May 7, 2014
What’s in a word? The word hunger, for example, is always in the news or on someone’s lips. But hunger is relative. There is a whole spectrum of “food deprivation.” If you want to know what the real extreme on that spectrum is, you need to be just about to die. You’ve had so little to eat for days, weeks, or months that you forgot what it felt like. You no longer care. Your body won’t move. Your sight has grown dim. Maybe you can hear your own breath but nothing else.
We throw the concept of hunger around easily. “I’m starving,” you might say, as you dive into your favorite snack a few hours after a fully nourishing meal. The plethora of attractive food on offer to a lot of people confuses the distinction between hunger and desire. If you have to skip a meal then you might actually experience the beginnings of true hunger. Of course, many people adopt a partial fasting regime when dieting in one way or another, but that’s through choice. They can stop any time. When hunger is forced, it is a different thing altogether.
A couple of times in my life I have had to go more than two days without food. On the first occasion, when I was 18, I had been on a hitchhiking trip out of the UK into Europe. On my way back through Germany, what little cash I had left was stolen. It took three days to hitch back home. In that time, I only ate a packet of potato crisps. I remember sitting outside a bar in Ostend, Belgium. I could smell the “frites” cooking everywhere. It was horrible. Having to sleep rough didn’t help. A Scottish hitchhiker gave me a pack of 20 cheap Yugoslavian cigarettes. Even though I was not a smoker, I lit them and tried to smoke them, as they helped quell the pangs. On the second occasion, aged 24, I arrived in Perth, Western Australia, after making my way there on a long trip through Europe and Asia. This time I had just run out of cash. My last dollars were spent on a couple of bottles of beer. The next day I got a job, but had to walk three miles to work in searing heat. Walking back was the worst thing. I had to pass bars whose air conditioning blasted out cold air that was thick with beer fumes. This time it was three days without food until I got paid. I vowed never to run out of money again.
What I felt on those occasions were the beginnings of real hunger, but that was all it was. The difference between what I experienced and what millions of truly hungry or starving people have to endure every day is that I never once thought I would die of hunger. I might not have known where the next meal was coming from, but I knew it was coming.
Nevertheless, those hungry days were a wake-up call and a lesson to learn. The presence of so much real hunger in the world is something I can never come to terms with. As the charity Save the Children says, “Our world has enough food for everyone – no child should die because they can’t get enough to eat.” But, they add, hunger is a death sentence for millions of children. Over seven million children under five die each year, and nearly a third of those die due to lack of proper nutrition. Many die as a direct result of starvation. Others die because they have been weakened by malnutrition and are unable to fight other conditions like pneumonia. The ones that make it past the age of five will bear the invisible scars of those early years, weakened and ravaged by hunger for the rest of their lives. I truly cannot remember the last time I used the words “I’m hungry” or “I’m starving,” and I hope I never have to.
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