There were three women: a grandmother, a mother, and an aunt. I’d been watching them for a while as they milled around the hospital cot; as they slowly collected their two plastic plates, their three spoons, their small, sooty pot, their green bucket, and handed them to the grandmother. And I kept watching while the mother and the aunt tied up their blanket, their two or three little T-shirts, and their rags into a cloth so the aunt could place it on her head. But I shook when I saw the aunt lean over the cot, lift up the baby boy, and hold him in the air, then look at him with a strange expression on her face, as if puzzled, as if incredulous, then place him on his mother’s back the way children in Africa are carried on their mothers’ backs—their legs and arms spread, chest pressed against the mother’s back, head turned to one side—and the mother tied him on with another cloth, the way small children are tied to their mothers in Africa. The child stayed in its usual place, ready to return home. Dead.
It wasn’t any hotter than usual.
This is when I think this book originated, a few years ago when I was in a town deep in Niger, sitting with Aisha on a straw mat in front of the door to her hut—with midday sweat, on dry earth, under the shadow of a spindly tree, within earshot of children scattering about—as she told me about the single ball of millet she ate daily, and I asked her if that was true, that she only ate one ball of millet a day, and that’s how we had our first cultural misunderstanding:
“Well, every day I can.”
She spoke while lowering her eyes in shame, and I felt like such an ass. Aisha was thirty or thirty-five years old; she had a concave nose, sad eyes, and a lilac fabric covering the rest of her face. We kept talking about food and her lack thereof, and I was foolishly unable to see that I was face-to-face with the most extreme form of hunger. After a few hours full of surprises, I asked her—for the first time, a question I would subsequently ask so often—what she would ask for if she could ask for anything, if a wizard told her he would grant her any wish. It took Aisha a while to respond to a question she’d never even dreamed of.
“I would ask for a cow that would give lots of milk, so I could sell a little of the milk and buy what I need to make puff-puffs [fritters] to sell in the market, and then I’d be able to get by, more or less.”
“But let’s say this wizard could give you anything, anything you want.”
“Yes, whatever you want.”
“Two cows?” She said this in a whisper, then explained, “With two, then I’d really never be hungry.”
It was so little, I thought at first.
Only later did I realize that it was so much.
There’s nothing more frequent, more constant, more present in our lives than hunger—and yet, for most of us, there’s nothing farther removed from us than real hunger. We know hunger, we’re used to hunger: we feel hungry multiple times a day. But the distance between that repetitious, daily hunger we feel—one that we can repeatedly satisfy—and the desperate hunger that is never satisfied, is an entire world. Hunger has always been the force behind social change, technical progress, revolutions, counterrevolutions. Nothing has had a greater influence on human history. No illness, no war has killed so many people. There is no plague as lethal, and at the same time as avoidable, as hunger.
For so long, I had no idea.
My vision of true hunger, in my earliest imaginings, was a little boy with a swollen belly and stick-thin legs in an unknown region once called Biafra, an ephemeral place that declared its independence from Nigeria on May 30, 1967—the day I turned ten. During the war that ensued, nearly two million people died from starvation. It was then that I first heard an even more brutal word for hunger: famine. By the time I’d turned thirteen, Biafra no longer existed. What it left behind could be seen on the screens of those black-and-white television sets: children surrounded by flies, their faces shadowed by death.
Throughout the following decades, I would become more and more accustomed to this repeated, insistent image. This is one reason I always imagined writing a book that gave a harsh, horrifying portrait of famine. I would accompany an emergency relief team to some wretched African locale, where thousands of people were dying of starvation. I would describe it in brutal detail, the worst of all horrors, then say that we mustn’t lie to ourselves—or allow ourselves to be lied to—that situations like this one are only the very, very tip of the iceberg and that reality is quite different.
I had it planned and perfectly thought out, but during the years I spent working on this book there were no random outbreaks of famines; rather, I discovered that famine, as a temporary and cruel catastrophe, appears only when there’s a war or a natural disaster. More often, hunger is a fact of life: endless scarcity in the Sahel, limited nourishment for Somali and Sudanese refugees, seasonal floods in Bangladesh. While it is good that widespread famine no longer suddenly erupts, these calamities have often been the only opportunity to see starvation—as broadcasted images—by those who didn’t suffer it. Commonplace hunger, that is so much more difficult to show: the millions and millions of people who go hungry every day, and suffer and slowly perish because of it. It’s not the tip of the iceberg but the iceberg itself that this book attempts to consider.
We all know there is hunger in the world. We all know there are around 800 million people—the estimates vary—who experience hunger every day. We have all read or listened to these estimates, and we either don’t know what to do or don’t want to do anything with them. If eyewitness accounts—the story in the raw—ever made a difference, they don’t anymore.
So what’s left? Silence?
Aisha told me that with two cows her life would be different. How can I explain that? Must I explain that? Nothing made a stronger impression on me than the realization that the cruelest poverty, the most extreme poverty, is the one that robs you of the possibility of thinking differently, thoughts without horizons, thoughts without desires; thoughts that condemn you to inevitable sameness.
I ask, I want to ask, but I don’t know how to ask, if you can imagine what it is like not knowing if you will be able to eat tomorrow? And this: if you can imagine a life made up of one day after another of not knowing if you will be able to eat tomorrow? A life that consists, above all, of this uncertainty, the anxiety of this uncertainty, and the effort of figuring out how to alleviate it, not being able to think about anything else because every thought is tinged with the thought of hunger? A life that is so constricted, so short, so painful, and so frequently a struggle?
So many forms of silence.
This book has many problems. How to tell about this “otherness,” about what is so far away? It is very probable that you know someone who has died of cancer, someone who has been the victim of violence, someone who has lost a love, a job, a point of pride; it is very improbable that you know somebody who lives with hunger, who lives with the threat of dying of hunger. That is the fate of so many millions of people so far away: people we don’t know how—or wish—to imagine.
How to tell about so much misery without falling into the miserabilism of other people’s suffering? Why even highlight such misery in the first place? To tell about misery is often a way to make use of it. Certain types of shameless people use the misfortune of others to convince themselves that they aren’t so bad off after all. The misfortune of others—their misery—is used to sell, to hide, to create confusion, to assume that individual destiny is an individual problem.
And, above all, how to struggle against the degradation of words such as “millions go hungry,” which should mean something, provoke something, produce certain reactions. For the most part, however, words no longer galvanize. If we could give words back their meaning, maybe things could actually change.
This book is a failure, because every book is a failure. But above all, because an exploration of the greatest failure of the human species can do nothing but fail itself. Contributing to this, of course, are my own limitations, doubts, inabilities. Be that as it may, it is a failure I am not ashamed to own. True, I should have listened to more stories, thought up more questions, understood much more. But sometimes failing is worth the effort.
Fail again, and fail better.
Jean Ziegler, the former special rapporteur for the United Nations’ Right to Food mandate, once wrote:
The destruction, every year, of dozens of millions of men, women, and children through hunger constitutes the scandal of our century. Every five seconds a child under ten years old dies of hunger on a planet that is overflowing with riches. In its present state, world agriculture could feed twelve billion human beings, almost twice the current population. Therefore, it is not inevitable. A child who dies of hunger is a murdered child.
Thousands and thousands of failures. Every day, twenty-five thousand people in the world—in this world—die of hunger-related causes. If you, dear reader, take the trouble to read this book, if you are swept up, and it takes you, let’s say, eight hours to read from beginning to end, around eight thousand people will have died. Eight thousand people dead in eight hours. If you don’t take the trouble, those people will still die, but you will have the good fortune of not knowing about it. Maybe knowing this fact will make you not want to read this book. Perhaps I would feel the same way if I hadn’t started writing it. Maybe you think that in general, not to know who these people are, not to know how nor why they have died, would be best.
(Just so you know, in the thirty seconds it took you to read that paragraph, eight or ten people died of hunger—only eight or ten, that’s not so bad, is it?)
But before you decide to look away, allow me a question that I have asked myself and will pose again and again in this book, the one question that stands out, the one question that rings most loudly, the one question that never ceases to urge me forward:
How the hell do we manage to live with ourselves knowing that these things are happening to others?
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver
First published in 2015 by Editorial Anagrama Copyright © Martín Caparrós, 2014 Translation © Katherine Silver, 2016 All rights reserved. First Melville House Printing: January 2020.
Martín Caparrós is one of the Spanish-speaking world's most preeminent and influential writers. The author of 15 award-winning books, including works of fiction and journalism, he is currently A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. He also writes a regular column for the Spanish edition of The New York Times. He currently lives in New York and Madrid.