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.
LEONIDA WANYAMA is a 43-year-old mother of seven, grandmother of four and a village elder in Lutacho, western Kenya. I knew Leonida would be a main character in the book the moment she told me the name of her small group of One Acre farmers: Amua. It was a Swahili word, meaning “decide.” What have you decided?, I asked. “We have decided,” she proudly replied, “to move from misery to Canaan.” She and her neighbors were beginning a modern-day exodus to their own Promised Land. They weren’t going anywhere new; there’s was an agricultural journey to better harvests on their own land and the elimination of hunger in their families.
Excerpt (pages 9-11):
Leonida and her neighbors sought assurance and inspiration in the Scriptures. They found it in Exodus 3:17: “And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites…a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Misery? Leonida and her neighbors certainly knew misery. The very area where they lived was called Malaria. There was a stream nearby, a great blessing in that it provided water for drinking and cooking and washing only a few minutes’ walk away. But it was also a dreaded curse, for with the slow-moving water came a thicket of mosquitoes. And with the mosquitoes came malaria, an energy-sapping affliction of fever, chills and headaches that could be deadly for children and debilitating for adults.
The malaria, though, wasn’t the greatest misery in Leonida’s neighborhood. The big one was hunger. Struggling with depleted soils, tired seeds and fickle rains, the farmers of Lutacho and their families lived with a chronic, gnawing emptiness in their bellies. It was at its worst during the annual hunger season. As the wanjala dragged on, the littlest children were the earliest casualties. In this area of rural western Kenya, one of seven children died before reaching their fifth birthdays, most of them from hunger and malnutrition or related diseases. Of those who survived, half were stunted physically and mentally. Leonida worried that her youngest child, four-year-old Dorcas, was tinier and quieter and sicker more often than she should be. For the women farmers of western Kenya and all of Africa, that was the deepest misery of all: being a mother unable to stop a hungry child from crying, and then watching that child retreat into the shrinking shell of malnutrition.
Misery, yes, Leonida and the farmers of Lutacho knew it all too well. This new organization, this One Acre Fund, offered promise. But also peril. Should the farmers trust the new seeds, the new practices? How would they handle the new credit? The farmers fought the same qualms that rattle any farmer in the world who is trying something new: What if it doesn’t work?
But if little Dorcas and their other children were to ever have a chance to grow up healthy and smart, did they really have another choice? If they were ever to break the cycle of the annual hunger season, they had to try something different.
Amua. They decided. Leonida joined One Acre in 2010, and through the year she watched in astonishment as her maize grew tall and strong. At harvest time, her maize was more bountiful than ever before. It was a first step in her exodus from misery. She knew it would be a journey requiring repeated years of plentiful harvests, but this was a start. She recruited other neighbors to join. As a village elder, she wanted everyone to see such improvement, to join in the exodus.
The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow is out now — buy your copy today!
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.