Like many people in this country, I have never been in danger of going hungry, not for any length of time. I am well acquainted with hunger, but more as a seasoning than a way of life. I have never had to worry about not being able to afford food, or worse, about food simply not being available.
This made reading about a true famine all the more powerful, particularly since I wasn’t expecting it. I was reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Brian Mealer, a memoir that I thought was about how William taught himself about electricity and created his own windmill out of random junkyard items to bring light to his family’s house in Malawi. That was part of it, certainly, but only part, because to fully understand what led him to this point, he had to explain about his life growing up, which was completely unlike anything I have ever experienced.
One of the biggest differences was that his family and almost everyone around them was dependent on the food that they grew – no supermarkets for them – and since they didn’t have any irrigation, when the rain didn’t come as expected, the entire country suffered terribly from famine.
None of the members in William’s family died from it, which is particularly miraculous considering that his mother was nursing an infant during that time, and they went down to one tiny meal a day, at night. It meant that William was ecstatic when he and his cousin were able to scrounge a goatskin on Christmas, so they could boil it, scrape it, and eat it. Other people were reduced to eating the government-provided seed for their next planting, only to become ill from the pesticides on the seeds. While the mill was in operation, people literally licked the floors to get any last scrap of maize flour. Some ate pumpkin leaves.
But others simply had nothing to eat. As William said, “As if overnight, people’s bodies began changing into horrible shapes….” (p. 126) Some people became gaunt, as with the images of famine we usually see, but others swelled up with fluid, looking plump while they starved to death.
This was not a small part of the story. Around fifty pages were devoted to it, bringing home the reality that for everyone William knew, this constant hunger was simply a way of life, or for many a way of death. It was part of what shaped him, made him determined to do something to get irrigation to his family so that they did not depend on the rains and would never experience that sort of hunger again.
Reading all this, trying to understand what it might be like but really having no concept, I was suddenly angry. Angry at people who starve themselves deliberately for fashion, but also angry at myself for not always taking time to appreciate my food.
It made me remember that even for those who aren’t religious, the idea of saying grace in some shape or fashion before a meal can be profound if we are truly open to it.
To express in some way how deeply thankful we are for the food we have, enough that our bellies can have something in them during the day as well as at night, that we don’t have to watch people collapsing and dying of hunger on the street or worry that we will do the same, that we do not need to make ourselves sick by eating things that were never truly meant as food.
To be grateful to get the nutrients we need so that we don’t almost faint from hunger, to be able to not only eat but eat well, with variety and abundance and delicious flavors, that we can even contemplate worrying about eating too much or having that cookie or brownie or piece of cake or candy.
I am embarrassed for myself that I do not remember this often enough, that I grow complacent and take it for granted, when it truly should be something valued and appreciated in every aspect, and never taken for granted. After all, we can never assume that we will have enough, that we will always have money for food, that we will always have the opportunity to satisfy our hunger.
It makes me think of hunger, too, in a different way. I know that physiologically food tastes better when you’re hungry, but it seems psychologically more satisfying as well. If you experience hunger, even in a small part, it is a reminder of what a gift the food truly is.
And so I am trying to be more mindful of this, and think about what William wrote about his experience of finally being able to eat as much as he wanted again: “The kernels [of maize] were meaty and warm and filled with the essence of God. I chewed slowly and with great satisfaction, knowing I’d waited for so very long. Each time I swallowed was like returning something that was lost, some missing part of my being….” (p. 146)
If I pay attention, I, too, can feel that sense of something returned to me, a wonderful and deeply moving recognition of the sacredness of food and this act of eating. May I remember it always.