Q&A with Roger Thurow about The Last Hunger Season
I wrote The Last Hunger Season because I wanted to take readers through a year in the lives of four Kenyan farmers and their families. I decided to follow farmers because I saw in them a desire to improve the quantity and the quality of the food they grow. I wanted my readers to see what I saw, to see the desire, the willingness, the yearning not to be lifted up, but to be given the opportunity to lift themselves up. Farmers throughout Africa are so willing to do their part, but they can’t do it without the support of their governments through increased investments in agriculture.
I want people to know that we are on the right track, but it’s going to take investments in seed production and soil research. It’s going to take seed companies that understand the farmers’ needs and that can meet them. It’s going to take improvements to rural roads and storage facilities and more efficient markets.
Africa’s farmers also need for governments in richer countries of the world to live up to their pledges of increased spending on agricultural development for smallholders farmers to be as productive as possible. The private sector, including churches and other faith-based organizations, need to look for new ways to serve the smallholder farmers.
Q. In The Last Hunger Season you chronicle the lives of four Kenyan farmers. There are many smallholder farmers in Kenya. How did you come to choose these particular four?
A. I first met Leonida at a One Acre Fund meeting at a church near her home. One Acre farmers work in groups of eight or ten friends and neighbors forming their own little farming cooperatives. On this particular day the farmers were naming their groups. They typically chose names like Hope, Faith, Happiness and Success. After the meeting, I asked Leonida what her group had chosen to call themselves and she answered Amua. It is a Swahili word that I was unfamiliar with, so I asked her what it meant. She told me it meant “we have decided.” It was a name that conveyed hope and conviction but also determination.
I asked her what it was they had decided. She told me proudly, “to move from misery to Canaan.” Just to make sure, I asked her if she meant the biblical Canaan, “the land of milk and honey”, and her affirmative smile said “yes” even before she did. Leonida and her group, all of whom had certainly known misery, had sought assurance and inspiration from the Scriptures to choose their name. In spite of all the misery she had experienced in her life, Leonida knew there was a better way, and she was willing to allow her faith to guide her to it.
As readers will discover in The Last Hunger Season, the same steadfast faith in God that had prompted me to choose Leonida was present in all four farmers that were chosen. When I walked into Rasoa’s home for the first time, I could not help but notice that she had hung scripture references on all the walls. She was surrounding herself with God’s word to keep her faith strong and her body motivated. Zipporah is the song leader in her church, and she is constantly singing songs of praise. In fact, long before you can see Zipporah coming, you can hear her beautiful voice lifted in praise to God. Francis, who’s middle name is Wanjala (meaning hunger), is a man of deep conviction and constant prayer. This abiding faith that was reflected in the attitudes and behavior of these four was the very essence of the story of all of Africa’s hungry farmers.
Q. What do you see as the biggest obstacles to ending hunger in Africa?
A. Short-sighted thinking that ignores the importance of long-term agricultural development is one of the greatest obstacles. Budget cuts that indiscriminately reduce foreign aid and fail to deliver on promises already made to increase spending on agricultural development are another. But perhaps most importantly is the kind of thinking that says the smallholder farmers in Africa are too poor, too remote and too insignificant to matter. That has been the mantra behind the neglect for the past four decades. It is a mantra recited by their own government and rich world governments alike as well as large and small development institutions. It has left the farmers behind and given rise to that horrible oxymoron “hungry farmers.” We simply cannot continue in that kind of narrow thinking.