Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hunger Pangs

“Hungry people cannot be good at learning or producing anything, except perhaps violence.”
-Pearl Bailey

My learners kill birds with slingshots they make out of sticks and old car tires. Sure, it’s true that at some point during childhood, most young boys shoot things with slingshots (my brother once killed a dove), but my boys here don’t shoot the birds just to kill them. Some of them maybe do, but most of them kill the birds to eat.

Now before I get going, let me just clarify: I’ve wanted to write about this for awhile because it’s been on my mind, but I don’t want people to feel bad or sad after reading it. I’m not writing this to make you feel guilty about the poor, starving African children. While these particular kids may be as close to starving as any children I have ever known, they are by no means starving-- at least by African standards. They are hungry, but hungry is not the same as starving. They are fed three times a day, and it’s usually enough to fill their stomachs. So don’t feel bad. I’m really not trying to make a political statement about global poverty or food shortages or anything. These are just my random and collected thoughts. Take them for what they’re worth, nothing more.

Now back to the story of the birds.

There’s an open space of concrete directly behind my house where the kids often congregate, playing soccer with tennis balls, socializing in between classes or after school, or ambushing those of us who take the back path through the bush and over the fence. This is also where I catch them doing their bird business. The kids like to fillet their birds and then lay them out in the sun to make bird biltong (Namibia’s beef jerky). Aside from this being unnecessary (remember, hungry is not the same as starving), there are the obvious sanitary concerns as well. I’ve tried to explain this to them on several occasions, but it has been to no avail-- there are still plenty of days when I make my way up to the top of the path only to find 2 or 3 naughty little kinders sautéing a bird in the sun. They know this particular pastime really irritates me (something they love doing) and as soon as they see me coming, before I even realize what it is they are doing, the giggling begins. Once I see the mangled bird carcass stretched out on the pavement under a few large rocks, they get the inevitable response they so love to hear from me: “You’ll get the bird flu!” Which, without fail, induces fits of laughter amongst them all. The bird flu is one of many things they’re convinced I have made up in order to frighten them, and the name alone puts them into instant hysterics. I realized long ago that in order to preserve whatever mental sanity I have left, it’s necessary for me to choose my battles wisely, so lately I’ve been invoking the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy as far as the birds are concerned.

Unfortunately, sometimes this bird situation is literally thrown in my face. Killing a bird in their free time is one thing, but if the learners kill a bird during school hours and don’t have time to set up their biltong station, they sometimes try to bring the bird with them to class. If they were discreet about it and kept the bird in their bag or something, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s always a production. A kid will run into the classroom waving his latest kill, often only half dead and still flapping around, in the faces of the other learners. Those learners will then begin running around screaming and jumping on their chairs and desks to try and escape the squawks and scratches of the traumatized bird. Knowing how all of my kids grew up and how familiar they are with animals and hunting, I know this to be an incredibly unnecessary overreaction that they know they will get away with because I, unlike their other teachers, will not confiscate a half-dead guinea fowl. So there we all remain, crouching under our desks and covering our heads until the bird either a) escapes his captor, or b) expires on the floor of my classroom. Then we go back to talking about present simple tense in a room filled with bird blood and feathers.

Dealing with hungry kids is not easy for anyone, including teachers. Teaching kids who haven’t eaten a solid meal in days (weeks? Ever?) just adds another obstacle to what is already a complicated situation. It’s a very common excuse I get from the kids: “Miss, I’m too hungry to think. I’m too hungry to focus.” And it’s a difficult situation to combat. For people young and old to try and think clearly, to interact constructively, to offer anything productive with tummies that are perpetually growling is not an easy task. Many of the kids who live outside the hostel go home to overcrowded houses with no adults or only grandparents who depend on pension checks to support their families. For a lot of kids here, life in the hostel is actually preferable to life at home. And trust me, life in the hostel is not good.

Hostel borders are fed three times a day: 6am, 1pm and 6pm. Coming across the kids during these hours, you would think they were the happiest people in the world. “Miss, we are eating!” they exclaim with huge smiles and mouths full of bread. Government schools are given provisions to prepare for the learners which include tea, porridge, brown bread, rice, beans, beets and meat for Sundays. I don’t really know what happens in between the food delivery truck and the kids, but a lot of food is intercepted along the way. Lunch usually consists of rice with some sauce and maybe a small piece of meat or chicken, but the vast majority of breakfasts and dinners are made up of nothing more than between 10 and 15 slices of dry bread, sometimes with jam or butter, and/or porridge, both of which are coveted like gold.

I’d say that more than half of the fights that occur at my hostel are somehow triggered by food issues. This guy stole bread from this guy, or this guy took more than his portion during dinner. In fact, the only two fights one of my favorite learners, Levi, has been in since I’ve been here were both over food. Last year, he was stabbed with a broken bottle by a boy in town while he was on his way home with a loaf of bread, and this year punches were exchanged between him and another learner who grabbed rice off his plate at dinner one evening. The kids are more than prepared to fight for their rations.

And if fights aren’t over food, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of them are a result of the ever-present hunger so many people are faced with. People can’t think straight if they haven’t eaten for an extended period of time. Last year, we had a food shortage at the school and the portions the kids received for a few weeks were extremely small. During this time, I literally felt the tension at the school increase. Kids were irritable and unhappy and tired, and small things would set them off. Their empty stomachs caused their minds and better judgments to become convoluted, resulting in an increase in fights throughout the school. Looking at many war-torn areas around the world, especially in Africa, one may be able to argue that similar situations are occurring on a larger scale.

For mealtime at the hostel, the kids are herded into the dining hall where they stand at their tables, pray, get their food and are then released. This usually takes about 30 minutes and most of it is to be done in silence (when the silence is abruptly broken, it means a fight has begun). When the learners are released from the hall I hear screams and the shuffling of bare feet on the dirt as many of them take off running, trying to find a safe haven where they can eat their food without fear of having it confiscated by an older or bigger or more desperately hungry child. Some of them go to their blocks and eat in their rooms, but a lot of them seek protection either in or around my house or by the other volunteer’s house. Sometimes small kids will be chased by bigger kids looking for food, and they’ll scamper onto my stoop where they know the bully will not enter. And sometimes the bigger kids will win and I will hear the smaller ones click with anger and discuss at length how, someday, they themselves will seek revenge on these heartless bullies and will go to sleep satisfied. Mealtime at the hostel is never dull.

Sometimes I play food games with my small learners. I choose a food, and they have to tell me how it looks and feels and tastes, and how they feel as they are eating it, by using the most descriptive words they can think of. “Oh miss, the liquid coming from inside this mango is so lekker! This mince is so chili it’s burning my mouth off! (My favorite description: This goat heart is melting in my mouth!). I’ve often thought about how differently this activity would work if I had been able to give them a sample of the food they were describing, but then they would know the actual tastes and their imaginations would be limited, and the game would probably be less fun.

Food is tricky here, indeed. None of the hotel borders have enough money or access to food to keep them satisfied throughout the day: they are always hungry. Because of this, trying to do anything with food when they are around is not that simple. And because they are always around, any situation involving food is pretty much always a difficult situation for me. I rarely eat in front of the kids. When I do eat, I try to do it either in my office when they aren’t there or in my room when they are in study. I’ve pretty much stopped cooking all together since cooking drags out the whole food process and I then run the risk of having a kid stop by while I’m preparing food. During my first year, I found it very difficult to circumvent this problem. However, lately I've just resorted to limiting my food intake to things similar to what the kids eat: brown bread, rice, sauce, tea, etc. It seems that when the things I eat are similar to the things they are eating, the kids are a bit easier to handle.

The way I see it, hunger is the root of many, many problems in Namibia. Health problems (HIV-related or not) are intensified by undernourishment in so many people. That one is obvious. But hunger contributes to Namibia’s troubles in many more, not-so-obvious ways. When a child is hungry, he or she will do just about anything to get food, or to get money for food. I don’t think I need to elaborate here—just use your imagination. It is as bad as what you’re thinking.

Food is like a golden ticket. If you ever have a function or meeting that you need people to attend, providing food will ensure a complete turnout. Since both weddings and funerals usually provide some kind of meat or food to those who attend, security is pretty tight at such occasions. In fact, last year at a funeral for a learner from our school, many of his fellow classmates were chased away by adults who claimed that the kids, his friends, were only attending to eat. And maybe they were… who knows?

What’s really crazy is to think that of other African nations, Namibia is doing okay when it comes to food. We don’t have McDonald’s (thank god) or fully stocked grocery stores that are in any way affordable, but our shops look a little less bare than, say, Zimbabwe’s. Here, there are some crops and goats and cattle, and enough silliness exported from South Africa to tide most cravings. The World Food Programme is in Namibia and does provide food for many schools, but it’s not because of an emergency. These days, the aid is more because of drought and lack of crops, not because of war.

Living in Africa, even traveling to Africa probably, gives you a new appreciation for food. I wouldn’t say that I was ever really a picky eater before, but I was definitely more selective in the states. Africa changed that. I used to think it was funny when the kids ate the entire apple, core and all, or gnawed on the bones of their goat or chicken meat. Now, I join in the fun. I still have preferences, sure, but these days when food comes my way, I take it and eat it and I’m grateful.

In a scatter-brained moment last week while hiking back to Omaruru, I left both my wallet and cell phone in my hike. I had been dropped about 60km outside of Omaruru and only realized my mistake as the driver was speeding away down the road. Along with water, I’d say a cell phone the most important thing to have with you when hiking (money does help, too). Getting stuck deep in the bush without any way to call for help is a hiker’s greatest fear realized and I try at all costs to avoid such a situation. As the midday sun blazed down, I had a brief moment of worry, but somehow I knew things would work out. Before long, a man in a bakkie pulled up and asked where I was going. The next town down the road was Omaruru so I knew he was going my way, but he was hoping to make a profit off of transporting me. I explained my situation and after a small amount of eye-rolling, he agreed to take me free of charge. He didn’t want to, and he didn’t have to, but he did it anyway.

I arrived home to an empty house I’d been away from for nearly two weeks. As a result, my food supply amounted to nothing more than a few bottles of water and some drink concentrate, a lemon, a tomato and some dried beans (I eat funny stuff). When I told the kids what had happened, they sprung into action. One let me borrow her cell phone to try and track down my belongings, and 4 or 5 others began scavenging for rations for the whole lot of us.

I managed to get a hold of my driver and deduced (despite a significant language barrier) that he did have my things and would hold them until further notice. Unfortunately, he was at his home in Walvis Bay, out on the coast about 250km from Omaruru. So the kids and I ate our dinner of bread and tomatoes and discussed how we would remedy this predicament.

I figured that the more time I let pass, the more likely it was that my things would go missing. So the next morning I decided to hike to the coast to try and recover my things. I had nothing but the clothes on my back, a bottle of water and N$70 I borrowed from one of the kids. I got picked up by a man who agreed to take me all the way for N$70. I told him about my problem and he sympathized and bought me dried meat along the way and made sure to drop me exactly where I needed to go once we arrived to the coast. I met up with my driver who was extremely apologetic about what had happened. He insisted upon buying me a seafood lunch, and afterwards when I told him that it had been my first hot meal in over a week, he was appalled. Then he drove me back to Swakopmund, helped me find a hike and gave me N$50 for the road (the money in my wallet was taken—really a small price, considering how much more I could have lost).

The reason this story was so interesting to me was because not once throughout the entire ordeal was I truly worried. I thought it was very probable that my things would be stolen or damaged by the time they were returned to me, but I never worried about how I would make due for two days with no money and no food and no cell phone—I knew that there would be people who would help me. Some people may call this white privilege, and sure in some cases it is, but similar things happen with my kids. For many kids who live outside the hostel, they truly do not know where their next meal will come from. They eat whenever food is offered to them, and if they are hungry they go in search of something to fill their stomachs. One would think that such a situation, of not knowing if or when you will eat next, would put any child in a great state of anxiety. However, they never really panic about it. Someone always helps them out—a teacher or a neighbor or a friend. People share whatever they have, even if it is small. Similarly, when I was without food and money to buy food, I didn’t worry about it. My kids and some colleagues shared what they had and my fellow hikers shared oranges and meat and cool drink with me. And even if the man hadn’t treated me to lunch, I met enough generous people along the way that I would have been fine.

Namibia is a difficult country, this is true. People aren’t always outwardly accepting of you, and your differences often times seem to overpower any similarities you may share with members of your community. However, I still believe that what I said so many months ago, about Namibians being some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, holds true. While I have encountered plenty of difficult and lonely situations here, at the end of the day I’ve always found someone who will help me out or take care of me if I’m in need. People take care of others here, even when they don’t want to. It seems that in Namibia, human morality always wins out over convenience or personal feelings.

Living in Africa has made me realize that hunger and poverty truly are the root causes of things such as terrorism and war, much more so than any of the other problems we are spending billions of dollars trying (unsuccessfully for the most part) to combat. Even if eradicating hunger wouldn’t in itself solve global crises, it would at the very least be a catalyst for change. As long as people are hungry, they will be desperate, and as long as people are desperate, there will be trouble and danger. I wonder how long it will take for the powers-that-be to realize this simple truth: in the long run, protecting ourselves and our interests’ means taking care of those who are suffering. The two are intertwined, there’s just no way to get around this. And the way I see it, there will continue to be heartache for all of us until this is realized.

“The day hunger is eradicated from the earth, there will be the greatest spiritual explosion the world has ever known. Humanity cannot imagine the joy that will burst into the world on the day of that great revolution.”
-Federico Garcia Lorca, Spanish poet


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