Roger Thurow, author of this year’s One Book One Northwestern book, The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, opened his Wednesday night speech about resolving the global hunger crisis with a quote by the late South African president and revolutionary Nelson Mandela.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” he said.
Thurow said he was in Cape Town, South Africa reporting for the Wall Street Journal when Mandela was released from prison.
“He was an authority on the subject of the impossible happening,” Thurow said. “If there was one thing that we figured would never happen, that we would never see in our lifetimes, it’s that Nelson Mandela would be free, that apartheid would end.”
That spirit of succeeding against all the odds pervades the stories in Thurow’s book, which chronicles a year in the lives of four Kenyan smallholder-farming families as they struggled to sustain themselves throughout the ‘wanjala,’ or hunger season, the period from when the old crops run out and when the new crops are planted. But in his speech, Thurow emphasized that success in Kenya would require the same unity Mandela fought for in South Africa.
“It’s not only an agricultural issue. It’s not only a health issue,” he said. “It’s a human issue…and so these are issues that confront all of us, that challenge all of us.”
Such an eye toward the human element characterized much of Thurow’s talk. He said he’d been labeled a “factivist,” or an activist who memorizes all sorts of statistics, data and facts in order to advance his or her cause, but Thurow said his primary goal was to seek the human truth beneath the facts.
“They’re not just numbers. They’re not just statistics,” Thurow said. “They’re people. And that’s why I wanted to write The Last Hunger Season – to show they’re people.”
A variety of students, faculty members and community professionals attended the speech. Some students, such as Medill freshmen Mark Ficken and Cassie Wassink, wanted to learn more about Thurow’s reporting strategies while he was living among the Kenyan farmers.
SESP sophomore Chris Harlow, a One Book ambassador who helps coordinate One Book-related events, said he was interested in hearing a more informal retelling of Thurow’s reporting experiences that might complement what he read in the book. Harlow, who is from Papillion, Neb., also said he related to the agricultural values Thurow reported on.
“It’s so cool coming from a farm community to see how the same principles apply,” he said. “It’s a way of subsistence living for people living in Nebraska…for a lot of my friends.”
Adonija Tienou, a 36-year-old market researcher from Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, talked about the way he felt certain people, such as Kenyan smallholder farmers, are seen “as a market but not as a contributor.”
“The Coke, the Pepsi, whatever – the consumer goods have reached these people but yet the advances that took place early in the last century haven’t reached these people,” Tienou said. “Modern seeds shouldn’t be difficult to get to a farmer in the 21st century.”
Thurow concluded his speech with a final nod toward Mandela’s idea of all types of people working together to resolve global problems.
“Let’s all work together to make the impossibles possible,” he said.