Hunger. Not the kind when people say “man I’m famished” after pulling an all-nighter, or adolescent boys who say “I’m starved” as they rifle through the refrigerator in the afternoon. But real hunger, like the kind that Yeonmi Park describes in her auto-biography. The kind where you walk through the hills looking for insects with which to fill your belly. The kind where you boil down shoe leather to get it soft enough to eat. The hunger where you have to choose which of your children will eat, and which will die.
Seven meals. That is the magic number, between nourished and malnourished, between stability and chaos.
I am sad to say that I am not a stranger to the hunger. My first job out of college was as an international aid worker. One of my very first assignments was spent in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo during their civil war – a war which lasted five years (if it ever really finished at all) and which claimed five million lives, most of them children. As a relief worker with World Vision, one of my projects was the management of more than fifty feeding centers across North Kivu province. Forty of these centers were supplementary feeding centers, places where parents could bring their children under five years of age (although we took older children too – but that was rarer) for two or three good meals a day, usually rice and beans and some greens. Big iron pots of rice boiling; beans in water giving off that hearty aroma, seasoned with some salt and some leaves found growing in the jungles. The children sat with their mothers upon plastic sheeting under a hastily constructed tarp, in case one of the fierce jungle storms burst upon the group. Chipped bowls of green and orange plastic filled one by one to the brim with the steaming food – the look of gratitude in the mothers’ eyes as their babies dipped their tiny hands into the meal to eat.
When I went to visit, these grateful mamas would sing me a song in Swahili or a local language, and I would smile and shake hands with many of them as I talked to the health workers (who checked the children out, administered vaccines and gave lessons on HIV/Aids and TB to the waiting mothers). “There are more today” the story often went, “the fighting has moved closer and people cannot access their fields.” Farmers need stability – raising a crop takes time.
Worse than these, the therapeutic feeding centers. We put these in hospitals – such as they were – because the delicate state of the babies often meant they required not only food but medical attention lest they die in the night. Nutrition keeps the immune system functioning; without food a common cold can be deadly. “We only lost one last night,” the doctor would say as we walked by the cold chain into the wing reserved for mamas with their babies. There they were, sitting on filthy mattresses under mosquito nets, listless babies in their arms. This place was different. Not a sound, the mothers did not sing. The babies did not cry – few who have not experienced it fail to recognize that the infant explosions of anguish require too many calories for the malnourished to muster the energy to express their desperation. They sat there, eyes wide. No tears even. The type of malnutrition in Congo was severe protein deficiency (called kwashiorkor) which causes babies to fill with fluid, and to swell. It’s harder to identify, because distinguishing between a fat healthy little baby and a one who is swollen due to malnutrition takes more skill, and usually by the time the swelling is identifiable the malnourishment has gone on longer; longer even than the skeletal babies you often see on the news.
“Where are you from?” I stopped in front of one mama as I walk through the center. “I’m from Walikali,” she said (the doctor was interpreting). “How did you get her?” I asked. “I walked,” she responded, pointing to one baby who was being fed special milk and the other who was eating beans – she was lucky enough to have both her children with her. “Where is your husband?” She responded that he had collapsed on the field he was working for $1 a day, and had never gotten up. “Where will you go?” She just shrugged. Supplementary feeding is a three week process, the babies receiving a special formula every three hours, weighed often by the nurses to make sure their weight was increasing. I had an army of nurses on my payroll – 700 if I remember correctly.
I know the hunger – and it is an abomination.
This type of hunger is still happening, in North Korea and Syria and Congo (still) and in Mali and so many other places wracked by war and dictatorship. And new famines are on the horizon. I read an article this morning from the economist, about Venezuela. As the political disaster there deepens, so does the hunger. Real hunger. Hunger of mamas searching desperately for formula for their babies. Hunger of 8 hour food lines in the hopes of getting an egg or a bag of rice. Hunger of a people who bought into a ridiculous political experiment and are paying the consequences. Will there be the need of therapeutic feeding centers in Venezuela? There probably already is.
“But this type of thing doesn’t happen in the west,” people say. “You’re just exaggerating again.”
From 1990 to 1998 Cuba went through a time called the periodo especial. When the Castros ran out of stolen money (for a time, until they seized Venezuela) and they decided to starve their own people. Hungry people don’t rebel. Luis Gonzales has written a good novel called “Luz” set during this time period, where the daily travails of the Cuban people are portrayed. Rickets. Blindness. Stunting. Hunger.
Back to Venezuela; we told them this was coming. By ‘them’ I mean the ‘democratic socialists’ all through the hemisphere who leveled such hatred in my direction in the days when oil was at $100 a barrel and the revolution still had purpose and energy; was exciting even. They didn’t like me bringing up the inevitable ends of their cherished ‘experiment’. Nobody wants to be reminded of the hangover when they’re in the middle of the party.
Well, I suppose an “I told you so,” is warranted – although being right gives me no joy.
“How did this happen?” you’ll probably hear a lot when Venezuela’s political disaster implodes or worse, so very much worse, perpetuates as the government continues to starve its people – hungry people don’t rebel. Will Venezuela become North Korea, where the average height is six inches shorter than their cousins in the south? Where stepping over bodies who have died overnight of starvation is common. Where little girls sell their bodies for soup.
I pray that it will not. Nevertheless my old colleagues at World Vision should probably start doing MUAC or weight-for-height or height-for-age nutrition surveys, especially in poor areas of that country. The disaster may have already started.