I am guilty of that phrase, “I’m starving”. As a child certainly, I would hungrily look at my mum making dinner. As an adult probably, when I have not found time to get lunch or have been running late home from work. I never have been starving though. I have been hungry and I have ‘felt peckish’, but I have never actually been starving.
There are certain phrases that are banded about and those expressions are often trivialised or playfully twisted until they mean something else. That is the beauty of language to me, words change and gain new definition over time. With some words though, when a crisis comes, we struggle to find the sentences to speak with the gravity the subject merits. This week I have stumbled and struggled to find words that can possibly carry the weight of the situation in South Sudan and many of its neighbouring nations.
Reading the comments section of an online newspaper is always a dangerous occupation guaranteed to rile me. This week, underneath an article announcing the UN’s declaration of famine in South Sudan, someone had written, “There is always a famine in Africa. People are always starving out there. They need to sort themselves out”. After staring at my screen in anger for a few moments, I decided to stop reading. However, as I have reflected on the comment, the writer hits an important nail on the head. Words like ‘famine’ and ‘starvation’ have lost their clout.
The author of the remark is wrong though. There is not always a famine in Africa. In fact, thankfully, this is the first famine declared in our world for six years. When a famine is declared no longer are people just extremely hungry or unhealthy because of a lack of food. Famine means they are dying. They are literally starving to death.
In South Sudan a million people stand on the precipice of famine, 100,000 are already at that point facing death. Across East Africa and in neighbouring Yemen millions more are desperately hungry and worried about where their next meal will come from. Economic crises, droughts, conflict and political instability have resulted in human suffering and misery on a scale that is hard to capture.
When we really think about what it means to be starving it hurts. When we see images on our television screens of distraught mothers unable to shed tears for their dying babies because they are themselves too weak to cry it hurts. When we know the scale of the problem is enormous and compounded by so many other problems it hurts. However, it does not mean we cannot do something.
The comment writer said the people of South Sudan should “sort themselves out”, yet for nearly all those suffering the conflict is not one they have chosen, and is not one they can solve. Across the wider region it could be argued that as rainfall becomes more and more unpredictable that in countries like our own we also have to ask ourselves whether the true face of man-made climate change is emerging? Is it the farmer in Ethiopia weeping as his field of teff has failed again? Is it the grandmother struggling to feed her grandchildren in Burundi when she can no longer afford the rising food prices? We are inextricably connected to our global neighbours. Even when conflict is a major contributing factor to a disaster, as it is in South Sudan, we must not forget that the majority of families are put in the diabolical situation of choosing between the risk of starvation and the risk of falling victim to the waves of violence so rampant in towns and villages. In South Sudan, because of the fighting, people who would normally grow crops have been driven away from their land. They are hiding and running with their children from violence – and are unable to plant what they need to survive.
I am not starving. But I am hungry. I am hungry for a day when the world does not see famine and react with disgust or disdain but with compassion. I am hungry for a day when people do not die because they cannot access food. I am hungry for a day when just because a crisis disappears from our TV screens and newspapers we do not forget the individuals suffering.
To me this is basic. We have to respond, we have to give, and we have to react. The alternative is to watch people die of starvation.
Please support our East Africa Famine Appeal and do all you can.
All images: ©Medair