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Book Review: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow

Kenyan woman standing in a field.Summary:
Smallholder farmers make up the majority of Kenya’s food production and yet they face multiple challenges from inefficient planting techniques to bad seed markets that lead to an annual wanjala–hunger season.  One Acre Fund, an ngo, saw the gap and came in with a vision.  Sell farmers high quality seeds and fertilizers on credit, delivered to their villages, on the condition they attend local farming classes.  Roger Thurow follows four families as they try out becoming One Acre farmers.

Review:
Every once in a while there’s a book that you know will impact your entire life.  I know this is one of those books.

Thurow strikes the perfect balance between narrating the farmers’ lives and knowledgeably discussing the global politics and environmental problems that also impact the hunger.  The information he hands out would be riveting in any case, but how he narrates it kicks it up to another level.

Central to the book is this question:

Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? (location 202)

I know we all know there is hunger in the world, but it can be easy to ignore when it doesn’t have a face like David or Dorcas, two of the children featured whose mothers flat out do not have food to give them.  During the wanjala, since it is most of the families’ first years using One Acre Fund, they do not have enough maize (their staple crop) from the year before.  Thus while watching their fields grow, they don’t have enough food to feed their families.  During the height of the wanjala the families routinely have tea for breakfast and lunch and maybe some boiled vegetables or bananas for dinner.  And they still must farm and go to school.  I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so humbled.

Don’t get me wrong.  The families profiled in this book aren’t put on a pedestal or romanticized or distanced.  They are very real.  But their strength and wisdom in the face of so many challenges has no other option but to be inspirational.  Because it is so real.

You don’t focus on the afflictions you have, on your poverty; you focus on where you are going. (location 1469)

Makes you feel bad for complaining about morning commutes, doesn’t it?

Beyond talking about the disgusting fact that there is still hunger in a world with so much plenty and demonstrating the resilience of the families, the book also discusses One Acre Fund’s poverty fighting ideas.  Basically they operate on the teach a man to fish principle.  Thurow talks about how Youn, the founder, believes that bringing in food aid to feed farmers is absurd.  We should instead be helping them to farm better.  Beyond it not being sustainable to feed everyone year after year, it robs the farmers of their dignity.  This was the point I liked best.  These people are not dumb or lazy.  They are victims of a system that is not working.  Helping them help themselves lets them retain their humanity and dignity.  I think that’s something that is often missing in charity work and ngos, but it’s vital to truly changing the game.

Overall, if you want a book that will challenge your perceptions, humble you, broaden your horizons, and help you see how to truly fight global poverty, this is the book for you.  In other words, this is recommended for everyone.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Specific country? Kenya
map of africa

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Book Review: Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn

December 5, 2011 1 comment

Tony hugging a lion.Summary:
Tony Fitzjohn never quite fit in in England or the middle class existence he was adopted into at a young age.  By his early 20s, he was roaming around Africa, and eventually found a job with George–the elderly Englishman famous for his belief in reintroducing lions into the wild whose efforts were chronicled in Born Free.  In his biography, Tony accounts the steps in his life that led up to his assistantship with George, the two decades he spent learning from him in Kenya, and the efforts he himself has made in Tanzania’s parks.

Review:
This autobiography (memoir?) is an example of how you can not particularly like a person but still admire and respect the work they do.  I know I would never in a million years get along with Tony.  He’s hard-headed, stubborn, a womanizer (prior to getting married in his 40s), matured very late in his life, and can be remarkably short-sighted in how his actions affect others.  And yet.

And yet he has an incredible passion for animals and the environment.  He’s faced down poachers, corrupt government employees, and charging rhinos with frankly, balls of iron.  All for the love of not just the big cats like lions and leopards, but rhinos and wild dogs as well.  I find it fascinating how his love of adventure gradually showed him that animals are not ours to use and abuse.  I wish I had had the time to copy the quote exactly from the book before I had to return it to the library, but essentially he says that we are meant to be stewards of the land that all the rest of the non-human animals need to survive and do what they’re meant to do.  He talks at length about how rhinos often don’t get as much attention because they don’t form a bond, really, with their caretakers the way orphaned big cats do, but that’s not who they are!  Rhinos are aggressive, love fighting each other.  They fight and they mate and that’s what they do and that’s beautiful because that’s who they are.  Letting animals be who they are and do what they do–that’s our real role as humans.

Of course, the animal rights message doesn’t really come out until the end of the memoir.  The beginning is Tony reflecting on his childhood and early years in Africa.  He traveled all over the continent a lot, never really sticking to one country until he met George and stayed put in Kenya for quite a while at the Kora reserve.  At times the writing when he’s recounting his life can be a bit dull.  He seems more focused on naming everyone he ever came across than in telling a story.  This holds true up until the trust sends him to AA and after that he meets his now-wife Lucy.  From then on it is as if a haze is lifted and his passion for everyone around him, the animals, and his family comes through.  I have no doubt that this is at least in part due to his no longer drinking.  It is clear that there are swaths of the prior years that he does not recall.  He even recounts one story that a friend told him when staging his intervention of him getting into a bar fight that he doesn’t even remember happening.  All this is to say, the first half or so of the book is fun bits of lions mixed in between rather dull sections of him just getting the information through to the reader that will be important later.

But the elements with the lions that hold us over in the meantime are absolutely worth it.  It is evident that through all of Tony’s flaws, he has a natural ability to work with big cats and an innate understanding and love of them.  He does not doubt their ability to feel emotions or communicate with people.

Sheba [lioness] had been so fond of her brother that when he died, she had led George to the spot, watched him bury Suleiman [her brother], and then sat on the grave for days, refusing to leave him alone. (page 112)

He also has an understanding of human society and mores and how they affect the animal world that comes through abundantly clearly:

By pushing up the price of oil, Sheikh Yamani and his cohorts had multiplied the Yemeni GDP sevenfold. A rhino-horn dagger is a symbol of manhood in Yemen, so an entire species was all but wiped out in order that a load of newly oil-rich Yemenis could have fancy dagger handles. (page 76)

When he writes of the poachers and big game hunters fighting with the environmentalists for control of the land, I was aghast at the methods both groups used.  They often would kill a big cat, cut off its head and paws, then skin it and leave it right in the environmentalists’ path.  This level of cold-heartedness and cruelty baffles me.  Although one could possibly argue that the poachers saw this atrocity as the only way out of poverty, there is zero excuse for the wealthy, white big game hunters who just callously view it as sport.

I suppose some people may see Tony’s and other western people’s work in Africa for the animals as neocolonialist.  I don’t see it that way at all.  Tony by nature of his upbringing had the wealthy connections needed to fund projects working with the animals.  When Kenya and Tanzania were caught up in civil wars and reestablishing their nations, even wealthy Africans would most likely donate that money toward people, not animals.  Plus, Tony’s work has provided stable employment to Tanzanians and Kenyans for over 20 years, as well as bringing in more tourism.  Tony himself points out that a lot of the big animals were gone due to colonial big game hunters, and he views his work as a sort of retribution for the colonial period.  I perhaps wouldn’t take it that far, but I do see his point.

One thing I will say, though, is I do view it very hypocritical that Tony sends his own children away to a wealthy boarding school in Kenya rather then sending them to the school located in the park in Tanzania that his trust set up and runs.  If it’s good enough for the Tanzanian kids, why isn’t it good enough for his own?  That stung of elitism to me.

Although the book can be slow-moving at times, the good bits make up for it.  Tony and his work for animal rights are inspirational.  His life shows how much one person can accomplish by taking it one step at a time.

I pulled myself together and thought about what George would do. Of course I knew already. George would put his head down and keep going, one step at a time. It was the way he approached everything. (page 184)

Overall, I recommend this memoir to nonfiction lovers with a passion for Africa, environmentalism, or animal rights.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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