Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Food for thoughts

When I was a kid, my mother used to threaten to send me to Ethiopia when I was picky about food. She wanted me to have a taste of starvation; then I would learn to appreciate the many good things (and food) I already possessed.

That was over 20 years ago. In the mid-1980s, Ethiopia suffered 2 great famines, mainly the results of unfavourable weather conditions and civil wars within the country. At that time, Ethiopia was synonymous with starvation and malnutrition. I remember distinctively, the pictures of children with matchstick-like arms and legs, carrying protruding rib cages or ballooned stomachs. They were featured on posters and other publicity materials, appealing for donations and aid. Despite “high-key publicity” by the media and international community rushing to provide support, over 8 million people became victims of the famines and 1 million died.

I wish we can simply attribute poor harvests and famines to harsh climates and other natural factors, but man are often the ones to aggravate the conditions further.

In the list of famines of the 20th century, China scored top place in terms of number of deaths as a result of starvation. From the late 50s to the 60s, China went through a series of reforms. One of such reforms that led to dire consequences was the Great Leap Forward (大跃进). Eager to develop its agricultural and industrial sectors, radical changes were implemented throughout country. Steel production became the "in" thing and heavy resources were poured into this activity. Backyard furnaces were set up and peasants were even asked to contribute their pots and pans to provide raw material for the production. At the same time, collectivisation of farm lands was introduced. The government hoped that through central control and monopolisation of agriculture, grains can be bought cheaply and then sold at high prices in order to raise funds necessary to support the ongoing industrialisation efforts.

Unfortunately, the outcomes of these "reforms" were none according to expectations. Due to the lack of knowledge and expertise, steel production was not very successful and mostly poor quality iron was produced. Farm lands and harvests were neglected as masses of labour had been diverted from agriculture to steel production. Crops were left to rot. There was also a general lack of motivation for peasants to farm the lands after collectivisation. Coupled with locusts attack, flood, drought and poor weather conditions, food shortage became a serious issue in China during the early 1960s. According to official statistics, 11 million people died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward years. Western researchers however estimated the number to be between 20 - 40 million.

Looking at the numbers give me jitters, although I cannot quite imagine how extensive the effect must have been felt. As a matter of fact, I never did understand the meaning of hunger until I came face to face with it while I was in Mongolia in 2005. A few teenagers were fighting over a box of fruit juice given to them by a tourist. A small charitable act it was, yet, the impact was tremendous. As they fought, some of them fell down, one was injured, others screamed. In the end, most were crying.

There is also the "Tale of the dilemma bun" from Mongolia, which I am still telling friends sometimes.

It is hard to forget a scene like this, but in the few years which followed, I meet others who were more or less in the same plight, if not any worse than the Mongolian teens. There was an elderly woman who begged for food instead of money, who accepted my gift of a half eaten packet of pancakes. Then, there was a child covered with dirt, who grabbed my ankle, whom I dragged along as I walked away, crying as if there would be no tomorrow if I did not leave behind a single cent for him.

There is a Chinese saying that "外国的月亮比较圆" (the moon in a foreign country is rounder). This, I beg to differ. The further the distance in the world that I travelled , the more I realise I should cherish all that I have at home.

In this Christmas season when food is in abundance, probably even excessive, we should be grateful for every grain of rice and wheat that we are able to put on our tables. We should also be mindful not to be overly generous with our Christmas menus, for it is good to have plentiful but when they become wastages, that's a different matter altogether.

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