Who am I? Why am I doing this? Why 40 Hours?
My name is Zachary Desmond. I am senior Philosophy and Theater Arts major at Boston College and I’m from Seattle, WA. If you had asked me 6 months ago to guess how I’d be spending my second to last semester at Boston College, any project of this kind would not have come to mind.
For six weeks from mid-June to the end of July 2011, I volunteered at an arts empowerment community center / orphanage just outside Arusha, Tanzania called the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC). In the month before I came, officials in the Arusha region were beginning to express serious concerns about long-term food shortages in the region because of an unusually short rainy season that stunted the year’s harvest in the months prior. Food shortages are not uncommon in developing countries, especially those still struggling with stunted agricultural development (one of the lasting consequences of the Structural Adjustment programs of the 1980s and 90s), but I was pretty shocked by the information. Obviously, food shortage is not famine [What is Famine?]. But this was the first time I had ever been to a place where access to food wasn’t constant and absolutely assured. In fact, I had never needed to even think about the availability of food in my entire life. Of course, I had a theoretical understanding that some people didn’t have the general food security I had taken for granted, but when I went to Arusha, I was worried. I knew I had the money to buy food as prices in the market began to soar, but what about the community center, the 21 kids in the orphanage? The friends I’d made didn’t have money, as I often forgot until they would invite me to join them for dinner in their homes. We’d eat salt-saturated lettuce and ugali, a boiled rice powder with the consistency of reheated mashed potatoes, in an unlit bedroom/kitchen/dining room, cooking with a kerosene grill on the ground, eating with our hands and just laying down where we sat once the food stationed itself stubbornly in our guts. And these are not refugees of famine or war. These are not indentured servants or AIDS patients in this rural suburb of Arusha. These are farmers and students, children and parents who go to school and pray and dance.
And in the days that followed my return to the US, when I walked into the supermarket down the street in my home city of Seattle, and there were shelves, aisles, tons, simply tons of food and so many options, so many variations, seemingly pointless variations on the same thing. And knowing that when I left Arusha on the last day of July, the shortage would only get worse with the steady approach of summer, I thought I’d start studying food.
UAACC — http://www.uaacc.habari.co.tz/
Food Shortages in Arusha Region — http://allafrica.com/stories/201105260034.html
In the month of August, my study of food quickly evolved into a study of famine and food aid. I began to look at why famines happen, what it takes for the UN to declare a famine, and the various factors that put a region at risk of famine and the various tactics for reducing that risk. I researched the system by which food is distributed around the world today, the last 30 years, and the entrenched institutions behind global food inequalities that intend to keep the system the way it is. Some of those that openly benefit from third world food shortages, some who perpetuate famine by accident, by trying to assist but not recognizing the system of dependence that they’ve created and exacerbated in the last 20 years.
In early August, I contacted Crystal Tiala, Faculty Chair of the Arts and Social Responsibility Project and a mentor of mine in both arts and social justice issues and said that I wanted to do a great big famine awareness project that had two days worth of speakers and a very Be-In, tribal feel to it. And I told her I wanted to do it by the end of September. Over the month, Crystal arduously helped my focus my vision, define my obstacles, and extend my self-imposed deadline.
Since, I have sought support and collaboration with other groups to bring this project to fruition with as many perspectives as I can muster. One of the these groups was the ASO.
The African Student Organization (ASO) has a played a huge part in getting us the space and tools that we need to make this a successful introduction to Hunger Awareness Week (Nov. 12-18?), during which the ASO will host a number of other events and activities related to hunger in the US and abroad. I connected with the organization’s President Feven Alem, 2012 at ASO’s Vigil for the Horn of Africa, at the beginning of October. I was hugely affected when I saw so many people at the vigil, led by ASO officers. I wasn’t sure that many people on campus really cared about what was happening in the Horn of Africa. But there were probably over 150 people there, with varying levels of awareness about the famine declared in Somalia in July 2011 and its incredible toll on human life. I think Feven felt similarly and the vigil gave ASO an opportunity to raise awareness as well as channel some of their frustrations and outrage at what appears to be a campus-wide, nation-wide, culture-wide ambivalence toward Africa and its many many marginalized inhabitants.
One of the things that bothered me about the vigil though is that the numbers had new meaning for me. For the first time, all those numbers of people dying senselessly and absolutely avoidably, the gross percentage of malnourished children and the chronically hungry families unable to provide, entire villages forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods, without anything so much as a prayer that wherever they go might have some food. And those numbers affected me very deeply. Not because of the numbers themselves, but because I had faces of people in my mind who might be affected by this. It affected me because I had a relationship to the humans that those numbers might represent, I had a relationship to the uncertainty and the fear that accompanies not knowing if your next meal will come, however distantly. And even over that great distance, I felt so much.
And it was clear to me that this awareness project could not only focus on informing, but feeling. On taking action in solidarity with the people we hear about, to understand them better, and to serve them better.
So I arrived at the conclusion that this wasn’t going to be only a fast, only information, or only demonstrative art. If we wanted people to act, it had to be a combination. In a 40-Hour period, we eat 5 meals. FIVE. To miss one meal is enough to throw us into a bout of bitter contempt. According to Christian activist and advocate for peace, Rose Marie Berger, to choose “to fast is to open oneself up to creative possibilities — what one hopes will be new ways to solve intractable problems.”
Jesuit priest G. Simon Harak suggests that “when we fast in solidarity, we, in a sense, use our hunger as an engine for the desire for peace and justice for a particular group of people, whoever they may be. We are bringing the hunger of those for whom we fast into the body politic and we are calling for the body politic to respond.” I’m all for walking in another’s shoes, but how about eating from another’s plate — even if that plate is empty.