Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Roger Thurow's "The Last Hunger Season"

Roger Thurow is a senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was for thirty years a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. His first book, Enough: Why the World's Poorest Still Starve in an Age of Plenty, written with Scott Kilman, won the Harry Chapin Why Hunger book award and was a finalist for both the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award. He is a 2009 recipient of the Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, and reported the following:
Page 99 provides a wonderful example of the drama that unfolds around key decisions made by the main characters in The Last Hunger Season.

The book is an intimate portrait of the lives of four smallholder farmers in western Kenya; the narrative follows them for a year and pivots around the daily decisions they make to transcend lives of dire poverty and hunger. It is one of Africa’s cruelest ironies that her smallholder farmers are also her hungriest people. “Hungry farmers” should be an oxymoron, not a truism. Although they rise every morning to toil on their small plots of land, these farmers don’t grow enough to feed their families throughout the year. The hunger season – the time from when the food from their previous harvest runs out and when the next harvest comes in – can stretch from one month to eight or nine.

On Page 99, Leonida Wanyama confronts the consequences of a critical decision she makes in the very first days of 2011. She sells most of her maize from her previous harvest to raise money for a down payment on the high school tuition of her second-oldest son, Gideon. She knows selling her maize will extend the family’s hunger season, but she also believes education to be the surest route out of poverty for her individual children and for her family as a whole. She is counting on Gideon to be her first child to complete high school. They are used to coping with the hunger season – rationing food, cutting back meals -- and for Gideon to give up his education would be a bitter defeat for Leonida. So she chooses education.

Page 99 also provides a taste of the compelling, novel-like pacing of this non-fiction book.

Here, we find Leonida visiting Gideon’s school on a warm Sunday in March, the monthly parents’ day. A guest speaker, Francis Wanyungu, is feverishly addressing the students. Leonida, sitting in the front row, hears inspiring words of encouragement that confirm her decision to do whatever she can to help Gideon complete high school…

From page 99 (and a little bit of page 100, to complete the scene):
Wanyungu had hit top gear. His exhortations had sucked the air out of the building. The heat intensified. He wiped the heavy sweat from his brow. He squeezed the microphone. He was at one with the keyboard player, producing a rhythm of soaring rhetoric and electronic foreboding.

“Bad company kills success. Proverbs 13:20. Avoid idleness. Idleness brings poverty. Diligent hearts will succeed. Proverbs 13:4. A hard worker will get what he desires. Walk with your hands ready to work. Don’t walk with your hands in empty pockets. Rest, slumber, sleep, they lead to poverty.”

Sweat dripped through his black suit.

“You want to succeed?” he asked the students.

“Yes,” they shouted.

“Avoid too much sleep, avoid too much idleness, avoid too much rest. You want to succeed? Avoid idleness. Work hard. Save time.”

Wanyungu called for a prayer, but it sounded like the grand summation to his sermon. “I should achieve what my mother and father sent me to do,” he pleaded on behalf of the students. “Read, study, work hard, get good grades. Make up your mind, believe that you can and you will. If you come from a hard background, if you don’t have anything, let your background challenge you to work hard. When you think of poverty at home, work hard. It is through your books that you will deliver your parents and brothers and sisters. Love your studies, love your mother, build your future. Stick to your mission that you were sent to this school by your parents to achieve.”

“Amen,” he said.

“Amen,” the students echoed.

“Amen,” Leonida whispered.

Whew, it was over. Wanyungu was a puddle of sweat. The keyboardist feverishly played a spiritual. Leonida rose with the students in a standing ovation. This is why she had sent Gideon to this school. This is why he will succeed. He was on a mission from home, from his mother.
Read an excerpt from The Last Hunger Season, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue