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A quiet hunger


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Photo: Sarah Errington / Camera Press

THE widow leant back against the mud wall of her compound and gestured at the bowl of baobab leaves in front of her. ‘Since our millet ran out,’ she said, ‘we’ve been living on those.’ Suddenly the tranquillity of the scene, so striking after the flurry of activity in the other family compounds, took on a sinister aspect, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of her hunger.

Her face still looked young. But she was too resigned, or perhaps too poor, to wear the headscarf that the other village women favoured, and the child that pulled at her breast was listless. ‘I work the land alone but for my eldest son. He’s a good boy but we can’t do enough on our own, and the lack of food makes us weak. Sometimes I gather wood and sell it to buy a little millet. And I ask other people to help my children with their grain. But what kind of life is that? If only we had millet I would be calm.’

The widow lives in a village that has never yet experienced famine. Lying in the south-east of Burkina Faso - a good two hundred miles away from the famine regions of the Sahel - it will probably never hit our headlines. Yet there are few people in it who feel free of the fear of hunger, of worry about the grain dwindling in the family store. And their daily grappling with those worries shook me far more deeply than any of those distressing pictures from Ethiopia and Sudan. Because, for all their power, those television images of hollowed faces and emaciated limbs are like bulletins from another planet. It’s hard to sense them as real people, feeling just as we would feel in the same situation. Instead they’re passive victims in a medieval canvas, as a camera operator frames them on the edge of death. Sandwiched between Cheers and the sports highlights, how can we be expected to get a full sense of their humanity?

But there, in the village, I made friends - even though I was there myself as part of a team filming for television. I laughed with people, asked about their lives and told them what I could of my own. They asked about my ‘village’ - who worked in my fields if I spent all my time writing, and how did I manage to eat if I didn’t have any land? I cuddled their children and watched their faces. And then I went back to my hut to realise that, while I could just fly away from this dusty land, for Mariama and Hassita there was no escape. They were left with that gnawing worry about next month’s meals, about the millet shrinking in the granary and the rains that were six weeks late.

Once I had flown back to the Western whirligig of consumption and comfort, there was one question that people always asked me first: ‘but what did you eat?’ It’s a common-sense query: if food is short, then how do all the aid workers and journalists get by?

The answer, of course, is that there was plenty of food in Burkina Faso, just as there is in Ethiopia – if you have the money to pay for it. Just three miles away from the village I stayed in a town where there were not only grain and vegetables on sale, but meat, too, French bread, and Western tinned food.

It is the poverty that starves people to death or stupefaction: not a callous whim of nature.

This idea that nature causes famines has great intuitive power – it appeals to our sense of drama and myth, this blight on the land beyond all human control. But droughts and floods only kill the poor, only tip over the people who have already been pushed to the brink.

Hunger is not a one-act drama. It is a war of attrition that wears people down over the years, a war of which we witness only the final battle. To an Asian it might mean selling a little more land each year to pay off debts to the village money lender. To a Latin American it might mean coaxing life from marginal soil that becomes more degraded with every planting. To an African it might mean the gap between the last harvest and the nest becoming wider every year.

And the stars of this drama are not only the victims shaking their fists at the unrelenting heavens, There is the local entrepreneur who buys up grain at harvest time and then sells it back at an inflated price to the same farmers when their food runs short. There is the government which puts all its energy into export crops for the West, which sees development as a matter of prestige, building dams and cathedrals in the desert instead of mills and well for the villagers. There are the politicians with no commitment to social justice. There are the Western Banks and the International Monetary Fund, which force developing countries to act as laboratories for monetarist experiments so extreme that even Reagan and Thatcher would never dare inflict them on their own countries. There are the superpowers which peddle their arms and the use conflict in the poor world as part of their global chess match. And, ultimately, there is you and me for allowing this unholy machine to continue crunching on.

Recognising that the world food problem is not just caused by lack of rain may make it harder to understand. But it ought also to bring some hope. Because it means there is something we can do about it. This issue of the New Internationalist sets out the problem. But it also tries to be positive, to offer steps we can take today to feed the world as well as long-term goals to aim for. The nine principles outlined in the rest of the magazine do not claim to be comprehensive. And there are, doubtless, important factors which have been left out of the formula - the arms race, for instance, which has contributed so much to Ethiopia’s particular predicament. The ninth point in the plan is in itself an admission that the other eight are not going to happen just because we will them to. World leaders are not going to wake up tomorrow converted to the cause of social justice, nor will global accountants suddenly see that the welfare programmes and food subsidies which seem like frills to them can be life and death to a woman like the widow. And the solution to world hunger depends very largely on the progress we make in our own societies in pursuit of justice and equality.

‘But what has social justice got to do with it?’ you might ask. Doesn’t the solution lie in agriculture?’ Some people certainly claim that it does. The World Bank’s answer, for instance, is for the Third World to grow more crops for export to the West and thus earn the foreign exchange to buy development as well as food. But it doesn’t take an economic genius to see that if poor countries grow more cotton or coffee they will be competing against each other for the same customers - the more they produce, the faster prices will fall.

Another answer we are often offered is that scientific progress in agriculture will enable us to grow more food for the hungry. This is a compelling idea - and not just because we all have some residual faith in technology as a cure-all. When I was a child. India was the symbol of hunger in much the same way as Ethiopia is now. My grandmother conjured up starving Indians in the corner of the room to spur me into eating the food on my plate. Yet today high-yield strains of rice, developed in laboratories, together with the intensive use of irrigation and fertiliser. have meant that India produces enough in theory to feed all its people.

A miracle of science it may be, but it hasn’t eradicated hunger - the poor still suffer from malnutrition all over India. while their government sells grain to Russia. Even the latest official figures show that Indians receive on average only 93 per cent of the calories they need. And, since there are millions of people there who eat very well,’ that figure is a confession that there are many millions more who are severely undernourished.

So growing more food does not, in itself, end hunger. And, as if to back that up, recent studies indicate that the diseases of poverty - such as diarrhoea and dysentery - contribute even more to malnutrition than the lack of food, particularly in children. What has to go in tandem with growing more food is a commitment to sharing out what food there is much more fairly.

When my mother and father were children they too were urged to eat the rest of their meals. But the spectre called up in front of them was China, which had suffered famines caused by drought and flood at a rate of more than one a year for centuries. But the Communists made feeding their vast population the top priority after the Revolution. They learned to live with their climate by using flood water to irrigate the droughts, and they made food a basic human right instead of an act of commerce. The result is that, whatever you might think of its social system as a whole, China now feeds 22 per cent of the world’s population on just seven per cent of the world’s land.

Changing their priorities at home is one thing, but developing countries also have, for once, something to bargain with in the world at large. The debts they have incurred are now so large that, ironically, the Western financial system actually depends on them.

The threat of default thus gives at least some developing countries a power that they have never bad before: some genuine leverage on the global economic system. And although Fidel Castro’s campaign for all Third World debtors to default is unlikely to succeed, he is certainly right that the Latin American nations who owe the most have to stand together - and stand together, too, on behalf of Africa, whose debts are not huge enough to give them the same power, but whose repayments are just as crippling.

Third World governments, then, have their part to play. But where do you and I fit in? For a start we can eat less meat. I originally became a vegetarian seven years ago because I realised that pumping grain into cattle was a grotesquely inefficient way of using the planet’s food resources: an average of 16 kilos of grain and beans, for instance, are fed to cattle to produce just one kilo of beef. And I still see refusing meat as an act of protest, a conscientious objection to a system with waste at one end and starvation at the other. As much as 40 per cent of the world’s grain is fed to livestock, as well as 40-50 per cent of its fish and 25-40 per cent of its dairy produce. And crops in Latin America still go to cattle destined for the meat-heavy diets of the US - rather than to the local poor who need it so badly.

Vegetarianism is not in itself a solution. But it does at least provide an opportunity to talk to people about the food issue, to raise their awareness of the problem. And those opportunities crop up all too rarely in the years when there isn’t an Ethiopia or a Biafra in the headlines.

In fact raising people’s awareness may be the most vital thing we can do. There is a fund of good will out there at the moment just waiting to be tapped - the Live Aid phenomenon has at least given people the sense that they have a part to play. But at the moment it tends to stop at the idea of emergency food aid, which barely papers over the cracks in the system - just as Victorian mill-owners used to set up charities to alleviate the misery that they’d caused in the first place.

Bob Geldof has enough spirit to rail at governments for their refusal to take the famine seriously. And he could fuel his anger by looking at the graphs on Page 10 which show that the West gives food aid not when it is most needed, but when that food can’t be sold for a high price on the world market. To his credit, too, he has begun to see the need for long-term development aid. But if only he and that vast audience behind him could take things just a little further, could recognise that it is the governments we vote in. the economics we condone, the lifestyles we lead, which ultimately produce hunger.

Back in the village the rains have come at last. They are weeding the fields now, scraping carefully around each millet seedling as it struggles upwards into the light. Watching last year’s grain disappear. Waiting for the world to wake up.

New Internationalist issue 151 magazine cover This article is from the September 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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