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September 26, 2012 ·  By Fr. Shay Cullen


I met World Hunger on a Hillside
by Fr. Shay Cullen
(Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Manila Times,in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

I will not easily forget the dark night of the great typhoon; the wind was howling and tearing at the metal sheet roofs, the trees were bowed toward the earth in submission, the rain was lashing from the sky, and throwing itself like an angry demon on the mission hut where I was staying for a few days in a remote mountainous part of Zambales, Philippines. There was a persistent banging on the door. A voice cried out in Filipino. “Come quickly, Padre, my child, little Angelica, is dying, bring medicine, food, please come now “. “I am Juanito, I need help”.

It had been a hard tired day visiting the outlaying villages bringing medicines and relief goods to the people most affected by the storm. The dam at the open-pit mining site had burst and toxic waste, tons of silt and mud poured down the hillsides into the river and blocked it; soon the floods came pouring into the villages. The people grabbed their few belongings and fled to the higher ground and took shelter in a small village school.

They would be safe there with the rice, canned food and medicine and I returned to the small house to shelter from the growing ferocity of the storm. I was preparing to eat the unappetizing cold rice and fish cooked earlier when Juanito was calling for help. I was reluctant to face the ferocious elements.

I could tell him to go look for the village chief but knew it would be unlikely he could be found. It was a call to duty, a dying child just can’t wait, I had to go. Hunger, exhaustion, wet and cold take their toll on anyone’s commitment and it’s a challenge to respond to every emergency. Many in the developed countries have social services, their basic needs are satisfied and much more, yet many whine and complain. The poor have nothing and no one to listen to them, they endure in silence.

That rainy night was worst and more severe than what we had suffered in previous years and was probable due to climate change. That is caused by the heating of the planet by gasses pumped into the air by factories and furnaces making the consumer goods for the well-off people of this world. But the making and use of them causes great suffering for others.

Anyway, I set out up the hill with a flashlight and a bag of relief supplies. We arrived in a small clearing where there was small single bamboo room and grass-roofed hut. Bending low to enter, my lamp lit up four sickly-looking children and their mother. It seemed a hopeless situation, the sickly child appeared dead. The little 4 year-old girl showed signs of severe malnutrition, skeletal, skinny arms and famine stomach – all the signs of acute diarrhea and lack of nutritious food. It seemed impossible to get her down the mountain in the storm.

I gave the family the emergency food supplies, they were ravenous with hunger and ate until it was finished. I watched as I had so many times and thought of the millions of tons of wasted and thrown away food of the well-off. The injustice of it made me feel angry and still does. With so much wealth and surplus food in this world, kept off the market to drive up the price, as a billion go hungry and hundreds of thousands die, is perhaps the greatest crime against humanity.

We wrapped the child in a blanket and plastic and we made it safely down the steep mountainside to the old pick-up and drove the ten kilometres to the nearest hospital. We were just in time, the child survived. The child has acute malnutrition. Weeks later, I got work for Juanito and he earned enough to feed his family, yet millions don’t. In the undeveloped countries, there are no food stamps, unemployment benefits, state-paid medical care, child allowances, insurances or the like. It is a harsh struggle to survive and many don’t.

In these underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa and parts of South America, more than 500 million people can hardly survive in “absolute poverty”. They have nothing. About 3 billion people in the world today have to live on the equivalent of 2 Euro a day or a pound sixty. The facts and figures of world hunger are shocking.  One source claims that every year 15 million children die of hunger. We can’t turn away from this, do nothing and think we can enjoy a life of plenty without sharing.  

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