Face to Face With a Mother's Pain
CHANCE encounter in a village here between an American medical student A traveling with me and a starving African mother was almost too wrenching to handle.
The winners of my annual win-a-trip contest, Saumya Dave of Atlanta, the medical student, and Noreen Connolly, a teacher from Newark, traveled with me to a remote village here in southern Niger. We came across a young mother who was quietly starving beside her thatch-roof hut, along with her two surviving children (two others had already died).
The mother, Miero Finiba, told us that she was eight months pregnant (confirmed by a health card) and had nothing at all to eat in the house (confirmed by her husband). She and her children had last eaten a day earlier, when neighbors — themselves impossibly poor — shared some of their food.
Ms. Finiba was also afflicted with a leg infection that looked gangrenous. That meant that if she didn't starve, she might soon lose her leg — or, more realistically in a village with no medical clinic, simply die of the infection.
Her two small children, ages 5 and 2, would then be at great risk of dying without their mother to look after them. The father is blind, from a disease called river blindness, which is transmitted by black flies, and cannot cultivate the fields.
It was at that point in the conversation that Ms. Dave choked and teared up. "Is there anything we can do?" she asked.
That was exactly the right response. Journalists should keep a certain distance, yes, but that doesn't mean that we dispassionately chronicle the death of a starving mother and her children. Ms. Dave was embarrassed that she had lost her composure, but I wish more people would feel the same distress as a food crisis spreads around the developing world.
Global food prices are spiking, not yet reaching their peak of July 2008 but heading there. The World Bank calculates that rising food prices pushed 44 million more people into poverty in the latter half of 2010.
What normally happens is that we wait for a famine, and then rush in with emergency rations. But that's extremely expensive, and it also comes too late — even for survivors.
Research in recent years has established that hunger in the prenatal period and in infancy deprives a child of the nourishment the brain needs to grow properly. For example, babies who were in the uterus during the 1944 "Dutch famine" of World War II did worse on mental tests than those of similar ages — even 60 years later.
So what can we do, particularly in an era when we face our own severe spending constraints?
There are inexpensive steps that can help avert this kind of hunger. I talked about one low-tech solution in my last column
We can also insist that governments in the developing world reduce suffocating corruption that raises transit costs. On both the Mauritania/Senegal and Niger/Burkina Faso borders, we saw huge numbers of trucks lined up, waiting to be "inspected" by customs officials — which in
One woman we talked to had started in such penury that four of her children had died of starvation or disease. But with CARE's help, she started preparing black-eyed peas for sale, branched into growing peanuts and fattening sheep, and with her profits bought a motorcycle that is rented out as a taxi.
And in eastern
The Obama administration has promoted aid programs that boost agricultural output to fight malnutrition and poverty. That's not as catchy as setting up emergency feeding clinics in a famine-devastated land, but it's far cheaper to avert the crisis than to wait for it.
Another crucial need is family planning, which some of the women I talked to hadn't even heard of. That would reduce the pressure on the land and the number of mouths to feed.
And Ms. Finiba, eight months pregnant and starving? With the help of Helen Keller International we were able to get her food and, it seems, medical care. But rising food prices may put millions more into Ms. Finiba's sandals, just as donor countries' budgets are under pressure.
We need more people raising Ms. Dave's teary question
The answer is
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs