THREE LITTLE WORDS, THREE LITTLE LETTERS
For many Moms, their biggest wish on Mother’s Day is to hear those special three little words from their children: I Love You.
For the mothers and women farmers of Africa, they also dearly wish to hear three little letters: A-N-D.
And. It’s a tiny word, perhaps the most common of all conjunctions. But in rural Africa, it is so often missing from the ambitions of mothers.
It is the goal of mothers everywhere to provide their children with proper daily nourishment and to educate them as best as possible. In the U.S. and other rich precincts of the world, the AND in that sentence is taken for granted.
But for many smallholder farmers in Africa, that three-letter word is nowhere to be found. Instead, they are stuck with an even tinier word: OR. Feed my children OR send them to school. Often, they can do one OR the other. Often, they can’t do either.
I saw the impact of that missing conjunction in January 2011, as I was beginning the reporting for my new book, The Last Hunger Season. Leonida Wanyama, one of the smallholder farmers in western Kenya I would be following throughout the year, told me with great pride how she had tripled her harvest from previous years when she finally had access to the essential elements of farming: better seed, micro-doses of fertilizer and financing to pay for it. She had reaped a bumper harvest, 10 bags of maize compared to only three the year before. She believed it would be enough to conquer the hunger season, to feed her family all through the year until the next harvest.
But when I visited her shamba, her farm, a few days later, the maize was gone.
“I sold it to pay school fees,” she told me. January marked the beginning of the school year; Leonida’s second oldest son, Gideon, was entering his third year in high school and a down payment on the tuition was due. Her maize was the only asset she had left that was valuable enough to raise the money. (The first two years, she had sold trees and chickens.)
The bright future she saw after the harvest was limited for want of a simple AND. She had to make a choice: Feed the family, educate the children. One or the other. Not both. Leonida reckoned that they were used to coping with the hunger season and Gideon was so close to becoming the first of her children to complete a high school education. The three oldest hadn’t made it; for Gideon to drop out now, too, would be a bitter defeat. Leonida strongly believed education was the surest route out of poverty, for her children and for her family. So she chose the long-term gain of education over the short term satisfaction of eating well. She sold the maize.
On my subsequent visits to her shamba throughout the year, I often found Leonida burdened by her choice from the lack of an AND. The hunger season was biting harder than ever, particularly because the price of maize on the market (she was a buyer now that she had sold her harvest) would rise fivefold over her sale price. Meals dwindled from three to two to one and, on too many days, none. Her younger children suffered most; she lamented that the littlest, Dorcas, was smaller and quieter than normal.
Leonida and her fellow women farmers felt failure on two fronts: as farmers unable to grow enough to feed their families and as mothers unable to properly nourish those she brought into the world. They defined for me the deepest form of misery: being a mother unable to stop a hungry child from crying, and then watching that child retreat into the shrinking shell of malnutrition.
Ah, for an AND.
President Obama set out to provide those three little letters on his first day in office. Let’s remember again that passage from his inaugural address: “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies, and feed hungry minds.” Two ANDs. Zero ORs.
Now it’s time for President Obama and his fellow rich world leaders, at next week’s G8 and NATO summits, to commit to the AND by renewing and strengthening their support of increased investment in agricultural development. In advanced of the G-8 summit, President Obama will deliver the keynote at the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security next Friday. Of all the lofty rhetoric and ambitious strategies we’ll be hearing from their meetings on U.S. soil next week, the mightiest may be the simplest and tiniest.
For there can be no greater gift to the farming moms of Africa than to put a little AND in their lives.
(I now have a twitter account, follow me @rogerthurow)