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A fish cup of rice

Liberia, November 18, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A "fish cup" of rice now costs about 28 cents in Liberia's cities — three times what Liberians paid just four years ago. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps

Rice is a staple food in Liberia. But it's not easy for Liberians to fill their bowls or their bellies these days. Like poor people the world over, they've been slammed by the steep increases in food prices of the past couple of years.

Driving around the country, we do see rice for sale — in small shops and roadside stands and open air markets. I stop to talk to the vendors about what it costs.

This photo shows what Liberians call a "fish cup" or sometimes a "salmon cup" of rice — the empty sardine (or salmon or mackerel) can is the common unit of measure for a small purchase, perhaps enough for a family's meager meal. In the capital Monrovia, a fish cup of rice now costs about 28 cents. In the rural areas, a fish cup of rice costs half that much — about 14 cents.

Little as the amount is, it's three times what Liberians paid just four years ago. And the hike in the price of rice is just one of the factors that are causing people to go hungry. Liberia is among a handful of countries at the very bottom of the list of the world's poorest.

I've seen gut-wrenching evidence of the country's poverty in my travels this week. Even for a writer like me, it's hard to put in words.

But I've been haunted by my photo of the fish cup. It reminds me that you can measure suffering in these very real daily examples — and you can measure progress that way, too. Mercy Corps is working in tiny towns and villages around Liberia to help people grow more food, to fill their supper pots with more fish cups of rice today and, most important, to learn the farming techniques that will keep them supplied with fish cups long into the future.