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Not just hunger, but fear

Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, July 14, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR, courtesy Trust.org - AlertNet  </span>
    Somali women displaced by severe drought conditions line up to get food handouts. Photo: REUTERS/FEISAL OMAR, courtesy Trust.org - AlertNet

Nearly everyone in the world experiences hunger at some point during their day. That said, it's different for all of us.

As I write this from my house in Atlanta, it's approaching lunchtime and my stomach, as well as my son, are telling me it's time to eat. The homeless man I saw walking up the street earlier this morning is likely feeling hungry in a wholly different way.

In drought-parched East Africa, where it's dark and nearing bedtime, more than 10 million people are going to sleep hungry — millions of them felt the same way yesterday, probably even the night before. And hundreds, if not thousands, of them won't wake tomorrow morning.

And that's something that most of us, even though we know the feeling of hunger — maybe even deep, gnawing hunger — can scarcely imagine: the fear. The fear that you're going to starve. That your children will starve.

I can remember, around this time last summer, I'd just moved into this house in Atlanta with my wife and our then-five-year-old son. It had been a whirlwind month and a half, moving from Utah (where we'd been living) to Maryland (for a summer graduate course) and finally here to Georgia. And, even though we'd planned as best we could, all those expenses took their toll.

There we were, having just moved to a new place, with $10 in the bank and four days until the next paycheck. We had a couple of cans of vegetables, some dried fruit and other snacks — but there wasn't enough to prepare meals as we usually did. And so we thought hard and rationed the food we had to make it stretch until payday.

Was I afraid? Sure — I didn't want my wife and son to want for food at all. But, even though it was stressful, I knew we'd make it. My main concern besides my family's well-being was keeping our bank balance from going negative. And honestly, if things would have gotten any worse for us, we had friends and family on whom we knew we could depend.

But the kind of fear that's going on around the Horn of Africa is life-changing fear multiplied by millions. It's the kind of fear that happens when, as one of my colleagues reports, livestock with no grass left to graze begin chewing each others' fur. It's the kind of fear that families feel when there's no food at all for miles around. It's fear that drives weakened mothers and fathers to walk long distances with their children in search of some chance at survival — while knowing that the situation down the road might be just as bad, or even worse.

Almost all of us knows hunger in some way, shape or form. We've felt it. We've seen it on the streets of our own cities. Many of us have even worked in soup kitchens or community food banks to help alleviate it.

What's going on in places like Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia right now, though, is completely different. Millions of people are hungry. They're afraid. And, as drought worsens and famine beckons, they have nowhere left to go — and nowhere left to turn — but to us.