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5.24.2004

Hard to Stomach  
Two interesting articles in yesterday's New York Times. The first, titled "When Real Food Isn't An Option", chronicles the extreme lengths people in extreme hunger will go to in order to put something-- anything-- in their stomachs. The piece seems to have been inspired by photos the paper ran a week or so ago of a Haitian woman baking "dirt cakes." Africa figures prominently in such tales of gastronomic desperation:
In Malawi, children stand on the roadsides selling skewers of roasted mice.

In Mozambique, when grasshoppers eat the crops, people turn the tables and eat them, calling the fishy-tasting bugs "flying shrimp."

In Liberia during the 1989 civil war, every animal in the national zoo was devoured but a one-eyed lion. Dogs and cats disappeared from the streets of the capital. But all that is, at least, fresh protein. During the siege of Kuito, Angola, in the early 1990's, Carlos Sicato, a World Food Program worker, described a man producing an old chair and promising his family, "If we don't die today, we can survive for four more." He soaked its leather for 15 hours to soften it and remove the tanning chemicals. Then, with boiling water, he made "lamb soup."

It's important not to blur the distinction between truly desperate measures and local cuisine here. For instance, eating a chair is desperate; eating grasshoppers is tradition. Not everyone who eats bugs or rodents or what we consider cute house pets is doing it because it's keeping them from starving. As the article concludes:
And the dirt biscuits of Haiti - called "argile," meaning clay, or "terre," meaning earth - are not exactly a final cri de coeur against starvation.

Like the mice in Malawi, they are a staple of the very poor, somewhere between a snack and a desperation measure.

But there's no denying that hunger will drive people to eat things that never should be food. I'm reminded of my former students in Namibia. While they received three meals a day (mostly maize porridge with sauce and a little meat for dinner), they were often hungry, as active kids on a low-protein diet would be. I often had to reprimand them for swiping my colored chalk, which they insisted had flavors that corresponded with the color. Paper was also a popular substitue for gum. Their acquired taste for school supplies was partly due to youthful adventurousness and partly due to real hunger.

In another article, Somini Sengupta looks at the real challenge behind defusing West Africa's wars-- finding jobs for the young gunmen.

No one even knows how many of the 55,000 disarmed ex-gunmen have found other ways of making a living. Late last year, one child soldier from Sierra Leone recalled how he took the $150 in cash and was trained as a carpenter, only to find himself jobless and hungry a few months later. He wound up seduced by a warlord's cash, picking up a Kalashnikov and going to fight again, next door in Liberia.

That same choice will sooner or later confront the thousands of young people being demobilized in Liberia now. The challenge for the United Nations is to engender a stable and prosperous peace, and not just a breather between wars, aid workers and analysts say.

Both these stories, read together, present a sad portrait of what hopeless people do to survive. Eating a chair or sticking a gun in someone's face for your next meal-- which would you choose?