be willing to stand up to the forces that continue to profit while the many perish because they are hungry. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the causes of this condition.
This is my personal account of how I have felt when I have come face to face with the issues of hunger. This message is not about the statistics that could be recited, and it does not present supporting research – only my reflections on the tragedy of world hunger. It is heartbreaking that anyone on this planet should go hungry for even a day, because we as a human race have the ability to produce enough food to feed the planet. However, we have allowed revenue, food production systems, greed, and apathy to get in our way.
Ravages of Poverty
I am an African-American woman who has been around the block in my lifetime. I have worked as a public policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C. and I have traveled to refugee camps and seen how people treat those people who are just trying to survive. I have grown up in poverty in America and escaped – and I have a story to tell about hunger. I have been fortunate enough to live through the perils of it all and to have developed personal and professional commitments that have enabled me to join with others who want a better world – one in which no one lives hungry or dies from starvation.
For those of us who have never forgotten the ravages of poverty, it is somewhat of a miracle that we have lived to tell our story. The details of those experiences almost don’t matter. But, in order to understand why I think the way I do, one needs to have a sense of my upbringing.
My hope is that we will gather the strength, the courage, and the intention to find ways to feed the world’s people. I believe that we have the ability and know-how to make it happen. But do we have the will? We must undo the systems that promote big business at any expense. It is unfathomable that we have made economic and political policies that benefit the fewest people, while so many continue to starve each and every day. We must set a plan in motion that guarantees that we feed people – all people. We can do it
Born as World War II was coming to an end, of African-American parents, I was the eldest and only girl in a family with three sons. I received no special treatment for my gender. We moved from a one-room boarding house, to scary projects, to a remote railroad shack, to living in our car and homeless, to renting a house where I could see daylight through the walls, until my parents were somehow able to build a house for us. I have no idea how they managed to accomplish that. This is the house we lived in until I was 18-years-old. It was in a rural, poverty-ridden community where I often saw people begging for food and trying to feed their families. It was a precarious existence at best. These childhood experiences shaped my view of hungry people, no matter where we encounter one another.
When I began to work on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. as a pubic policy lobbyist (I am still amazed by this life experience), I could not believe that the first thing I would work on would be welfare reform legislation. However, I was completely indignant by one congressional staffer’s approach to the issue. He looked at welfare reform from the position of a legislator who knew nothing about poverty instead of someone with a true understanding of the issues that people face when they are struggling to obtain proper food and nutrition, health care, housing, etc. He interpreted the legislation from a statistical point of view and how much it would cost taxpayers. I knew then that the reason I was there was to bring a dose of reality to the conversation.
Ensure All People Eat
The seven years that I worked on Capitol Hill were balanced by serving on the Board of Directors of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We went to several refugee camps, and though I only saw them from a visitor’s perspective, these trips further shaped my opinion that we, as global citizens, have a responsibility to ensure that all people eat each and every day. We have the ability to make this a reality all over the world. Yet we don’t take responsibility on an international level.
In the Whitehead Camp in Hong Kong, I saw unsafe drinking water and barrels of rice filled with weevils. Families of people, who were called ‘the boat people,’ were stacked on 8 x 10 pallets three and four pallets high. I don’t remember exactly how many people were in the camp at the time, but there were thousands.
I have been to refugee camps in Hong Kong, Malawi, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Philippines, and Germany. In each camp, the people were treated as if they were throwaways who were left with the crumbs, if that. Political unrest befell the people who were lucky enough to escape with their lives, as if they had committed a crime. Their only ‘crime’ was a desire to survive, but wars and unrest in their homelands led to very challenging survival needs. Decent nutritious food was unavailable in all of the refugee camps that I visited. Lives hung in the balance in every situation.
I was especially struck by Jijiga, a camp filled with thousands of Somali people who were escaping persecution in the desert of Ethiopia. I remember riding in UN vehicles that were protected in front and back by machine gun convoys so that we would not be attacked by people who were angry that the refugees were taking valuable life-giving resources in their country.
Too often, I hear people talking about ‘the hungry’ – as though ‘people who are hungry’ are somehow removed from us. They are ‘the other’ and not us. If a group is identified with ‘the’ in front of it – e.g., ‘the hungry’ and ‘the homeless’ – it feels like we do not have to confront the reality of what our sisters and brothers around the world are living through. This is not to say that we do not provide charity, or are not concerned about the plight of people who are starving to death. But the question for me is this: when will we care enough to eradicate this horrible global issue?
When our convoy finally arrived at Jijiga, hundreds of children let us know how excited they were to see us. Being the only person of color in my group, the little Somali children surrounded me. The noise from the children instantly quieted as an elderly, Somali woman walked through the crowd. Her face was stern, and she did not utter a word. She thrust a wooden bowl in front of my face with one hand – and with the fingers of her other hand, she dropped pinto beans into the bowl one at a time. The sound of the beans hitting the bowl reverberated in my ears. I didn’t know what was expected of me amongst the commotion of our arrival. Remember, we had driven for several hours through the desert. To arrive at this unfamiliar place and to find myself in a confrontation was unsettling, to say the least.
When I had gathered my composure, I realized that she was conveying to me, “We are hungry and have very little food, we have no water, our living conditions are deplorable, and we are dying. What are you going to do about it?”
I have never forgotten that experience. I promised myself that whenever I had the opportunity to share this experience – along with all of my other experiences with people in need of food, safe drinking water, and sustenance – I would speak up. I would never set myself apart from them by calling them ‘the hungry.’
My hope is that we will gather the strength, the courage, and the intention to find ways to feed the world’s people. I believe that we have the ability and know-how to make it happen. But do we have the will? We must undo the systems that promote big business at any expense. It is unfathomable that we have made economic and political policies that benefit the fewest people, while so many continue to starve each and every day. We must set a plan in motion that guarantees that we feed people – all people – no matter their economic status, geographic location, or station in life. It is time that hunger and starvation cease to exist. We can do it.