Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow

Earlier this summer, I was able to acquire a copy  of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season. The book chronicles one year in the lives of four families who are working with an organization called One Acre Fund (OAF) to improve their livelihood as small shareholder farmers.

My initial interest in the book was because One Acre Fund is an incredible thought partner for Nuru International, and our CEO, Jake Harriman, did a summer internship with OAF in 2007 in order to learn more about their model first-hand. If you have not heard of One Acre Fund, I strongly recommend you look into their work to improve the lives of farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi.

But now for more about the book. Thurow starts off by explaining what is meant by a “hunger season” or “wanjala” in Kiswahili as this is a foreign concept to people who have never set foot outside the United States. In the West, we have access to food year round. For people in the US, it is hard to fathom that anyone on the planet would ever run out of food, or that food prices could double and triple during those times of year when there is a shortage. Even more difficult for our minds to imagine is that people grow most of their own food. While we know that farms exist, most people here buy their food in a supermarket.

Thurow does a masterful job of allowing the reader to enter into daily life for people in remote rural Kenya who are living in extreme poverty.  Unless one has witnessed it firsthand, it is hard to imagine whole communities who lack access to electricity or running water. It’s hard to imagine healthcare that is "distant and meager at best." Beyond this, Thurow helps readers get a better understanding of what access to high quality seed and fertilizer and improved planting techniques can do for these agrarian communities.

Too often, in the West we have been given distorted images of people living in extreme poverty. Too often, our global neighbors are portrayed as helpless and unable to fend for themselves. The truth of the matter is that our global neighbors are incredibly resourceful, but they have largely lacked access to tools and knowledge that could mean massive improvements to their livelihood.  Too often, these people are portrayed in a way in which we do not see their full humanity, their brilliance, or the daily choices they are compelled to make. Roger Thurow helps us to get a more accurate image of who these people are and what their dreams are, both for themselves and for their children. During each chapter, he allows us to walk through the lives of four One Acre farmers, and experience the challenges they bravely face during the course of a year. I believe that through Thurow's detailed chronicling of one year in the lives of the families of Leonida, Rasoa, Zipporah, and Francis, we have been given a true treasure. 

Through the innovative work of organizations like One Acre Fund and Nuru International, literally thousands of families are taking the first steps toward lifting themselves out of extreme poverty and dealing with chronic hunger. In the book, one gets a vivid image of the challenges that a family might face in a year, challenges like paying school fees and paying back agricultural loans. Thurow reminds us of challenges like insuring that a family has enough food to eat through the wanjala, or even challenges like dealing with health emergencies like malaria. 

Beyond his detailed description of one year in the life of four farmers, Thurow offers a primer to the history of sustainable agriculture and international development from Norman Borlaug's work in India and Pakistan in the 60s and 70s to renewal efforts being led by groups like Bread for the World, One Acre Fund, Nuru, and many others in this generation. Throughout the book, he also details the work of advocacy groups like ONE (an advocacy organization started by Bono, the lead singer of the band U2) and even the work of the Obama administration's Feed The Future initiative and agencies like USAID to bolster food security and production. He even quotes US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack's reminder that, "just one lifetime ago the United States was a country of subsistence farmers...there are no better innovators than those who farm the land." Thurow allows us to not only read about the lives of farmers, but his book is filled with opportunities to learn more about the history of sustainable agricultural development, as well as learn how others, like former representative Tony Hall and Christian writer Jim Wallis, have taken tangible action steps to speak and take action about the unnecessary injustice of chronic hunger.

I really loved the book for a number of reasons, and I believe the book is a must-read for anybody interested in sustainable agriculture as well as how our global neighbors who are suffering in extreme poverty may be able to chart a better future for themselves. If you take the time to read the stories of one year in the life of the families of Leonida, Rasoa, Zipporah, and Francis, I hope you will be able to move past the statistics you may have heard, and come to the conclusion that there is hope, and that we stand on the threshold of an amazing opportunity to work together toward helping farmers like the ones mentioned above provide a better future for their families. Thank you Roger Thurow for your engaging and inspiring work open our eyes to parts of our world from which so many in the West have been insulated.

No comments: