The Great Hunger

In Gaelic, it’s An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, what we sometimes call the Potato Famine in 19th century Ireland.  A hunger so huge it changed the course of history, killing off a million, and causing another 1-2 million to leave in a matter of short years. The proximate cause was the potato blight, a natural disaster. But some now call the famine a genocide, direct or indirect, due to the fact that Ireland continued to export other food stuffs, to the profit of landowners, while the peasants went without. I know at least one of my ancestors, a gr-gr grandmother, Mary Erwin, is a documented survivor of the Irish famine. To the best of my research efforts, she came as a teen with two siblings, destined to be servants in Vermont. She lived to marry and have children, and I wonder if she ever shared with them the memories of a place where the people she knew and loved died slowly around her from lack of food.

Recently, I volunteered a few hours for a Pay It Forward event to pack meals for people today who know hunger as a daily and life-threatening experience.  The event was sponsored by Bedford Rotarians, in partnership with an organization called, Stop Hunger Now to send food to Haiti.  From the Bedford Citizen, “the Rotary Club of Bedford accomplished its goal of packing 120,000 meals at a mammoth event held at Middlesex Community College on Saturday, April 26. Working in three shifts, Rotary members, families, scout troops, church youth groups and business people donned food service gloves and hairnets to measure and fill the six-serving packets.”

I’m sometimes leery of “do good” events for folks in far away lands that help mostly the do-ers, it seems. I prefer to help locally, and/or I’d rather give money directly to an aid organization that I think does a good job. But I had a few hours, I know how desperate the situation remains in Haiti, and one of the coordinators was a friend, Peter Colgan, so I felt pretty certain it would be well-run. It was a terrific event, set up so that participants could clearly understand the goal and purpose, following a stream-lined process to achieve maximum speed and effectiveness – with a good dose of fun and challenge. My team of five, in hairnets, unknown to each other, filled packets with rice, soy protein, dehydrated veggies, and vitamins, to be weighed, sealed and boxed to go.  Three hours on our feet, no breaks, no time for conversation, but lots of high energy music, and a gong to let us know when we’d achieved our milestones.  It wasn’t until later that I found out the inspiration for this event: “Bedford Rotarian Ralph Hammond visited Haiti several years ago and wondered why school children didn’t return after lunch. He discovered that because there was no school lunch program, afternoon classes were suspended because the children were too hungry and restless to learn.”  

We know so little of real hunger in this day in this place.  I can barely even remember the hunger of my youth, between meals, when we weren’t allowed to snack, and how fierce it could be. I married into an Armenian family with a strong food culture, and the pantry is always full, and abundant food is part of every special occasion. But, that too, is a culture shaped by memory of hunger. At the turn of the century, there was a saying, “Starving Armenians”, and one of the earliest fundraising organizations was formed for the purpose of meeting this hunger. Perhaps we have more in common than I thought.

I can’t help thinking that yes, Haiti’s hunger is a result of a natural disaster, an earthquake. But is it also true that, in a world of superabundance for some, not to share that food is a kind of genocide?  Or, not to try?  Or, not to care?  Sometimes I think there is a hunger not only for food, but for doing or being something good, meaningful, purposeful, beautiful, in the lives of others. Isn’t that the Great Hunger of the spirit? 

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