Monday, March 06, 2006

Stories never told

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These faces are haunting me today. They should haunt anyone who reads on, but the question I ask is this: Why aren't we hearing this story? The world is filled with stories we don't want to hear, but this is one that needs to be told. There are such stories throughout the world that are crying to be heard.

In 1994, I had an experience that would change my view of the world forever. I was fortunate to be part of a short term mission trip to Kenya, guest of the Presbytery of East Africa. For three weeks, I lived with families in Kenya, going about the business of their day. Naturally, they arranged for us to do some special things, but by and large, it was life as usual.

"Life as usual" can take on a different meaning when you take a journey such as this. I truly believe that culture shock is what one experiences when confronted with a very different experience of "life as usual." One of the first aspects of life that hit us full force was mealtime, that very basic and universal human need. After a couple days, when my fellow missioners and I found ourselves together at some church gathering or other, we'd laugh about the meals. Always the same, no matter who was hosting us. Always HUGE piles of food, with seconds and thirds the norm rather than the exception. Irio, which means "food" in Kikuyu, was a green paste made with mashed peas, potatoes and some light seasoning. It was thick and filling, and made its appearance at every single meal except for breakfast. It usually was accompanied by a thin stew consisting of beef or goat, boiled rice, chapatis and fresh fruit. These last two were favorites of mine, the rest eaten politely. The menu varied only in the fruit, for the most part. No matter where we were, church dinner or the honored guests of families living in tin villages, this was the meal of the day. In enormous heaping portions.

Everywhere we went, another constant was the children. Many of the places where we stayed and visited were well out of the realm of European tourists, so the appearance of these "mzungu" was a source of excitement to the kids. From seemingly nowhere, like this church worship service in Masai country on the slopes of Kilamanjaro, kids would appear, smiling for our cameras. We were all too willing to take their photo and play with them. At the time of my journey, my own sons were only 7 and 4, so it let me feel connected in some small way to my boys back home.

It wasn't until we were traveling through some more remote countryside that we became fully aware of the feast/famine cycle that is reality in sub-Saharan Africa. Our host for the day was a Princeton educated clergyman, married to a school teacher. In other words, my peer as far as education and lifestyle. We passed a small village next to the mountain that had clearly been ravaged at some point. Charles pointed out that people had had to flee this location during "the troubles."

Tribalism continues to exist in its modern form here. The food cycle can push the old fights over the edge when the crops crash due to drought, and this had happened only six months prior. Charles shared that during this time, he and his wife would go for days without anything other than water, rationing out what they had for their children. We aren't talking about people in a refugee camp, but the equivalent of suburbanites; a member of the clergy and a teacher.

It was a bit too much for us to even begin to grasp at that point. It did help explain the desire for even the frailest of elderly ladies to pile their plates high at these church dinners. One doesn't know for sure how long a feast cycle will last.

East Africa is in another famine cycle right now, and that's why these faces haunt me today. Many of these children, if they've survived, are young adults now. Are they starving? Are they alive? Relief efforts are always fraught with problems. Graft, corruption, all the usual concerns, but we're still looking at a story of human rights, the right to eat.

My question today asks only this: why are these stories barely heard? Why is the World Food Program reaching this point, where that most basic of human needs, food, may not be available much longer in Kenya? It's a story we haven't been told, so the heartbreak and outrage at this situation isn't felt here. It should be.

4 Comments:

At 3:37 PM, Blogger SageHen said...

It is a very sad story. I know politics plays a role, but I don't know the details.

I have another question, why is there no food storage in preperation for the troubles?

I trust you understand Gwen, that I am not trying to be rude. I just don't understand what it is about the culture that makes food storage difficult.

 
At 3:48 PM, Blogger Gwyn said...

I know exactly what you're asking, and it's a very legitimate concern.
From what I was able to glean during my time there and in projects since, food can perhaps be stored, but the whole hierarchy of corruption allows those in positions of power to siphon off funds, food, supplies. The government was very corrupt at the time I was there, and my understanding is that the new ruling party is commited to helping improve those old problems.
I don't think it's so much a cultural issue as a political one, "political" being taken to mean local factions. Women tend to not have positions of authority; I suspect that were more women involved at those levels, programs would be instituted to avoid famine problems! So perhaps the cultural roles do have some impact on the status quo.

In more remote areas, the facilities are really pretty antiquated. There isn't anything in the way of refrigeration or secure storage to keep staples from going bad from rot or vermin. It is a complex problem, one repeated throughout the world, and it has been a source of righteous indignation for me since seeing it first hand.

 
At 3:57 AM, Blogger Dream Elevator said...

I think you SO much for sharing that story.
WOW.
Excellent story, well told, lesson learned.

 
At 12:02 PM, Blogger Kati said...

It is a very complex problem, one that makes me so angry and frustrated sometimes! The whole economy of agribusiness and the commodities market plays into a type of farming where, as just one example, a constant, very-expensively produced surplus of corn needs to be converted into some profitable product, such as starch or sugars added to millions of packaged-food items (no added nutritional value, BTW, medications, cosmetics, etc. It's a system so criminally out of sync with the real needs of every market in the world, it boggles the mind! That's my observation -- I wish I knew what the answers were, besides my individual choice to shop small, local and organic,and support fair trade products where I can.

 

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