Kenyan man who grew up hungry devotes career to famine relief
February 22nd, 2012
By George Raine
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.
He is in the United States as Lent begins to encourage Catholics to generously participate in Operation Rice Bowl, CRS’ Lenten program that began in 1975 as an ecumenical response to the drought in the African Sahel. Today, donations help fund development programs designed to increase food security around the world.
The Horn of Africa, it happens, is one of the most food insecure regions of the world. Coupled with conflict in Somalia, it is insecure on every front.
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.”
CRS relies heavily on Operation Rice Bowl in large part because of congressional proposals to trim food aid. Last year, as what was called the supercommittee was seeking a $1.5 trillion reduction in the federal deficit, a plan developed in the House of Representatives would have trimmed food aid by 28 percent – from $1.7 billion in 2011 to $1.2 billion. In the end, said Kimeu, Catholic lobbyists prevailed – for this year. The 28 percent was preserved.
He thinks 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.”
CRS, which the U.S. bishops launched following World War II to aid the poor in Europe, is, in addition to making direct donations of food, giving farmers resources and information and helping with infrastructure so they may be more self-sufficient. For example, in Kitui, Kenya, a town of 13,000 some 130 kilometers east of Nairobi, CRS has, with the people, built five small reservoirs to collect rain water. Now, women don’t have to walk five or six kilometers to a water station, and the people are even stocking the reservoirs with fish.
Tin silos are also being built in the region so food is protected from weevils.
“You agree with a community that is suffering hunger to engage in activity that in the long run is a solution to their anger,” said Kimeu.
From February 24, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.