“They get it from their father,” Ba once told me, trying to explain why her three young sons were so quick to lose their tempers. Tigiton, the youngest, was close to losing his again as Kassum tried to sit him in the leather sling, but Kassum just smiled his genuine gap-toothed smile as Ba shook the bamboo bench with laughter. Eventually Kassum was able to sit Tigiton just right so he could connect the sling to the scale. “Kilo wolonfila,” Kassum read. Seven kilograms.
The baby-weighing scale and the chart were new, materials for a child growth-monitoring project Kassum and I are working on, and we were excited to test them out.
“How old is Tigiton?” I asked him.
“One year, three months” said Kassum.
I found fifteen months, then traced my finger along the grid. On the chart there are three colors: green, yellow and red. Green means the child is of healthy weight; yellow means the child is underweight. Kassum, a trained village health extension volunteer, had always told me that red means the child will die, though it would be more accurate to say that the child is at serious risk if not given help.
Fifteen months, seven kilograms. I had my finger on it, but I traced the lines again. I had not expected Tigiton to fall into the green – the baby had barely grown in the one year I had known it – but my finger had landed just inside the red, and I was not prepared for that, either.
Kassum’s smile faded.
I cannot say What Hunger Is, or even What Hunger Is In Mali. But I have some understanding of hunger in my village. Hunger is a child that will not grow. Hunger is protruding bellies that go to bed without enough to eat and orange hair when the peanut stores run out. Hunger is parasites that steal the food you eat from you, defined collar bones and exhaustion and fever, and no money to buy medicine.
Hunger is pregnant women, the undersides of their eyelids white, who are likely to hemorrhage to death when the baby is born.
In my village, hunger does not cause much theft. It is a cultural obligation to invite all passers-by to eat with you. But hunger can cause jealousy, and anger.
It is the rains that don’t come, the locusts that do, and the stores that spill.
Broken roads and broken promises from politicians.
No energy to garden, no seeds to plant. Surrender to exhaustion and disbelief that things can get better – that YOU can make things better. In my village, this is the face of hunger.
This September 11 – 17, one of my colleagues has organized a Hunger Awareness Week. I would like to invite you to participate. Among Mali Peace Corps Volunteers, we are planning to limit ourselves to a dollar a day for all expenses – food, transportation, etc. Participants in the US are invited to try to limit themselves to $10 a day.
The idea of Hunger Awareness Week is to limit the amount we spend for a week in order to better understand the circumstances of others. This is not a project I plan to share with my family and friends in village, as I am afraid they will misunderstand, and maybe even be offended by the idea. This is a project to share with friends and family back home – a “Third Goal” project. The “Third Goal” of the Peace Corps, as described by President John F. Kennedy, is to “strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its peoples”. Most Peace Corps projects focus within the host country, but as Peace Corps Volunteers we also have the unique opportunity to share our adopted home with those from our American home.
Participants are encouraged to share their experience. If you write about Hunger Awareness Week, you can send what you write to email@example.com to be submitted for the Peace Corps Mali monthly newsletter.
I imagine that the greatest challenge for myself will be deciding where that one dollar goes – do I buy enough food to feel full, or splurge on something green to keep me healthy? Is it possible to do both? What if this weren’t a week, what if this were my life? My hunger, my daily decisions, my child to feed?
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