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Old perish from hunger as young struggle to survive

EDITOR’S NOTE: World Hunger Sunday is Oct. 10. For information on the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund, visit www.worldhungerfund.com/FAQ.html.

WEST AFRICA (BP)–They volunteered to die.

The elderly men and women in this famine-wracked West African community knew there was simply not enough food to go around. Unwilling to watch their families starve to death, some made a choice: They would not eat so that their children and grandchildren might live. Some have already wasted away and perished — the price, they believed, of preserving the future.

The babies, of course, did not volunteer to die, and their mothers were trying desperately to save them. As local government officials handed out pans of grain, the women swarmed the site, knowing there was not enough for everyone. They pressed into each other under the blistering sun, their infants tied to their backs.

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“Three babies died that day from suffocation and heat,” said Kate Gibbs*, a Southern Baptist field partner for Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization. “I cried.”

Kate and her husband Todd live among a people in crisis. These nomadic herders usually sell animals to buy food for their families, but a harsh drought has wrecked their livelihoods. Each time they visited the people, the watering holes had less and less water in them.

“Daily, we feel the effects of the dust blowing across the arid fields,” Gibbs said. “The people all tell us that the dust blows like that this year because there is no grass to hold it. That also means no grass for the animals to eat.”

As the animals grow thin and feeble from hunger, the price they fetch at market plummets. At the same time, the drought has caused food prices to soar. This deadly combination means starvation for the people, who are already contending with chronic malnutrition.

“In normal times, a shepherd can sell one animal and buy a bag of grain for his family,” she said. “Right now, he would need to sell three animals to get a bag of grain. Most herds are very small, and these people just cannot afford to do that.”

The Gibbses’ hearts broke as the local people spoke of their hunger, and in some cases, showed up at the Gibbses’ doorstep pleading for food to feed their families. Something had to be done.

The Gibbses decided on a food relief program for their community. They worked with local leaders to identify the neediest families, who would receive a series of food shipments hauled in on donkey carts. They also planned a de-worming program to kill nutrition-robbing parasites in the stomachs of the people and their animals.

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“Since food security is an ongoing issue, we hope to help them make the most out of the food that they are able to obtain,” Gibbs said.

Through Baptist Global Response, money was allocated from the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund to purchase grain, rice and powdered milk for distribution. When the supplies began to arrive for the first distribution, the local people were so hungry they could not keep to the schedule the Gibbses set.

“The distribution was moved ahead three days, because when the people heard that the food was in the storage room at the distribution point, they begged to get it,” Gibbs said.

The famine is so severe, she knows that the few thousand people her team is able to help are only “a drop in the bucket” compared to the number of the starving in the country. But doing nothing was not an option.

“[Had we not done this food program], we would be showing a selfish and unloving attitude,” Gibbs said.

She hopes that what little she and her team were able to do will show the people that Christians care for their needs.

As she considers how blessed she is simply to never have starved, Gibbs recalls an experience that she hopes will inspire Christians to take stock of their own blessings and help those who suffer.

“One day I was sitting on a mat among a group of my people,” she said. “They were all telling stories about times when they were hungry due to lack of food. I just sat and listened. Finally, I said that I was very blessed because I had never gone hungry because of lack of food. They all agreed that I had lived like a queen! … Do not take that blessing for granted. Pass some of that blessing on to others less fortunate.”
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*Named changed. Alex Doukas is an international correspondent for Baptist Global Response.