Excerpts from ‘The Last Hunger Season': Francis’ story

The following series of posts are excerpts and adaptations from Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

The book follows the lives of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya. These farmers are all enrolled in One Acre Fund, an innovative agriculture organization that provides seed and fertilizer, financing, training, and market facilitation to 130,000 farmers in East Africa.

Francis in maize

FRANCIS MAMATI – 54-year-old smallholder farmer who works three acres at the foot of a magnificent rock formation above the village of Kabuchai, western Kenya. I developed a special kinship with Francis from our first conversation, when he mentioned that he was born in 1957. So was I.

Excerpt (from the preface):

I asked the date of his birth.

“I don’t know a day,” Francis said, “but I think it must be May or June.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because my mother gave me a third name: Wanjala,” he said. “Wanjala is our word for hunger, for the time of year when we run low on food. The hunger season. And that is usually May and June.”
Francis Wanjala Mamati. “You can call me Hunger,” he said.

francis storage
Francis’ storage hut.

Francis praying
Francis praying.

In western Kenya, the Luhya people like to name their children for the time of year in which they are born. …. The most common name of all, it seems, is Wanjala. There are an awful lot of people called Hunger. That is because the hunger season can be the longest, stretching from the time the food from the previous harvest in August and September runs out to the time when the new crops begin to come in. It is a time when food prices soar with the shortages, and parents scramble for whatever income they can find and scrounge whatever assets they can sell to afford daily nourishment. Household food rations are cut and meals eliminated. Three meals become two, then one, and then, on some days, none. Work in the fields slows, children drop out of school, the littlest battle for survival. May and June are the high season for hunger in western Kenya, but for some families the wanjala can begin in April or even in January.

After Francis, I would meet many more Wanjalas, and Nanjalas, the female version of the name. Teachers, preachers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, aid workers, farmers. Especially farmers.

At the end of May, I stopped by Francis’ homestead to congratulate him on his birthday. I found him with his wife Mary working in their maize field; they were dwarfed by the towering stalks of what looked to be a bumper crop.
Another excerpt (condensed, pages 142-144):

It was as if Francis were standing in a thick forest of trees, so tall and lush was the maize. He could hear strangers admire his crop as they walked on the path past his field. “No, this can’t be possible,” one said. In comparison to their neighbor’s patch, the maize of Francis and Mary and their eldest son, Geoffrey, did beggar the imagination. ….

Geoffrey talked often with his father about how the farm could become a family business. It matched Francis’s dream to grow vegetables in addition to the maize. “We are lifting Wanjala from your name,” Geoffrey told his father with a laugh. “Now you will be known as Wekesa, the harvest.”

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow will be released on May 29.

Roger Thurow is a journalist and author. He was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal for 30 years, 20 of them as a foreign correspondent. He is now a senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His Outrage and Inspire column appears on the Council’s Global Food For Thought blog. His first book, ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, was published in 2009.