Q&A with Roger Thurow about The Last Hunger Season

I wrote The Last Hunger Season because I wanted to take readers through a year in the lives of four Kenyan farmers and their families. I decided to follow farmers because I saw in them a desire to improv­­­­e the quantity and the quality of the food they grow. I wanted my readers to see what I saw, to see the desire, the willingness, the yearning not to be lifted up, but to be given the opportunity to lift themselves up. Farmers throughout Africa are so willing to do their part, but they can't do it without the support of their governments through increased investments in agriculture.
I want people to know that we are on the right track, but it's going to take investments in seed production and soil research. It's going to take seed companies that understand the farmers' needs and that can meet them. It's going to take improvements to rural roads and storage facilities and more efficient markets.
Africa's farmers also need for governments in richer countries of the world to live up to their pledges of increased spending on agricultural development for smallholders farmers to be as productive as possible. The private sector, including churches and other faith-based organizations, need to look for new ways to serve the smallholder farmers.
Q. In The Last Hunger Season you chronicle the lives of four Kenyan farmers. There are many smallholder farmers in Kenya. How did you come to choose these particular four?
A. I first met Leonida at a One Acre Fund meeting at a church near her home. One Acre farmers work in groups of eight or ten friends and neighbors forming their own little farming cooperatives. On this particular day the farmers were naming their groups. They typically chose names like Hope, Faith, Happiness and Success. After the meeting, I asked Leonida what her group had chosen to call themselves and she answered Amua. It is a Swahili word that I was unfamiliar with, so I asked her what it meant. She told me it meant "we have decided." It was a name that conveyed hope and conviction but also determination.
I asked her what it was they had decided. She told me proudly, "to move from misery to Canaan." Just to make sure, I asked her if she meant the biblical Canaan, "the land of milk and honey", and her affirmative smile said "yes" even before she did. Leonida and her group, all of whom had certainly known misery, had sought assurance and inspiration from the Scriptures to choose their name. In spite of all the misery she had experienced in her life, Leonida knew there was a better way, and she was willing to allow her faith to guide her to it.
As readers will discover in The Last Hunger Season, the same steadfast faith in God that had prompted me to choose Leonida was present in all four farmers that were chosen. When I walked into Rasoa's home for the first time, I could not help but notice that she had hung scripture references on all the walls. She was surrounding herself with God's word to keep her faith strong and her body motivated. Zipporah is the song leader in her church, and she is constantly singing songs of praise. In fact, long before you can see Zipporah coming, you can hear her beautiful voice lifted in praise to God. Francis, who's middle name is Wanjala (meaning hunger), is a man of deep conviction and constant prayer. This abiding faith that was reflected in the attitudes and behavior of these four was the very essence of the story of all of Africa's hungry farmers.
Q. What do you see as the biggest obstacles to ending hunger in Africa?
A. Short-sighted thinking that ignores the importance of long-term agricultural development is one of the greatest obstacles. Budget cuts that indiscriminately reduce foreign aid and fail to deliver on promises already made to increase spending on agricultural development are another. But perhaps most importantly is the kind of thinking that says the smallholder farmers in Africa are too poor, too remote and too insignificant to matter. That has been the mantra behind the neglect for the past four decades. It is a mantra recited by their own government and rich world governments alike as well as large and small development institutions. It has left the farmers behind and given rise to that horrible oxymoron "hungry farmers." We simply cannot continue in that kind of narrow thinking.
Q. That gives rise to my next question. There is something so mind-boggling about the term "hungry farmers." It just sounds too crazy. How can food growers go hungry?"
A. Unfortunately, the movements of the 60s and 70s to develop new farming practices derailed before they ever reached Africa. To make it worse, investment in rural areas of Africa and aid to the farmers shrunk to negligible levels during the 80s and 90s and that has stretched into the 21st century. Though they made up the bulk of Africa's farming population, the smallholder farms tending less than five acres were basically ignored. They were deemed too poor and too remote to worry with. The common thread of thought was that if those smaller farmers became hungry, we could just feed them with food aid.
Ignoring the farmers on the world's poorest continent defies logic, but it became the prevailing development policy in the US and the world's other rich precincts. Trapped by poverty and having no access to quality seeds, fertilizers, tools, training or irrigation systems, the bulk of Africa's farmers planted low-yield seed saved from the previous year's harvest from exhausted soil. Of course with these planting methods, the yields continued to be low year after year, and while the farmers remained dependent upon on what grain they'd grown to feed their families, there was rarely, almost never, enough to stretch from harvest to harvest. Combine this with the fact that in the main, there is no electricity or running water. Health care is distant and meager. Sanitation is rudimentary. Roads are wretched. Buying additional food consumes almost every spare shilling. Unfortunately, while "hungry farmer" may sound like an oxymoron, it has been a reality in Africa far too long.
Q. You gave up a prestigious career as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal to become an advocate for ending world hunger. Could you please tell us why?
A. Until 2003, when I was assigned to cover the famine outbreak in Ethiopia, global hunger was more like background noise to me than anything else. I was aware of it, but I just didn't give it much attention. Then I arrived in Ethiopia during the famine and went to the World Food Program for background information. While I was there, an aid said something I couldn't get out of my mind. He said, "Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul. You see that nobody should have to die of hunger."
He was right. I began looking into the eyes of those dying in the Ethiopian famine and realized no one should have to die that way. I wanted to know why, in the 21st century with all of our capabilities and knowledge, it was still going on. Suddenly, all the other stories I was reporting on paled in comparison. I could remember attending the local Lutheran Church as a child and first learning that it was my responsibility as a Christian to make sure the hungry were fed. I couldn't help but think about that one scripture, "Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me." What I saw in Ethiopia in 2003 and what I still see today are the "least of these brothers and sisters." Not only did hunger become all I wanted to write about, it became what I wanted to stop. It became my calling.
Q. Well, you've written a lot about hunger since. This is your second book on the topic, and you've devoted countless columns and articles to it. Do you think your "disease of the soul" has been eased by what you have been able to communicate to the world?
A. No. I think this disease of the soul will always be with me. This is one kind of disease I think needs to spread. There may be some who do not want to deal with this issue, but if we can inform others and have them embrace the issue in an optimistic way, we can really begin to see an end to world hunger. When enough people stop and realize it doesn't have to be this way and that it is up to us, then that's when it will stop. When enough people have been stricken by this disease, then world hunger will end. I would like to think my writing is one of the contagions that will spread the disease to others. That is my hope.
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