November 30, 2012
(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center. In October, she reviewed Changing Business From the Inside Out: A Treehugger's Guide to Working in Corporations, by Timothy J. Mohin.)
Leonida Wanyama sat at her living room table in her mud-and-sticks house at the base of the Lugulu Hills in western Kenya contemplating her assets. Her fifteen-year-old son Gideon had been sent home from boarding school because she couldn't pay the latest tuition bill. Her four-year-old daughter Dorcas was begging for more food, even though the cupboard was bare. Her husband Peter, weak from malaria, a condition worsened by malnutrition, did what he could to feed his family, but the planting season was just beginning and the maize crop wouldn't be ready to harvest for months. Leonida decided to sell her last goat for a thousand shillings -- enough to convince Gideon's principal to take him back as she struggled to come up with the remaining tuition. Food would have to wait.
Welcome to the wanjala, the word for famine in Leonida's Lutacho Valley farming community and one of the most common surnames for boys in a culture where parents name their children for the season in which they were born. Girls who are born during the long months between the last of the prior harvest's food has been consumed and the new harvest is brought in are named Nanjala. Leonida's village is called Malaria; so is the stream that provides the family with water for drinking and washing -- and serves as a breeding ground for the mosquito-borne illness that always grows worse in the wafula, or rainy season.
As he makes clear in his new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, Roger Thurow believes the one to eight months each year that the people of western Kenya live with "chronic, gnawing emptiness in their bellies" is both morally unacceptable and avoidable. And to make the point, he focuses much of his book on the One Acre Fund, a young nongovernmental organization that works with smallholder farmers -- those with less than two acres of arable land -- in East Africa to double and triple their yields. For a forty-five hundred shilling credit (about $50) that is paid back over the course of the year, the organization, which operates out of Bungoma, a town in Kenya's Western Province, provides fertilizer, modern seeds, and weekly trainings to smallholder farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi.
The demand for One Acre's services is clearly evident in Thurow's narrative, which depicts the relentless cycle of relative feast and famine in the region and how it dramatically affects the quality of life for the smallholder farmers who comprise the bulk of the food-producing population in Kenya's agriculture-dependent economy. Indeed, the country's Public Health and Sanitation ministry reported that during the wanjala which is the subject of Thurow's book, malnutrition was the underlying cause of more than half the deaths of children under the age of five. In the community of Malaria, unconnected electrical wires hang from the church ceiling because the congregation cannot afford to pay for electricity. Children study at home by the light of kerosene lamps that emit noxious fumes and are a constant fire hazard, and the fee-based high school Gideon attends lacks basic chemistry supplies, audio-visual equipment, even blackboards. The local health practitioner, Janet, has no blood pressure gauge or microscope to help confirm her diagnoses. Villagers get around by foot and bicycle, and families often live for a decade or more in homes that were intended to be temporary structures.