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The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Changeby Roger Thurow
Synopses & Reviews
At 4:00 am, Leonida Wanyama lit a lantern in her house made of sticks and mud. She was up long before the sun to begin her farm work, as usual. But this would be no ordinary day, this second Friday of the new year. This was the day Leonida and a group of smallholder farmers in western Kenya would begin their exodus, as she said, “from misery to Canaan,” the land of milk and honey.
Africa’s smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, know misery. They toil in a time warp, living and working essentially as their forebears did a century ago. With tired seeds, meager soil nutrition, primitive storage facilities, wretched roads, and no capital or credit, they harvest less than one-quarter the yields of Western farmers. The romantic ideal of African farmers — rural villagers in touch with nature, tending bucolic fields — is in reality a horror scene of malnourished children, backbreaking manual work, and profound hopelessness. Growing food is their driving preoccupation, and still they don’t have enough to feed their families throughout the year. The wanjala — the annual hunger season that can stretch from one month to as many as eight or nine — abides.
But in January 2011, Leonida and her neighbors came together and took the enormous risk of trying to change their lives. Award-winning author and world hunger activist Roger Thurow spent a year with four of them — Leonida Wanyama, Rasoa Wasike, Francis Mamati, and Zipporah Biketi — to intimately chronicle their efforts. In The Last Hunger Season, he illuminates the profound challenges these farmers and their families face, and follows them through the seasons to see whether, with a little bit of help from a new social enterprise organization called One Acre Fund, they might transcend lives of dire poverty and hunger.
The daily dramas of the farmers’ lives unfold against the backdrop of a looming global challenge: to feed a growing population, world food production must nearly double by 2050. If these farmers succeed, so might we all.
"In this empathetic and eye-opening account, former Wall Street Journal reporter Thurow (coauthor, Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty) focuses on a group of smallholder farmers in western Kenya, 'a paradoxical region of breathtaking beauty and overwhelming misery.' Lacking modern farming equipment and valuable fertilizers, these farmers struggle to feed their families throughout the year and produce enough crops to bring in money to send their children to school, believing that 'education was the surest route out of poverty.' However, even these humble goals are often too lofty to achieve. Instead, growers must stretch dwindling food supplies across the gap between harvests, a period known as the 'wanjala,' or hunger season. In chronicling the plight of these farmers, Thurow also discusses the efforts of the One Acre Fund, a relatively new organization founded by Andrew Youn whose aim is to provide farmers with 'access to the seeds and soil nutrients and planting advice' that would normally be unavailable to them. By documenting their collaboration, Thurow paints a sobering but ultimately hopeful picture of a continuing food crisis in Africa and some of the things people are doing to mitigate it. B&W photos." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"[A] warmly human account." The Washington Post
“To understand their lives, the author … takes us deep inside the smallholder's struggle….Thurow has us hanging on the dramatic tensions affecting all four families: one finds the calf they'd depended on to cover future educational fees has died….Where Thurow is most effective is the interplay he weaves between hunger and policy — or its absence….Readers of The Last Hunger Season will find themselves getting caught up in these dilemmas, then breathing a sigh of relief to learn that the farmers Thurow followed in 2011 enjoyed reasonably good yields that year — seven to 20 bags of harvested maize apiece — thanks to One Acre's seeds and training.” The National
“Awe-inspiring....A well-told story of scarcity and hope.” Beliefnet
“Part of the beauty of this book is that it is not the story of foreign aid workers. Nor indeed does the author, a former Wall Street Journal reporter with decades’ experience of writing about Africa and agriculture, intrude. Rather it is the tale of villagers such as Wanyama who is grappling with dilemmas familiar to millions of rural and indeed urban Africans: whether to devote scant money to health, education for the children, or food….This book shows us why history does not have to repeat itself." Financial Times
“The Last Hunger Season is as much a look at the distortions of agricultural development in Africa as it is a gritty underdog tale of hope and survival. The issue of malnutrition and hunger in children and adults living in impoverished conditions is a vast one. But Thurow does a good job not only touching on those problems but also deeply exploring the trials and tribulations associated with farming in Kenya. His voice is even-keeled, hopeful and respectful, and it’s almost impossible for the reader to not be personally impacted by the stories he tells.” Weekender
“At our foundation, the team that works in agriculture thinks a lot about the following contradiction: We are aiming to improve the lives of farmers in very poor countries, but we live and work far away in a very rich country. How can we — from an office building in Seattle — actually understand the aspirations of farmers in, say, Kenya? I just read a book called The Last Hunger Season that I believe gets me a little bit closer to understanding….I loved the book.” Melinda Gates, Impatient Optimist
The story of a group of Kenyan farmers working to transcend lives of dire poverty and hunger illuminates the challenges, and vital necessity, of transforming Africa's agriculture sector.
Africa's small farmers, who comprise two-thirds of its population, toil in a time warp, living and working essentially as they did in the 1930s. Without mechanized equipment, fertilizer, or irrigation; using primitive storage facilities, roads, and markets; lacking capital, credit, and insurance; they harvest only one-quarter the yields of Western farmers, half of which spoil before getting to market. But in 2011 one group of farmers in Kenya came together to try to change their odds for success — and their families' futures. Roger Thurow spent a year following their progress.
In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the worlds growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMOs, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?
About the Author
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. He is, with Scott Kilman, the author of Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, which won the Harry Chapin Why Hunger book award and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and for the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award. He is a 2009 recipient of the Action Against Hunger Humanitarian Award. He lives near Chicago.
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History and Social Science » Africa » Kenya