Journalist or advocate? Thurow explains his anti-hunger campaign

“We just need to keep writing about this,” Roger Thurow said.

Thurow, author of “The Last Hunger Season: A year in an African community on the brink of change,” considers himself a journalist–and an advocate.

Quoting musician Bono, Thurow said he could be considered a “factivist,” using facts while still maintaining balance and truth, to write the stories he is passionate about.

Thurow gave a keynote speech on Wednesday to Northwestern University students as part of the One Book One Northwestern program. He also spoke Thursday to graduate students at the Medill School of Journalism.

“But there are other stories that get us excited,” he said. “There’s an advocacy to that. We’re writing out things to change.”

Thurow, who grew up in Crystal Lake, spent three decades at The Wall Street Journal. During his time there, he spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent based in Europe and Africa. But what really caught his attention, he said, was the 2003 famine in Ethiopia.

The lack of regulation of food aid to areas in Africa, he said, isn’t helping alleviate the hunger problem efficiently. He remembered seeing Ethiopians with access to food, but miscommunication and misunderstanding of these issues had U.S. food-aid organizations sending bags of grain to these areas anyway.

“But they’re still hungry! There are still hunger issues,” Thurow said. “It’s not about feeding 9 million people. It’s about nourishing 9 million people.”

This led to him investing his time in the hunger issue in western Kenya. His book features the stories of four smallholder farmers. He follows them as they work with the nonprofit organization One Acre Fund, to create a sustainable community for themselves.

In his book, Thurow tells the story of Leonida, who lives in Malaria. Malaria is named after the water source that flows through part of the land in western Kenya. Besides the availability of drinking water and a source for cooking and washing, the stream attracts swarms of mosquiteos, Thurow writes. But what’s more worrying than the malaria, is the hunger, or “wanjala.”

Most children are named after the season they were born in. The most popular boys’ name in the area is “Wanjala.”

“How can farmers, who rise every morning to grow food, be hungry?” Thurow asks in his book. That’s where working with One Acre Fund comes in. The organization operates on loaning farmers in areas of Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, investing in the form of seed, fertilizer and training.

“I think Roger shares our hope,” Jenny Best, spokeswoman for One Acre Fund, said in an email. “By providing those basic services. … we can enable farmers to maximize harvest and pave a path out of hunger and poverty.”

Eugene Lowe, One Book One Northwestern chairman, said Thurow and his work was a really interesting topic for this year’s choice. Adding to that, the CEO of One Acre Fund, Andrew Youn, is a Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management alumnus.

“It’s an opportunity to see what many recent Northwestern students can do to affect really positive change of high need and a little hope,” Lowe said. “I think it’s really remarkable the kind of connection [Thurow] has and that he continues to have with the people who are the subjects of his work.”

Since January 2010, Thurow joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as a senior fellow of agriculture and food policy, using his platform to speak out on nutrition and hunger issues.

“I started seeing these injustices and inequalities that we hadn’t noticed before,” Thurow said. “We keep coming back and writing this story.”

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