Our friends at Catholic San Francisco have a story this week about Peter Kimeu of CRS Kenya, who is currently on a national Speaker Tour for Operation Rice Bowl. He tells the story of what it’s like to grow up during a famine and to truly experience the pain of hunger.
There were many days when Peter Kimeu, growing up in Kenya, sat on a small hill above a path waiting for passers-by to spit out chewed-up sugar cane or toss a banana peel. He’d race down the hill and collect the garbage, then chew it. It gave him the energy to go back to class.
At night, at the family’s mud hut, he kept a pot of water boiling in the hope that his parents would somehow bring home food that could be cooked. Often they came home empty-handed, and said to Peter and his three sisters, “Tough luck.”
“I would not even go to the market area because I am afraid of seeing or even smelling food,” said Kimeu, “It was very challenging, because I knew I can’t have it. I have no food and I can’t afford it.”
That gave Kimeu motivation. He has spent the past 31 years working for Catholic Relief Services seeking to reduce hunger – hunger that makes people angry. He has also been engaged in health care, emergency response, community participation and the building of reservoirs and other improvements for people who have very little, in East Africa.
Peter’s story takes on added poignancy as he is working on the CRS response to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, including his home of Kenya.
The worst drought since 1950 struck the region in 2011, bringing suffering to 4.5 million people, said Kimeu, who also develops partnerships between Catholic dioceses in the U.S. and African communities – although none are in California. Decent rain fell during the “short rain” period, October to December, and so cows and goats are eating and supplying milk, he said. There are bountiful and nutritious cowpeas. The number of people in most need fell some. The “long rain” is the period February into May, but the forecast is not promising, Kimeu said last week while visiting Santa Clara University.
“If the long rains do not show up and there is drought the situation will be back to what it was in 2011,” he said. “It’s the changing climate condition. We are polluting our environment the way we are destroying natural resources.”
And his message is that we, as Catholics, have an inherent responsibility to help.
“If there is hunger, anger, anywhere, then we cannot proudly say we are in communion,” he said, “because those brothers and sisters of ours who are hungry – we need to be able to satisfy them. This is the message, and particularly the message to everyone in America, that we are brothers and sisters with them.”
He added, “It is part of our responsibility as Catholics to raise our voices where the poor are going to be injured in any way.
Last year, Peter wrote a powerful piece in the New York Times titled Remembering a Hungry Childhood. Read it and use it as a Lenten reflection.