‘Starving’ Children in Africa

Thanksgiving tends to entail quite a bit of overeating. Often, even within the Peace Corps Niger community the phrase can be heard:

“You better finish that. There’s starving children in Africa, you know.”

Somehow, when we were within the Westernized safety of the Peace Corps training village such an utterance seemed deliciously ironic. But, now that those “starving African children” are my neighbors/friends/villagers, “finishing my plate” has a new meaning.

It isn’t, of course, anything like what you see on those Christian aid commercials. I have yet to meet a child that looks as desperate and helpless as that child they show with the single tear running down his dusty face. “My” children are full of laughter, games and songs, despite their protruded bellies. Their ingenuity is amazing; now that the millet has been harvested, my village is full of small millet-stalk cars, artfully constructed by children no taller than my knees.

At the same time, the village doctor tells me that he sees close to 800 children each year that suffer from moderate to grave malnutrition. The number would likely be higher but for “PlumyNut,” a nutritional supplement that Doctor’s Without Borders frequently distributes.

But, as anyone who has read a little about world food production knows, the problem of starvation is not caused by a global lack of food. According to a great book I recently read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the world’s farms currently produce enough food to make every person on the globe fat. Current global food production can sustain world food needs even for the 8 billion people who are projected to inhabit the planet in 2030.

So why, then, are 800 million people chronically underfed each year? As is clearly evident in my village, where I eat fresh produce and my neighbors eat a constant diet of millet, the problem is money and nutritional knowledge. The bellies of my village children protrude not because they are starving but rather because their families can either not afford or do not know the importance of a varied diet.

Although I have the great fortune of being able to open my door and give my leftovers to those “starving” African children, I am hoping that over the next two years I will be able to do more. Local solutions for malnutrition—such as an amazing plant called Moringa mixed with locally produced peanut butter—exist and I hope I can help at least a few of those bellies regain their normal flatness.

Surprisingly, even in America, there are easy ways to combat global malnutrition. The UN FAO estimates that over 25 percent of arable land in the world suffers from soil erosion, salinization, desertification and loss of soil fertility, largely due to industrial farming practices. While farming practices in Niger more closely resemble 16th century hoes and horse plows than anything else, many developing countries suffer from large-scale commodity crop production that destroys the soil and turns farmers into laborers on land owned by multinationals. Organic farming techniques that use cover crops or animal manures for fertilizer improve the soil while producing vegetables that have consistently been shown to be more nutritional than non-organic produce. At the risk of sounding like a pamphlet, there really are a lot of good reasons to buy organic, protruded bellies just being one of them.