Close your eyes and imagine the face of Hunger.
(Now go ahead and open them so that you can finish reading the rest of this post.)
What does Hunger look like to you? Is it a frail Black African child with ashy skin, belly swollen from kwashiorkor, lumbering aimlessly about his village? Is it a filthy 3 year old girl in the slums of Guatemala, digging through debris in search of her next meal? Is it a skeletal Eastern European boy surrounded by a litter of his siblings in a hollowed out warehouse?
When we think of the personhood of Hunger, we usually assign it physical attributes that have become synonymous with the Third World – or Developing Nations- or whatever new term the media has conjured us to make us feel better about social disadvantage and poverty.
Surely you’ve seen the commercials I’m referring to. We’ve lived with them since we were kids ourselves. Hunger is sad. Hunger is barely hanging on. Hunger is going to dig a shallow grave and push this child in if you don’t send 10 cents a day to ThisOrganization.com right now! If we don’t tackle Hunger head on, that beast that roves the barren plains of Africa and its derelict cities, then we’ve failed as the human race…the only species that claims to have the ability to have compassion for its own kind! Shame…shame on us all!
And after enduring an uncomfortable 30 second commercial slot during which our heartstrings are manipulated and our benevolence called into question, Three’s Company finally comes back on and we can forget that that whole unpleasantness ever happened. Very rarely are the masses moved to send This Organization those 10 cents after suffering so much emotional carnage. If it was so, Hunger would be eradicated by now, would it not? Hunger is oh-so scary and better left ignored.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my sister sent me this
Wal-Mart ad touting its stand in the combat against Hunger in America.
“Ah. This isn’t Hunger!” she exclaimed. “Why is Hunger laughing, and jumping and playing?”
“Hunger is playing the ukulele!” I added in dismay. “How is this possible? In fact, this Hunger doesn’t frighten me at all!”
“In fact, we should all struggle in Ghana to be hungry as the Americans are.”
“Hmmm chale. True ooo…”
We cackled for a bit (over text, mind you) and then I watched the ad again with Mom 5X, with whom I was having coffee. I must admit, the ad was very effective.
When you see American Hunger, you feel like you can solve it. All it requires is regular trips to the grocery store – which most people in America do anyway, clipping a few labels from the cans and boxes that you’re eating out of, and mailing them to That Organization’s address.
“You could even make that a class project,” Mom 5X said glibly.
It was a casually tossed out suggestion, but was true. If my children and I could end American Hunger just by taking one more step in cutting off labels of boxes on the way to the recycling bin, then why not? We could at least do that.
African Hunger on the other hand? No one can solve that. No one. We’ve lived with African Hunger since the early 80’s.
It’s a memory that I’d rather lose altogether, but I recall when my mother’s septuagenarian aunt called me into her parlor when I was visiting relatives in Cincinnati one summer. In those days, all old ladies had parlors in their houses. Hers was gaudily decorated and had a huge ceramic cat. All the seats were covered with plastic that squealed noisily when you sat on it. However, it was forbidden for anyone to stop and sit in there. I discovered this when I got my bare legs stuck to the plastic encased armchair and was eventually hauled out of the room. I don’t remember what happened next.
So when my aunt called me to come talk to her in her precious sitting room, I felt honored. She didn’t offer me a seat, and I didn’t presume I could have one. I stood before her, a not-quite plump 9 year old kid, waiting to hear what this harsh old lady who despised the hybrid African blood that coursed through my veins (never mind that she was six shades darker than I was) had to say.
“Why all them children in Africa dying like that?” she blurted. She seemed sincerely concerned. “Why is there so much famine over there in Africa?”
She spat the word “Africa”.
“I don’t know Auntie,” I said after a while. I assumed she was talking about Ethiopia. “The part I live in doesn’t have famine. I live in Ghana.”
“Africa is Africa. My pastor says it’s because them people over there done something to offend God,” she said haughtily. “He said God has cursed the land.”
Later I would discover that the famine was actually the result of deforestation, land erosion and war, but at the time I had to endure the assertion that “all of Africa” was cursed by God. But even I at aged 9 knew instinctively that that wasn’t true. I couldn’t tell this old lady so…that I didn’t believe her or her pastor. To defy her would have meant a switch on my bottom. She waited for me to say something in reply, and when I didn’t she finally released me to go play with my cousins. I might not have been a starving African, but I certainly was a dumb one.
The point is, I think that Africa’s feeding problems – or any of her social ills, for that matter – can be solved if we gave them the same respect that are afforded those in the Western world. Even in The Hunger Games, American Hunger was portrayed as resourceful, intelligent and brave. When have you ever seen African Hunger come off as resourceful? Hmmm?!?
If we give people real solutions and build up public-private partnerships in key areas just as Wal-Mart, Dr. Phil, and 3 other celebrity chefs who care about ending hunger in America have done, we might begin to see real progress in these areas. I think the first step in bringing about change is in altering perceptions. I mean, who really wants to be identified with the child who’s going to eventually die in ubiquitous Africa? Wouldn’t you rather say your benevolent energies helped a child “thrive”, rather than stave off their doom temporarily? Can you see the difference?
As one of my Twitter friends once said: Infantilizing African hunger is so 20th century.
Let’s take away their begging bowls, put some ukuleles in some Somali kids hands and take pictures of them playing in the park. I’d wager that more people could support that. People really like smiling African children.
A version of this article was first published on the author's blog