Monday, November 17, 2014

The Complexity of Global Hunger

This week in my English 101: Globalization class, we read an eye-opening essay called "The Last Famine," by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek.  The author travels through the famine-stricken Turkana Basin in Kenya, seeking to find answers: "I took a long walk with Daasanach nomads in northern Kenya, well inside the disaster zone, to see what it was like to move, as most famine victims do, on foot, through a landscape of chronic hunger.  It was a way to look at hunger beyond the carefully framed shots of television cameras, and an occasion to ask: When will Africa's vast hunger pangs finally end?"  Salopek does not find any concrete answers.  Rather, he discovers the complexity of this issue, and raises urgent questions for our increasingly interconnected world.

One of the most shocking and distressing things Salopek discovers is that western food and medical aid (from the U.N. and the U.S. mostly) does not necessasrily solve the problem.  In fact, western aid has, in some cases, made the problems worse.  First, because of food aid, nomads are not slaughtering their animals to the extent they used to, so that domestic herds have stripped the region of grass, making the land "sterile as concrete" for agriculture.  A Norwegian scheme to train locals to fish ended in economic disaster.  Giving aid to famine-stricken countries like Kenya must be done intelligently, and in collaboration with local communities.  Those interested in giving aid must constantly ask themselves: What do they really need, as opposed to what do we think they need?

Salopek hangs out with paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, whose family discovered some of the earliest hominid skeletons in Africa, like the famous "Turkana Boy".  These days, Leakey is pessimistic about the future of Turkana.  He sees the droughts in Africa as "another opening act for full-bore global warming."  As the climate gets hotter, those most immediately affected will be people in famine-stricken places in Africa.  Who is dumping the most CO2 into the environment?  It certainly isn't the nomads of Turkana. 

Causes of hunger in the Turkana region are varied and complex.  They include: cycles of drought (of course), stock-market speculation "for jacking up the costs of the world's food staples (thus pricing the poor out of their next meal)," political instablilty in the region, global warming, tribal conflicts, re-drawing of traditional land boundaries, and (in some cases) western aid.  I think we can also trace some of the problem back to European colonization of Africa, and how profoundly this disrupted  ancient ways of sustainable living.

Is there any hope for the future?  Salopek's article doesn't offer much.  I think, if there is to be any kind of hope or salvation, it must come from the Turkana people themselves.  Westerners have done a great job of messing things up for them.  Maybe our best option is to stop meddling.  Of course, we are in a situation now where, if we did that, many people would die of starvation, because many people are now dependent on western food aid.  Another long-term solution is to stop polluting so much with fossil fuels, because this is having a direct impact on dryer/hotter/famine-stricken places, like Turkana.  As with most of the stuff I've been reading and discussing for this Globalization class, I finished Salopek's article with more questions than answers.  But, I suppose, that's a good place to start.

Pastoralists of Turkana

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