Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blog Action Day 2011 Blog Post: Food

Two years ago, I participated in Blog Action Day for the first time. That year, the topic was "climate change." This year the topic is the less specific "food." (I can imagine plenty of blog posts featuring favorite recipes or odes to chocolate.)

This year Blog Action Day is scheduled to coincide with World Food Day, October 16. According to its own blog, 2,250 bloggers from 100 countries are participating in a global conversation about food.

I thought I might just revisit some of my previous posts about food and beverages. (I missed last year's topic, "water," which is the most common and, arguably, the world's most important beverage.) It turned out there are not many of them, at least not many that have been tagged for easy reference. Still, a few jump out and, as you will see, certain shared themes emerge from them.

My latest food-related item was posted in July, marking National Ice Cream Month. Previous to that (on April 7, 2010) was one that drew attention to a bizarre kind of Easter candy, and the one before that was an odd report about some New Zealand scientists who advised people to eat their pets as a way to save the environment.

It seems that there's something about food in the news that brings out weirdness, since I also noted the existence of "cock soup" on the shelves at Kroger back in June 2009, and in March of that year I wrote about the Oakdale Testicle Festival. Then in October of 2008, there was a report of a political candidate who was denying his opponent's calumnious accusations that he was a vegetarian.

On a more serious note, in the wake of then-current reports of "tainted tomatoes" across the country, in June 2008, I republished an old article of mine about the benefits of food irradiation, a topic that could be revisited in light of the recent listeria-infected cantaloupes scare in the United States. A few days earlier, I looked at the food policy of the U.S. government in a post called "How Congress Makes Us Fat."

Three days previous to that, I looked back at the 1996 Democratic National Convention and how the journalists there engaged in a literal "feeding frenzy" each afternoon, when the DNC hosts laid out a big buffet catered by local Chicago restaurants.

More sentimentally, on February 3, 2008, on what would have been my mother's 70th birthday, I recalled how she liked to entertain with food, particularly on occasions like Super Bowl Sunday.

The previous November, I discovered a favorite recipe of foot-tapping Senator Larry Craig, an odd concoction that involves pushing a hot dog through the center of a baked potato. (I am not making this up.)

More nostalgia came up when I found an article in the Marquette Tribune about a durable Milwaukee tradition, the Friday night fish fry.

One of my favorite odd-food stories was the one about the clergyman who discovered that eating soy products results in homosexuality. (Tofu does what?)

In terms of beverages, my favorite post has to be the one I published on the 25th anniversary of the introduction of New Coke. You would have thought Netflix had learned from that episode before introducing Quikster.

Speaking of anniversaries, it's hard to talk about beverages without talking about alcoholic ones -- so I celebrated the 75th anniversary of the repeal of the Prohibition amendment, on December 5, 2008.

That, of course, suggests cocktails, including the recipe for Alter Kaker, which linguist Michael Wex published as a "Yiddish mixed drink."

In the end, however, realizing the sobriety (no pun intended) of the topic adopted by the people behind Blog Action Day, I decided to focus on the darker side of food -- that is, hunger.

I found a book review I wrote while I was in graduate school about the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing a serious drought, which is hitting Somalia particularly hard. While parts of Ethiopia and Kenya have also been affected, drought there has not turned into widespread famine as it did in the 1980s because the governments there are now far more responsive to the needs and wants of their people. Ethiopia overthrew the Stalinist Mengistu regime in the early '90s, and Kenya has been having democratic elections since Daniel arap Moi was forced from power more than a decade ago.

Both countries, while far from perfect, are far more open to free enterprise than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, and -- has history has shown -- while drought may occur in free-market economies, drought in such countries does not turn into famine. (Somalia is still a basket case, divided by clan rivalries and beset by terrorist groups with ties to al-Qaeda.)

What follows is my review of Breakfast in Hell, by Myles Harris.

A Doctor’s Story Of Deliberate Famine And an African Hitler 

Breakfast in Hell: A Doctor’s Experiences of the Ethiopian Famine, by Myles Harris, Picador, London, $4.85, 221 pp. 

Breakfast in Hell Ethiopia FamineIn the play Man of La Mancha, the poet Cervantes explains what impelled a plain country squire toward becoming the knight Don Quixote: “Being retired, he has much time for books. . . . All he reads oppresses him, fills him with indignation at man’s murderous ways toward man.”

This is one of those books. Breakfast in Hell came to my attention through an article by the author in The Spectator, the British public affairs weekly. The title was “The Regime That Kills Ethiopians,” and that sums up the whole story. It would be extraordinarily difficult to come away from Myles Harris’s account of the state-imposed famine in Ethiopia without profound anger and indignation.

Myles Harris is a medical doctor who has worked all over the world caring for the malnourished, ill-housed, poorly clothed and impoverished people who make up such a large number of us. Prior to his six months in Ethiopia with the Red Cross, he and his wife Janet had worked in undeveloped regions in Papua New Guinea, Australia and the Kalahari Desert.

It is clear from the outset that Harris went to Ethiopia with few, if any, preconceptions of what he would encounter there. The Red Cross needed medical personnel to work in famine areas, and he responded to their call. He had no trouble adopting the apolitical life of a Red Cross delegate and wanted only to help suffering Ethiopians.

He emerged from the country half a year later with bitter feelings toward the Mengistu regime, toward international aid agencies and toward petty Communist Party officials who blocked genuine humanitarian relief; he has fond and loving memories of his Ethiopian co-workers and the farmers, townspeople, young mothers and children he encountered in the feeding camps and medical stations.

Harris writes vividly and pulls no punches. He compares the Emperor Mengistu (as he calls Ethiopia’s Marxist military dictator) to Hitler and Stalin; indeed, reading some of the descriptions of Mengistu’s atrocities makes one think Adolph and Joe were mere pranksters.

For instance: The Soviets, as part of their aid to keep him on his throne, sent a unit of the East German Volkspolizei, “a secret police force with one of the finest pedigrees in suppression in the world. . . . At the time of the Ethiopian terror in 1977, some of the most senior Volkspolizei officers had once been serving members of the Gestapo. For, at the end of the Second World War, the capitulation of half the Third Reich to the Russians had meant little more for them than. . . swapping a swastika for a red star, before it was business as usual.”

The business these ex-Gestapo henchmen taught Mengistu was the need for a memorable terror to bring all Ethiopians into his iron grip. “Mengistu searched his heart for the most terrible thing he could do to bring his people through fear to the truth of Marxism-Leninism, and he thought of burial. Ethiopians hold burial to be one of the most important rites of life. To die unburied, to be forgotten in death, is so awful that even today those who whisper to you their memories of the Terror can hardly bring themselves to speak of this part of it…. [Mengistu] ordered that the bodies of the slain should lie unburied, and that those who tried to take them for burial were themselves to be slaughtered. One morning, the people of Addis woke to streets filled with corpses and a sky dark with vultures.” Later, “the lampposts were strung with corpses, not of men, but of young school boys who had tried and failed to rescue their fathers’ and brothers’ bodies for burial. . . . When it was over, of the 5,000 students at the University of Addis Ababa, only 1,500 were still alive.”

That excerpt exposes the minds of men who would, among other things, padlock food warehouses for days and weeks, refusing to give relief workers access to the tools of their trade; who would refuse hospital admission to obviously sick and dying children whose parents lacked the proper papers from the local farmers’ association, papers that took five days or longer to obtain; who would ship truckloads of grain from the famine-stricken north of the country to the healthier and more fertile south, where it was stored for unknown reasons -- perhaps for later shipment to the masters in Moscow. These are men who forbid the sale of yeast to Ethiopian citizens in order to secure a government monopoly on the baking and selling of bread.

Harris spares nearly no one from his understated but strongly felt wrath. The Red Cross and other relief agencies get criticism for trying too hard to work with and please the government -- a government that wants to keep the Red Cross from doing its job. At one point, he tries to explain this to his superiors:

“We had done exactly what we had been instructed to do by Geneva: emptied the camps of all except the very ill and returned the rest of the people to their villages.

“But each success would have found little favor with the Ethiopians. Suddenly, they had been washed into the center of a disaster worse than the First World War.

Confused and frightened, their only remedy -- huge feeding programs -- seemed the only rock to cling to. Then we came along and tried to close down their camps. Closing down their operation implied their failure, and, as in most aid programs, threatened bureaucratic livelihoods. Famine camps meant foreign aid, foreign aid meant jobs.”

Hitler, Stalin and Mao share one positive characteristic — they are all dead. But Mengistu and the communists who rule Ethiopia with him are alive and dripping with the blood of their countrymen. Why, then, do Western governments, the United Nations and Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid continue to send them money that perpetuates their tyranny?

Richard Sincere, a Washington writer, is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in international relations at the London School of Economics.
NOTE: This review originally appeared in the Washington Times on Monday, June 1, 1987, and in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, June 3, 1987. It has been crossposted from Book Reviews by Rick Sincere, where it appeared on January 9, 2010.

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